State: United CEO, others owe $234,500 for 'beach scraping'

Following I-TEAM investigation, DEP determines homeowners broke the law

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

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - After the I-TEAM uncovered evidence that some wealthy oceanfront homeowners in St. Johns County had excavated sand from a public beach in order to protect their private properties, the state has ruled they broke the law and each owes $58,625 for damage done, totaling $234,500.   

The I-TEAM first reported in March that four Ponte Vedra Beach residents, which includes United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, Web.com CEO David Brown, UBS Financial Managing Director Chris Aitken and businesswoman Margaret Connolly were accused of scraping sand from public areas to rebuild dunes on their private properties.  

Like much of the beachfront in Northeast Florida, the dunes along the beach on Ponte Vedra Boulevard near Solana Road were largely wiped out by Hurricanes Matthew and Irma. 

Following the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's own investigation, the agency confirms to the I-TEAM it has sent letters to each of those homeowners proposing each pays $58,625 "for the fact that the sand used during these multi-day violations was taken from surrounding beaches, harming these economically and environmentally important natural resources. The fine also includes the amount the sand would have cost these homeowners had they brought it in correctly."

DOCUMENTS: State's letter to Munoz | Letter mailed to Brown | Letter sent to Aitken | State's letter to Connolly

DEP has given the homeowners until June 22 to accept the agency's settlement offer and agree to pay those fines. In addition, the homeowners could still be required to pay to restore the public sand they took, according to DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.

"The department will attempt reach an agreement with the homeowners," Miller said in an email to the I-TEAM. "If an agreement cannot be reached, a unilateral order can be pursued."

Back in March, the I-TEAM showed you video evidence from an anonymous whistleblower of two earth movers scooping sand from the public beach and hauling it toward the four private homes. 

Tracks were left behind in the sand near the restored dunes indicating bulldozers and other machinery were used to scrape sand from the existing beachfront. DEP then launched its own investigation into the possible environmental violations.

In a statement to the I-TEAM, Miller said the following:

"The department is committed to assisting homeowners recover from hurricane-related impacts as quickly as possible. DEP is also committed to ensuring that, as corrective actions and restoration activities are implemented for protection to the beach and dune system and private property, they also comply with Florida’s environmental rules and regulations...

"After investigating these events, DEP determined there were violations which the department is addressing by pursuing Short-form Consent Orders. A Consent Order is a legally enforceable agreement that is pursued by the Department for violations that warrant a formal enforcement action."

The I-TEAM has reached out to each homeowner involved for a response, and we will update this story when we hear back.

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