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‘Dr. Beach’ hunting coastal erosion protection measures

BY JOSH BOATWRIGHT
Tribune staff

Published:   |   Updated: April 12, 2014 at 12:58 PM

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FORT DE SOTO PARK — Soft white sand, gentle waves and no hotels — these were among the reasons Fort De Soto Park was once named the No. 1 beach in America on the popular Dr. Beach list.

As condo towers continue to displace dunes and gradually rising tides lap up sand, this undeveloped barrier island may have a distinct advantage in future rankings by coastal expert Stephen Leatherman.

The university professor known as Dr. Beach visited the park Friday to talk about his annual list, a boon to tourism agencies looking to back up their claims of having the “Best Beach in America.”

He remained characteristically tight-lipped about which spot would take the title this year — that won’t be revealed until Memorial Day weekend.

Before joining a group of students and researchers from the University of South Florida for a tour of the beach he named the nation’s best in 2005, Leatherman spoke to media about an issue that weighs heavily on the minds of county officials here.

“I do worry about are we going to run out of sand and what’s it going to cost to try to hold back the sea?” said Leatherman, director of the laboratory for coastal research at the Florida International University in Miami.

“That’s really what we’re doing. We’re rebuilding beaches and that is, in fact, resetting the erosion clock.”

The many hotels, condominiums and attractions that continue to be built atop natural sand dunes could one day find the ocean’s waves splashing uncomfortably close to their sea walls.

What worries Pinellas County commissioners in the near term is the prospect that the enormous amount of federal funds needed to bolster beach renourishment projects critical to tourism will one day vanish.

While Fort De Soto has the advantage of remaining in its original barrier island state, county coastal manager Andy Squires said his office is studying how much occasional beach nourishment would cost here in the future.

Its pristine shores took a battering during Tropical Storm Debby in 2012, causing dramatic shifts in the width of its beaches.

North Beach on the upper finger of the V-shaped island was the specific stretch of sand that most impressed Dr. Beach nine years ago, and parts of it have eroded significantly, Squires said.

The problem for Fort De Soto is, unlike the hotel-lined islands such as St. Pete Beach and Sand Key, it’s not eligible for federal funds. The millions spent each year across the nation are devoted to developed beachfronts that need a wider beach to protect buildings from storm surge, Squires said.

Researchers are comparing today’s sand quantities to past years, though park supervisor Jim Wilson said the tropical storm appears to have moved mostly sections of the beach inward, covering former lagoons, rather than sweeping it off of the island completely.

Leatherman had only praise Friday for the county’s premiere beach park, which he said could land in next year’s running for a second title as America’s best.

In the past, when Leatherman named a beach as No. 1, it was retired from the list so others could be considered for the honor.

Next year, Leatherman will start over, meaning the two area beaches that once topped his list, Fort De Soto and Caladesi Island, will be considered anew.

Leatherman released his first list in 1989 after a former student recommended him as the nation’s foremost beach expert to an editor at the travel magazine Conde Nast.

After the magazine published a list of his preferred beaches, the concept took off.

When he started getting calls from tourism agencies — some complaining about being excluded, others happy for the publicity — the ranking became formalized with a 50-point survey assessing everything from the softness of the sand to the cleanliness of the bathrooms.

The doctor says he is not paid to fly out to new beaches in hopes of getting good press; his surveys are always surprise visits.

Pinellas is the only Florida destination that’s won the top spot twice, he said.

“You’re way ahead of the game here,” he said.

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