Emails offer timeline of state probe into 'beach scraping' case

State regulator labeled case a 'priority' after I-TEAM began asking questions

By Vic Micolucci - I-TEAM reporter, anchor, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects, Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - New documents obtained by the I-TEAM offer the clearest glimpse yet at the state's investigation into four wealthy St. Johns County homeowners who excavated sand from a public beach to protect their private oceanfront properties.

In response to a broad public records request, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection handed over dozens of emails and internal documents about the investigation into this case of what is known as "beach scraping," which is illegal without permission from the state.

SLIDESHOW: Photos from state investigation into Ponte Vedra Beach sand scraping

The documents helped the I-TEAM piece together a loose timeline of the state's handling of the investigation, particularly once regulators learned the I-TEAM was looking into the case, and why, despite financial settlements with the homeowners, no work crew was held accountable.

The I-TEAM was the first to uncover video in March showing bulldozers scooping sand from the beach and carrying it to four private homes owned by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, UBS Financial Managing Director Chris Aitken, Web.com CEO David Brown and businesswoman Margaret Conolly.

Repeated efforts to reach the homeowners and their attorneys were unsuccessful.

The activity appeared to be illegal because residents are required to get permits from the state to move and restore sand. Following the I-TEAM's investigation, the Department of Environmental Protection launched its own investigation, which led to proposed fines of $58,000 a piece.

  • March 21: DEP gets involved after complaints from neighbors about 'beach scraping'
  • March 21: DEP investigator visits the homes, meets with St. Johns County deputy
  • March 28: State issues warning letters to homeowners, notifying them of investigation
  • March 28: DEP manager calls case a "priority," citing News4Jax inquiry
  • April 12: DEP managers weigh penalties for homeowners, discuss restoring sand
  • April 12: Regulator estimates homeowners hired crew to scrape 1,100 cubic yards of sand, but noted returning sand could have unintended consequences for sea turtles
  • April 13: Regulators meet with homeowners, proposing $58,000 fines a piece
  • June 28: State reaches settlements with Brown, Conolly & Munoz
  • July 11: State reaches settlement with Aitken

SLIDESHOW: Ponte Vedra Beach homeowner documents lost dunes

On Friday, the state confirmed it reached settlements with all four that saw Munoz, Brown and Conolly agree to pay $24,000 instead. Aitken, meanwhile, agreed to pay $33,000. But the state could not punish the work crew involved because investigators could not identify the workers.

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