Feds undermine public’s quest to save Cato’s Bridge beach

The question many residents of Tequesta, Hobe Sound and Jupiter are asking is this: How could we be so close to losing Cato’s Bridge beach, a popular boating destination in the Jupiter Inlet, without knowing it was on the brink of extinction?

“That’s the question we’re all asking,” says Tequesta resident and Martin County Commissioner Patrick Hayes, who launched a campaign last month to challenge impending state and federal permits for shoreline stabilization near the Jupiter Inlet Bridge and lighthouse that would permanently block boats from anchoring at the sandy shore.

Not a beach in the true sense of the word, Cato’s Bridge Beach is a sandy shoreline, some spots wider than others, along the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway south of the Jupiter Inlet Bridge, which connects Jupiter Island to the mainland. The beach’s name stems from the time that the bridge was known by its tender, Avon Charles Cato, in the late ’40s to 1969, when the current bridge was built.

The fond memories of long-time residents throughout south Martin, Tequesta and Jupiter are of rope swings, barbecues in the sand, and swimming in the clear, turquoise waters of the Intracoastal. The co-mingling of fresh water from the Loxahatchee River and the salt water of the Jupiter Inlet flowing into the Intracoastal along Jupiter Island creates a bio-diverse environment especially attractive to snorkelers, who often recommend the spot on their blogs, which attract visitors from throughout Florida.

“One of the most attractive features of Cato’s Bridge beach is that the area stays beautiful on both cycles of the tide,” says Martin County Commissioner Patrick Hayes, a resident of Tequesta who has often pulled his boat onto the beach for a day of snorkeling. “There just are not too many places like that. You can anchor your boat right there because the bottom drops right off to deep water. Do a little snorkeling, cook a hot dog or two, talk with your friends and neighbors. This place is an absolute treasure.”

The permits call for a three-tiered, vinyl and sheet-metal wall with additional fill for the bluffs, as well as a toe wall and limestone breakwater within the Intracoastal that will extend 1,400 feet along the shore. Work was anticipated to begin within weeks, according to residents contacted by contractors seeking appropriate staging areas for barges and the two-to-three-foot-wide boulders destined for the breakwater.

Designed to be constructed 25 to 36 feet from shore, the breakwater would rise two to three feet above the waterline. With small, periodic openings along the breakwater, boaters’ access would be blocked, allowing access only by paddle-boarders, kayakers, snorkelers and manatees. No docks or shoreline access are included in the design, according to the permit application.

A one-time public notice that a permit application had been filed was published in the Palm Beach Post’s legal-notices section, according to the permit application. The 30-day public comment period expired in July. Since no public comments had been received by either the state Department of Environmental Projection or the US Army Corps of Engineers, the permit applications submitted by the Bureau of Land Management were processed quickly.

“No one commented because no one knew about it,” Hayes says. “Bruce Dawson (of the US Bureau of Land Management, which owns the property along the Intracoastal Waterway) was saying that a plan for shoreline stabilization for the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area was being developed, and that’s what he was telling his own working group. He also said the plan would exclude the beach ‘until later,’ which seemed to acknowledge the public’s desire to maintain access to the beach.”

The 121-acre Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area site is one of only three designated in the U.S. It is also part of the National Landscape Conservation System, the only one east of the Mississippi River. The property, at one time set aside for the Coast Guard and the Jupiter Inlet lighthouse, lies primarily in the Town of Tequesta. It was returned to its original owner, the United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management in 1996, largely through the local efforts of Jamie Stuve, president and CEO of the Loxahatchee River Historical Society.

The site includes Coast Guard officers’ housing, ball fields owned by the Town of Jupiter, and a preserve area that includes natural wetlands. It is managed for BLM locally by the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resource Management.

The JILONA working group, formed in 2009 by the Bureau of Land Management comprising of representatives of all local property stakeholders, had been tasked with oversight of the Outstanding Natural Area, part of which included developing the most appropriate shoreline stabilizing option that would consider both the uniqueness of the area and its historical recreational use, according to Hayes.

The commissioner says he had expressed his support of shoreline stabilization to Dawson, to Jamie Stuve, president and CEO of the Loxahatchee River Historical Society, and to the JILONA working group—of which both Dawson and Stuve are members—but his support did not include sacrificing the public’s historical access to the beach. “There are many other, far better options than the one they chose,” Hayes says.

BLM, Palm Beach County circumvent the public
Dawson’s assertion that the “beach issue” would be addressed at a later date was echoed by Sam Bates, an official with the Palm Beach County Department of Resources Management, according to Hayes. “But instead of doing what they had told us,” Hayes adds, “they actually applied for permits, were putting the projects out to bid, and seemed ready to even award contracts.”

A phone call from a member of the JILONA working group telling Hayes that the permits had been applied for and were nearing approval without the working group’s involvement alerted the commissioner to take action.

