Four Ponte Vedra Boulevard residents, including the CEOs of Web.com and United Airlines, are being investigated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for engaging in non-compliant excavation of beach sand.
According to DEP documents obtained by the Recorder, the department sent warning letters on March 22 to financial advisor Christopher Aitken from Aitken and Associates, resident Margaret Conolly, Web.com CEO David Brown and United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. The letters state that – following a department inspection yielding photographic evidence – the homeowners used mechanical equipment to scrape or push sand from the existing beach to create a small frontal dune at the base of the original eroded dune.
DEP Deputy Press Secretary Dee Ann Miller said the department has been actively working to investigate all non-compliant beach-related activities and notify owners if further actions are required.
“The Department has sent warning letters to four St. Johns County property owners for sand scraping activities performed at their properties," Miller said in an email to the Recorder. "These letters address noted potential violations during recent inspections. Excavation of sand (sand scraping) seaward of the Coastal Construction Control line must be permitted. These activities must also be conducted in accordance with the state’s environmental laws and conditions included in the permit for those activities."
Richard S. Brightman, an attorney representing Aitken, told the Recorder that the dune system in front of Aitken's house was seriously undermined by last year's hurricane season and the property needed a rebuilt dune. Aitkens learned of a local study showing that beach scraping was an effective way to protect properties without harming the beach, Brightman said. Other residents in the area did the same type of work, Brightman added, without any investigation or penalties imposed by the DEP.
Brightman noted that Aitken used small Bobcats to move small amounts of sand in front of his home – which sparked the DEP's investigation. Following hurricanes Matthew and Irma, Brightman said the agency provided no guidance to Aitken on how to restore protective dunes.
Furthermore, Aitken's lawyer argued that the Ponte Vedra Beach residents did not “steal” sand from the beach. He noted that property owners placed the sand in front of their homes at a great expense before it got washed down the beach due to inclement weather. With hurricane season approaching again, Brightman said coastal homeowners are at risk and need to protect their property.
Brian Wright, the vice president of public relations & communications at Web.com, said David Brown is in talks with the DEP and fully prepared to work with the department regarding the matter. The Recorder was unable to get in touch with the other residents.
Meanwhile, Miller said the agency wants corrective actions and restoration activities to protect the beach, dune system and private properties while complying with Florida's environmental rules and regulations. According to Miller, the department is committed to assisting homeowners recover from hurricane-related impacts “as quickly as possible."
A DEP source also said the department met with the property owners and is evaluating the next steps to take in its investigation.