Pinellas tourism group recommends more money for beach renovations

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Pinellas County Tourism Development Board recommended increasing the percentage of dollars in tourist taxes that go toward renovating beaches.

The offer came when the district and the US Army Corps of Engineers faced dead end due to the Sand Key Shore Protection project, putting on hold plans to reinforce a 9-mile stretch of sand from Clearwater to North Redington Beach.

Council members voted to increase the portion of the county bed tax earmarked for beach renewal by a quarter of a penny per taxable dollar, from 0.5 to 0.75 pennies. The move could raise up to $4 million in beautification projects, according to Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, a council member.

A 6% tax applies to hotels and other premises rented for less than six months in Pinellas County. Tuesday’s recommendation must be approved by county commissioners to go into effect..

The additional funding will provide a “safety cushion” as the county continues to fortify its beaches, Justice said.

“We wanted to raise a discussion about beach renewal, and preserving our beaches is the most important part of keeping tourism here,” Justice said. “That’s why people come to Pinellas County, these are our beaches, so we have to protect this resource.”

The Council consists of 12 members representing local governments and tourism-related businesses. Board member Phil Henderson, president and CEO of StarLite Cruises, came up with a proposal to increase funds for beach renovations, initially offering an increase to a full penny for every dollar taxed, before other members opposed.

The county has federal approvals for three beach renovation projects, including one on Sand Key. The others are Treasure Island, which includes Sunset and Sunshine Beaches, and Long Key, which includes Upham Beach and Pas-a-Grill Beach, according to Pinellas County Public Works Director Kelly Levy.

The next cycle of the Treasure Island and Long Key projects will take place in 2023, as planned. But the Sand Key project, due to take place in 2024, is in jeopardy and the county is likely to skip the cycle, Levy said.

This is because the Army Corps of Engineers required the county to obtain signed perpetual easements from 100% of the residents of the affected beaches. While some residents have signed easements, others are worried about transferring some of their property to permanently become public land.

According to Levy, the Corps did not require 100% easements in previous decades, but began doing so in 2015. The county received 48% of the 461 easements required to receive federal funding and participate in the Sand Key project.

“Right now we are at an impasse,” Levy said at a council meeting.

The county and the Corps met to resolve the issue in January, Levy said, but talks have slowed since then.

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