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For 24 years, Florida permitted billions of dollars of luxury homes and condominiums on critically eroding shores, disregarding its own scientific findings. Thousands of residents have invested in homes seaward of a state warning line. And U.S. taxpayers are indebted for hundreds of millions more to pump sand onto beaches to save the buildings and their owners' lifestyles.
The cost: More than $1 million per mile of sand.
Every year, the state and its residents have more to lose:
* The Florida Department of Environmental Protection rarely turns down an application to build at the beach. Just 52 have been denied, while 4,913 homes, hotels, condominiums and other habitable buildings have been approved on land subject to erosion. More than half those structures now stand within state-designated "critical erosion" zones. Those areas qualify for beach-restoration money from local, state and federal taxpayers.
* Florida routinely grants permits for houses built on sand that engineers say will be awash before owners can retire the mortgages. The permitting program is blind to erosion rates and subsequent costs to taxpayers.
* Homebuyers often are unaware of their gamble. Property sellers and real-estate agents are not required to disclose erosion rates, only that a property is seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line.
* News that taxpayers will rebuild a beach raises property values and encourages development, increasing dependence on imported sand. Three luxury condominium towers followed a $5 million beach restoration on Marco Island in southwest Florida the next year, and more buildings have gone up every year since, even though the beach still is vulnerable to erosion.
* State officials and engineers follow a "no-retreat" strategy that has increased risk. For example, Panama City Beach homes destroyed in Hurricane Opal were rebuilt, bigger and more luxurious, on the same footprints -- even though dunes that once buffered storms are gone and the water line has marched inland.
* The state law created in 1978 to shield beaches from destructive development has been remodeled into a program of permission, focused no longer on erosion or tidal flow but on hurricane safety.
What Florida needs is a disclosure law, said Robert Dean, a national expert on beach restoration and director of Florida's Division of Beaches and Shores from 1985-87.
"Over my entire career, I have not had more than a handful of people ask me if they should be aware of erosion," he said. "It's almost like there's a vacuum there."
Dean thinks many of the nation's beaches can be stabilized at reasonable cost but also thinks the public isn't heeding the folly of building too close to water.
Florida officials defend the state's coastal construction regulations and enforcement. "We're making sure structures are reasonably sited," said Mike Sole, chief of Florida's Bureau of Beaches and Wetland Resources.
He said the state monitors erosion rates and considers it when reviewing building applications. Those who build within the 30-year erosion projection are "taking a gamble at their own personal risk," Sole said. Moreover, erosion endangerment of an entire community, not a single house, triggers state money for beach rebuilding.
Residents like Gary Weiss, of Indialantic, Fla., have lost most of their back yards due to erosion. Weiss estimates 25 feet of land in his yard has eroded in the past 10 years.
Just past Cape San Blas on the Florida Panhandle's St. Joseph Peninsula, is the newly crowned "Best Beach in America." The real estate market is blistering hot, and construction trucks tear up the snowy dunes.
Real estate agent Ron Bloodworth will be the first to tell you: "This is the last frontier." Here in Florida's Wild West, beach erosion is discussed as if it's fiction.
As when Bloodworth says, "There have been a lot of rumors about erosion."
In Bloodworth's case, he means talk about the tide line behind five side-by-side homes he is selling for an Atlanta-area developer. The simple two-story boxes on stilts list for more than $700,000 each.
The Coastal Construction Control Line was created not to regulate building but to save the state's beaches and dunes.
"It's been liberalized substantially," said Estus Whitfield, environmental policy adviser to four Florida governors. "It started off as a much stronger environmental program."
But then came the property rights movement and the notion of "takings," a legal concept that landowners must be compensated if a government prevents them from achieving the maximum developable worth of their property.
"Any notion of keeping beaches pristine is lost," said Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida. He receives a copy of every beach construction permit Florida writes. "Effectively, the administration has turned this into a paperwork grind. There's no environmental protection."
Beyond bureaucracy, Lee sees a larger problem: a refusal to recognize that beaches are not static.
"The beach you remembered from five or 10 years ago is the same beach you want to return to today," said John Naylor, general manager of the Pink Shell Beach Resort on the north end of Estero Island near Fort Myers. The critically eroded beach is holding ground because it occasionally receives fill the Army Corps of Engineers dredges from navigation routes.
Whitfield said his experience suggests that only a catastrophe will force Florida to contend with risky construction.
"We need to go back and look at the root of the problem, and the root is building too close to the beach," said Walton County resident Celeste Cobena, who is worried about the environmental and esthetic impact rebuilding beaches could have on the Panhandle's pristine coastline. "People build too close and then want the taxpayers to bail them out."