St. Johns County leaders debate how to pay for $20M sand replacement program

Hurricanes Matthew and Irma washed away $70M worth of sand, officials say

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – St. Johns County commissioners are discussing how they'll bring sand back to the beaches after two hurricanes caused severe damage.

There’s a plan to pump sand back on the coast from South Ponte Vedra Beach to Vilano Beach, but it will cost about $20 million.

County leaders and residents debated how to pay for it at a meeting Tuesday in St. Augustine. 

"We have a crisis," County Commissioner Henry Dean said. "I think we only have one way out."

The way out: taxes.

Officials said hurricanes Matthew and Irma washed away $70 million worth of sand.

Erosion is the worst from South Ponte Vedra Beach to Vilano Beach, where homes are dangling over the ocean and some have collapsed. Experts said beachfront property values have dropped by 50 percent. 

"The significance of our beaches is everything," said Laurie Moffett, with Save Ponte Vedra Beach. "It's quite important."

Some residents said the beaches are the worst they can ever remember. At Tuesday's meeting, they showed a photo of Mickler's Landing beachgoers sitting next to erosion, with practically nowhere to go. 

Leaders want a one-time sand placement program, which will cost about $20 million. Half of that money will come from the state and the remaining $10 million has to come from local sources.

"Otherwise, A1A could be in the ocean," St. Augustine resident Ed Slavin said. 

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency has promised funding after the hurricanes, the county still hasn't seen a penny 16 months after Matthew swept up Florida's east coast. That's why the county still needs money.

Some commissioners suggested raising the hotel bed tax by 1 percent. Others are worried that would drive away tourists and conventions. 

"I support raising the bed tax this year, next year, the following year. We can do it a penny a year," Slavin said. "But that is a short-term solution."

Another option is a special tax for those who own beachfront property. Many of those owners were at the commission meeting Tuesday, begging for something to be done.

"Everything is up for grabs," Moffett said. "We just need to find money to get it done."

If the project is approved and paid for, it could start in the fall and be completed by 2019.

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