Controversy continues its swirl around Cato’s Bridge beach

Federal and Palm Beach county officials presented a revised plan for shoreline stabilization of the Intracoastal Waterway near the Jupiter Inlet lighthouse at a meeting Oct. 25 at the federal Bureau of Land Management office in Tequesta.

The plan, presented by BLM official Bruce Dawson of Jackson, Miss., attempted to mitigate the controversy that has erupted over the past three months after some members of the Jupiter Inlet Outstanding Natural Area working group discovered that a permit had been submitted to state and federal agencies without their knowledge that would block historical public access to a popular strip of sandy shoreline on the west side of the Intracoastal south of the SR 707 Bridge to Jupiter Island.

The new plan, designed by Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management under contract to BLM, allows 147 feet of public access to Cato’s Bridge beach by enlarging some openings within the first 190 feet at the northern end of the1,400 linear-foot, limestone breakwater.

(The Department of Environmental Resources Management was hired by BLM to design the stabilization plan to abate erosion, particularly of the sand bluff at the southern end of the shore nearest the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, after BLM rejected a plan proposed by another environmental engineering firm in 2010.)

In addition to constructing a breakwater offshore, the design calls for construction of a three-tiered, vinyl and sheet-metal retaining wall on shore to stabilize the eroding bluff, in addition to an underwater toe wall back filled with sand to create a “perched” shoreline behind the breakwater.

Tequesta Mayor Tom Paterno, a member of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area (JILONA) working group, which is charged with management of the site, said that the openings in the breakwater are insufficient.

“Most people are not going to find that adequate, especially for 10 or 15 boats,” he said.

Paterno frequently has voiced his concern that the primary intent of such a long breakwater is to barricade the shore entirely from the public, especially boaters, who are attracted to the clear, turquoise waters at the confluence of the Loxahatchee River, the Jupiter Inlet and the Intracoastal Waterway.

“You’ve just taken some large chunks out of that rock wall,” said Paterno. “It looks to me like you’ve designed it now so that at some point later, you’re just gonna go back in there and fill it all back up.”

Dawson assured Paterno that that had not been the intent; however, he added, the new design is an “experiment.”

“We’re not sure what will happen…if it will even work,” he said, “but if it doesn’t work, you’re absolutely right. Then this plan is DOA (dead on arrival).”

Dawson told the group that revisions to the plan, which included eliminating previously proposed mooring buoys, adding an access road, a small parking area and a kayak launch near the Jupiter Inlet Bridge, and removing some portions of the northern end of the breakwater came after Palm Beach DERM personnel met with major stakeholders last month, including officials from the Town of Jupiter and the Village of Tequesta—who support greater public access to the shoreline—and with Jupiter Inlet Colony, who have been the most vocal opponents of boater access.

The revised plan ensures that the sandy shoreline, called Cato’s Bridge beach by locals, opposite the Jupiter Inlet Colony residences, still would be closed to boaters. It also is designed to protect a small bed of sea grass, according to county DERM officials, that lies offshore.

“That bed of sea grass is new to the equation,” said Jupiter Mayor Karen Golonka, who joined Paterno in requesting time to “take this plan” back to their councils for review before they give their final approval.

Both Golonka and Paterno have observed that at least three public meetings were held in 2009, public input was sought for the design that was eventually rejected, but all public input has been missing since that time. Walesky told Golonka in September that ERM had all the information it had needed from the public, which was gathered from those meetings, it knew the issues, but “the priority now” had to be shoreline stabilization.

“I think you’ll all agree that we have had a pretty good history of being able to work well together,” Golonka said, “at least, we certainly have until all this controversy…but there’s also a great deal of concern…confusion…as to who exactly is a member (of the JILONA working group)…who is authorized to speak or who is authorized to vote on behalf of their [member partners],” she said. “I don’t think even I know who the members are…and that needs to be clarified before we move along any further.”

Dawson clarifies JILONA membership;
questions applicability of Sunshine Law

At the previous JILONA working group meeting on Sept. 26, Dawson listed the JILONA partners as representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Town of Jupiter, the Village of Tequesta, Jupiter Inlet Colony, Palm Beach County, the Loxahatchee River Historical Society and Jupiter High School “in order to clarify who, exactly, are the partners.”

The Jupiter Inlet Colony is not listed on the Bureau of Land Management website as an official JILONA partner. The Colony is listed, however, as a partner and member of the JILONA working group within the first few pages of the approximately 185-page JILONA draft management plan, but no Jupiter Inlet Colony official signed that original draft in September 2010.

“I’m really concerned that you’ve got three members of the Jupiter Inlet Colony represented here,” said Paterno, the lone representative of Tequesta, at last week’s meeting, “and they didn’t even sign the management plan. You’ve got the committee stacked.”

Taking exception to Paterno’s assertions, Jupiter Inlet Colony Mayor Dan Comerford, said that a Colony resident, Tracy Siani, “who has attended every meeting for the past two years” did not come to the Oct. 25 meeting specifically, because she does not consider herself a member of the working group, important in that the working group meetings should be closed to the public, he added.

Palm Beach County officials and Jamie Stuve, president of the Loxahatchee River Historical Society and Jupiter Lighthouse Museum, concurred with the Jupiter Inlet Colony mayor that the working group meetings should be open only to working group members and closed to the public.

“If these meetings are open to the public,” Stuve added, “how will we ever get any work done? We have been charged with the management of this property; this is a steering committee, a management committee; it’s just not a public meeting.”

Paterno disagreed, telling Dawson that he, as an elected official, is bound by Florida’s Sunshine Law, so if the meeting is closed to the public, “then I probably cannot attend.”

