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Bonita Beach lovers anticipate state coastal resiliency grant

DEMOCRACY WATCH: Bonita Beach
Samantha Roesler
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Owen Zacharias and his son on day five of building their sandcastle during a two-week stay on Bonita Beach. Money to protect the beach from higher sea levels could be important to the continued growth of tourism in Bonita Springs and surrounding areas.

Good things could be in store for an area that Bonita Springs residents and visitors love: Bonita Beach. Lee County has taken a step in planning a way to fix up the beach as many experts predict sea levels will rise in coming years.

Lee County applied this month for the Resilient Florida Grant Program, which aims to provide grants to counties for coastal resilience planning. The purpose of creating a coastal resiliency goal is to address impacts of flooding and sea level rise that face Lee County. If the application is approved, the county will receive funding assistance to analyze and plan for vulnerabilities, as well as implement projects for adapting to sea level rise.

The only part of Bonita Beach that is designated as critically eroded is Big Hickory Pass. This is a designation for life, and tourism tax dollars can be used to fund renourishment efforts on critically eroded beaches. However, the rest of Bonita Beach south of Big Hickory does not have this designation, and some people believe it’s time to pay attention to that area.

“What we're hoping (the grant) does is rebuild the beach in a way that prevents coastal flooding and protects the inland against the rising sea level,” Bonita Springs Councilman Chris Corrie said. “In order to do that, the beaches have to be restored. Sands have to be brought out from the Gulf and put back on to the beach to raise the beach level.”

Renourishment of beaches is often done by pulling sand from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. A lot of that sand used to be on the beach, but washed out in tides and storms. Barges go into the Gulf and use flexible lines to pick up sand from the bottom, and then transport it back to the beach. The goal is to raise the beach level enough to prevent further erosion and inland flooding.

Dr. Don Duke, a professor at The Water School at FGCU, says that renourishment is not always the best solution.

“It’s not always obvious that renourishment is a good idea,” Duke said. “It’s controversial of me to say that, but I’m going to go ahead and take that controversial position. Renourishment means countering some natural processes and, in some cases, if we're really interested in natural systems and resilience, we might have to bite the bullet and allow some beaches to get smaller or go away.”

Lee County has been active in its vulnerability assessment process since early last year, when Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEP) awarded the county $253,000 to examine Evacuation Zones A and B, which include Bonita Beach.

Last fall the Bonita Beach nourishment project was announced. According to Lee County Communications Director Betsy Clayton, the county is in the process of hiring a coastal engineering firm to assist with the construction phase. The county anticipates construction would start next year.

Resiliency in the Bonita Beach area has potential to affect tourism numbers for Bonita Springs.

“Bonita Beach Road is the only direct access to the beach from I-75, so there's quite a few people that come down to go to Bonita beach,” Councilman Corrie said. “We want to make that as attractive of a tourist area as we can and having beaches that are properly maintained is important to do that.”

Doc’s Beach House is a staple on Bonita Beach, and the manager said there's no doubt beach conditions are important to the restaurant.

“We’ve been hoping (Lee County) comes and renourishes our beach, they‘ve been saying they’re going to do it for years, but they don’t,” Doc’s Beach House Manager Curtis Vanlinder said. “We’d like to see them clean it up, our beach here is private and we do everything we can. We have a wave runner company that’s on our property and they do everything they can, too.”

Visitor Owen Zacharias is renting near Bonita Beach with his family for two weeks. He appreciates the accessibility that Bonita Beach offers, and can see that erosion would make the beach less attractive.

“We can just come out here, roll out our stuff and have an easy time,” Zacharias said. “We’ve been to Miami Beach a number of times and it’s a little more difficult, there’s more logistics involved. This is as easy as it gets.”

Some residents said the road leading to Bonita Beach needs attention.

“Bonita Beach Road from 41 to the beach needs renourishment, the sidewalks are uneven and crumbling, the county needs to make the sidewalks user friendly,” Judy Sabourin, a part-time resident from Ontario, said. “It’s the only road to the beaches and is used by everyone. It could be so much better.”

Don Duke with the FGCU Water School believes that there’s a lot more to resiliency than just preventing erosion and focusing on sea level rise.

“We need to pay attention to being equitable; communities are underserved because they don't have access to certain things,” Duke said. “Lower income, lower wealth communities often suffer worse in many of our natural disasters and so resilience means being equitable across communities and being able to withstand and come back from the impacts we get from natural disasters.”

For now the City of Bonita Springs will continue to show its support and need for the Resilient Florida Grant Program through all the planning phases.

“I think the role of the city is to make sure the county understands the problems with Bonita Beach, realizes that Bonita Beach is important to all of Lee county and that we get the appropriate allocation of dollars to restore it to the condition that should be,” Corrie said.

He added that he hopes the grant comes quickly, and that officials can plan the project by mid-summer, and then start work in the fall.

“I think that Lee County, like everywhere else, needs all the resources that can get because there's a lot of really big decisions here and some of the remedies are pretty expensive,” Duke of the FGCU Water School said. “But even just funding to plan for it is something that we don't always provide with our local tax dollars. So getting some federal dollars to help us do that will be really important to the county.”