“Mr. Dawson and Mr. Bates gave the members of the JILONA group, and to me personally, what I believe to be false and misleading information,” says Hays.

In response, the commissioner made personal phone calls and personal pleas to save the public’s access to the beach. He contacted media outlets. He gave a personal tour of the beach to a Palm Beach Post reporter and photographer. At the events he attended, such as the Hobe Sound Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting in July, Hayes handed fliers picturing the three-tiered, vinyl and steel paneled wall to be erected on shore to anyone standing still for more than 60 seconds. His efforts poked a small hole in the dike of public opinion that has since become a torrent.

Letters of protest began pouring into the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, including from the towns of Tequesta and Jupiter and from the Martin County Board of County Commissioners, expressing support of shoreline stabilization but objecting to the lack of consideration in maintaining public access to the beach.

A letter from Jupiter Inlet Colony directly across the Intracoastal from Cato’s Bridge beach was the only letter filed in support of the decision to remove boaters’ access permanently.

In her July 29 letter to the US Army Corps of Engineers, Jupiter Mayor Karen Golonka verified that the JILONA working group, of which she is a member representing the Town of Jupiter, had not seen and did not approve of the permit that had been submitted.

“There was a commitment from BLM (Bureau of Land Management) that before any shoreline restoration plans were finalized and any permits applied for that the Town of Jupiter would have an opportunity to review and comment,” Golonka wrote. “This never happened.”

She expressed concern that the public input during three meetings over the previous year, at which attendees had been shown recreational options, including marginal docks, had been ignored, indicating that “the message that was delivered to our residents appears inaccurate, and the feedback they provided to us was not considered.”

The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council’s letter to DEP also questioned BLM’s permit applications, asserting that the permits would “eliminate or severely restrict” recreational opportunities that currently exist, thus the council intends to give “full attention to this issue” at its Sept. 16 meeting, which is open to the public.

County: preserve artifacts, ensure public safety
Leanne Welch, an environmental program supervisor with the Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management division, which manages the site for the Bureau of Land Management, called the sheet metal wall “a necessary component” of the design to prevent additional erosion and collapse of the bluff, and to preserve the Native American artifacts found on the site. In recent media reports, it is a stance supported by the Loxahatchee River Historical Society, according to Jamie Stuve, who said that her organization supports the DEP plan.

“No doubt, some significant artifacts have been found at the site,” Hayes says, “but how many artifacts will be destroyed when this wall is constructed and tons of fill will bury everything there? How can that plan possibly be considered ‘protection’ of historical artifacts?”

Dawson, the Jackson Field Manager for BLM, calls the boaters’ use of the beach “unauthorized” and “unregulated,” and the collapsing bluff a danger to the public, according to the permit application, even though the spot has been an exceedingly popular snorkeling and family boating site among residents and their out-of-town guests for generations.

“This activity is not authorized and is considered trespassing,” according to the permit application, which was modified to create the rock barrier along the shoreline with openings for water access, but with no docks and no access to shore. The design also creates an ideal environment to grow sea grass beds, thus attracting West Indian manatees as they migrate up the coast through the Intracoastal. The breakwater, BLM says, would protect manatees from passing boats, as well as protect the shoreline from erosion.

Residents take action
Jupiter resident Walter Franklin, who spent much of his youth at the historic beach, questions the assertion by BLM and the Save the Manatees organization that the structure will protect manatees, as was reported at a recent JILONA meeting, especially since the width of the Intracoastal waterway will be reduced by more than 35 feet. In a letter to the organization last week, Franklin asks, “Will that reduction in channel width put manatees in closer proximity to vessels passing through the area?”

He also suggested that the narrower channel could accelerate an already fast-moving current, and questions the ability of “tired manatees” to enter a narrow, enclosed area behind the breakwater that is potentially overcrowded with kayakers, snorkelers and paddle boarders.

“How can this unusual, confined and congested plan for people, snorkelers, kayakers and manatees be an improvement,” Hayes asks, “when they have abundant, unimpeded access right now?”

According to Kelly Egan, of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the permit application has been returned to the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resource Management for more information, including its need to address 33 concerns expressed by the public.

“I really cannot say how long that will take,” Egan says, “but we cannot move forward until those concerns have been addressed. We’re just waiting now for their response.”

Hayes urges residents to contact their representatives in both the federal and state House and Senate, since permits have been filed with both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Franklin, who continues to write letters and make phone calls, concurs.

“In my opinion, this has been a very heavy-handed approach by Mr. Dawson that seems to have excluded the public and his own (JILONA) working group,” says Franklin. “It feels like the Bureau of Land Management is acting as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is ‘robbing the hood’ of a precious and highly valued citizen treasure.”

Officials to Contact

If you want your views known regarding the proposed Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse Outstanding Natural Area permit, write your federal and state representatives and/or these officials of the permiting agency.