Dawson told the group that he had requested an opinion from the U.S. Solicitor General as to whether or not the working group meetings are bound by Florida’s Sunshine Laws and/or the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) (which governs the operation of federal advisory committees and emphasizes public involvement), but he had not yet received a ruling.

The discussion followed a question directed to Dawson by Jupiter resident Walter Franklin, who heads public opposition to the shoreline stabilization plan, as to whether or not the meeting would be open to public comment. Initially, Dawson said no, that he does not open JILONA working group meetings to the public, except when the the group is seeking public input.

Franklin asked for the date of the last public meeting, and Dawson was unsure, settling on “probably summer or fall of 2009;” yet he conceded to permit Franklin’s comments at the conclusion of the meeting, since Dawson had not yet received the solicitor general’s ruling.

Environmental Resources Management assumes new responsibility for JILONA meetings

Dawson also announced a change in JILONA meeting procedures, following an offer by Rich Walesky, retiring director of ERM, to have his office be responsible for scheduling JILONA meetings and setting meeting agendas in consultation with BLM and the working group partners.

“We will also take notes at the meetings,” Walesky said. “These are just general notes, not minutes…we’re not going to be approving minutes or anything like that, because that’s not required outside of the Sunshine Law, so we don’t need that…but we will have a general record of our meetings now.”

Instead of quarterly, the group will meet bi-monthly at either the Tequesta office of the BLM or at the Jupiter Lighthouse Museum, Walesky said, and they also will keep copies of any meeting handouts.

Over the past two years, no records of the meetings have been kept, which resulted in a disagreement at the previous working group meeting Sept. 26 between Dawson and Golonka as to what had been agreed upon in the draft management plan.

“We all agree about the need for shoreline stabilization,” Golonka had told Dawson, “but we also decided that we would need to amend the plan later, after we had further discussions about providing public recreational uses (of the Cato’s Bridge beach area of the shoreline).”

Dawson responded that “all the members around the table here” signed off on the management plan, which was “designed to emphasize passive recreation uses.” During roundtable comments, however, Golonka, Russ Ruskay, of the Jupiter Department of Business Development, and Paterno all disagreed with Dawson, affirming that the “recreational uses” of the shoreline stabilization plan had been exempt from the draft that bore their signatures.

Dawson shook his head no, directing the members to Page 75 of the management plan summary “This is what we agreed to,” which included only the options that would bar boaters, while encouraging access to the waters by kayakers and paddle boarders. No one, however, would be able to access the shoreline.

Protest letters go to permitting agencies

Golonka had sent a letter to the permitting agencies (Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) in August citing a “betrayal of public trust” by the Bureau of Land Management regarding its decision to proceed without public input regarding the area’s recreational uses; therefore, she requested a halt to the permitting process until further review could be done.

The permitting agencies also received letters objecting to the plan from Paterno, the Martin County Board of County Commissioners, Congressman Tom Rooney, the Florida Inland Navigational District, and the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, which reviewed the permit at its Oct. 16 meeting and concluded unanimously that the plan needed to be redesigned to be more aesthetically pleasing and to provide more public recreational opportunities that had been “historically” available to the public at that site.

Calling the permit a “heavy-handed approach” to shoreline stabilization, a member of the regional council suggested that about two-thirds of the 1,400 feet of rock breakwater be eliminated entirely at the northern portion of the property.

Dawson told the group last week that the BLM had considered all the comments “where they could” in the development of the original plan; however, Paterno contended that the “lack of proper buy-in” by all the partners is what caused the public outcry in the first place.

The permits were close to approval when a few members of the JILONA working group discovered their existence, which led to the public protest led by Franklin and Commissioner Patrick Hayes, who had attended the September JILONA meeting, but was not permitted to address the group directly.

“We’re talking about a phenomenal opportunity here,” Hayes said, “after we remove the exotics, remove the stumps, we have an opportunity to create something extraordinary for the entire country here…and that’s the only point of friction here.”

Hayes’ comments prompted the ire of Jupiter Inlet Colony resident Tracy Siani, who attended the September meeting.

Calling the shoreline “a beach” was a misnomer, she said. “There never was a beach there, just shoreline erosion encouraged by boats butting and poking” into the shore. She also said that the recent National Public Lands Day clean-up in September, which produced 150 bags of trash at the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse site, had to have been carried in “not by snorkelers, not by kayakers, not by swimmers…it was brought in by boaters.”

Chip Block, vice-mayor of Jupiter Inlet Colony, concurred: “It’s not nice families dangling their feet in the water, Mr. Hayes. It’s two-year-olds in the water without life jackets…There’s a tremendous mistreatment of that shoreline…These are not nice people. These are people who party hearty.”

Jupiter Inlet Colony Mayor Dan Comerford concurred with Block: “When we went to the clean-up on Saturday, there was not a single boater there, Mr. Hayes, and I want to push this in your face,” he added, “not a single boater was there, and we carried out 150 bags of trash, including a lot of glass from broken beer bottles.”

Stuve maintained that the 5,000-year-old site is “the key to our economic future in our area if we play our cards right,” especially since people “will come from throughout the U.S.” for the site’s cultural significance, or for bird-watching, or for “quiet respite.” The plan also will attract more kayakers to the area, she added, as well as paddle boarders, “the fastest growing sport right now in the U.S.”

Paterno concluded that he was not convinced that building a kayak launch, a parking lot, and a road to access the launch were necessarily positive additions to the site.

“I worry that this just might be too much development,” he said. “You know, sometimes it’s just better to have underdevelopment…or you take a chance in ruining what you’ve already got.”

–Barbara Clowdus