Sides weigh in on St. Augustine Beach dune destruction accusations

Police say they’re seeking charges for three people in connection with sand being removed from some dunes in St. Augustine Beach, but one of the property owners is disputing accounts of the event.


“From what I’ve read on social media, there seems to be massive discrepancies between what actually happened [and the reports out there],” said Dr. James Grimes, who owns the property next to the dunes at 2 12th Lane.

Beach residents allege that someone cut a chunk out of the dunes at the end of 12th Lane in September, so the police department began investigating. One neighbor said a “dozer cut a 6-by-12-foot-deep trench through the dunes,” according to a police report.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection Agency’s inspection report said it looked like a chunk of dune and vegetation about 10 feet wide and 30 feet long had been cut through.

After an investigation, the St. Augustine Beach Police Department recently forwarded two misdemeanor charges against both James and his wife Grace Grimes to the 7th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office, police said. The charges include driving on the dunes — because police say they directed someone to do so — and violating coastal construction excavation of the dunes without FDEP approval, according to the police report.

Police also forwarded one charge of driving on the dunes against George Leon Smith Jr., who removed sand from the area, according to the police report.

Because police didn’t witness what happened and because they are misdemeanor charges, they couldn’t arrest anyone, beach police Cmdr. Thomas Ashlock said. In that situation, misdemeanors other than those where an arrest is required by law go to the State Attorney’s Office for a decision on whether to pursue charges.

As of Wednesday, the State Attorney’s Office had no update on the case.

James Grimes said the path in sand dunes at the end of 12th Lane in St. Augustine Beach was already there before Hurricane Irma. He and his wife had returned after evacuating their Davis Shores property.

He said he and his wife asked Smith, of Leon’s Tractor Service, to clean up their beach property at 2 12th Lane after the storm. Then they left town and weren’t there to see the work being done, he said.

“There was no intent to move the sand,” James Grimes said. “There was no intent not to move the sand.”

Smith didn’t knock over a sand dune but rather cleaned out some sand in a non-vegetative area (vegetation in sand dunes strengthens them) that was part of an existing pathway in the dunes, Grimes said.

Smith didn’t return a call requesting comment on Wednesday, but Smith told a police officer that “he only removed sand that had filled back in after the storm, and that the cross over has been there for some time,” according to the police report. Smith, who used a small Kubota tractor to move the sand, said he didn’t realize that was against the law, according to police.

Smith provided a photo that shows “the cross over was well established prior to the sand removal,” according to the officer.

He also said that Grace Grimes asked him to do the work — Grimes told police that she didn’t know who would have cut the dunes, according to the police report.

While she didn’t comment for this story, Grace Grimes provided photos that according to her show the path in the dunes on September 2014 and the path with much lower dunes in 2015. Other photos she has contain other children, so she declined to provide them.

James Grimes said he’ll be meeting soon with the FDEP to discuss the matter.

Christina Sellers, case manager with the FDEP, said she isn’t aware of anyone giving authorization at any time for sand to be removed. FDEP has jurisdiction over the beach seaward of the Coastal Construction Control Line, she said. The Florida Legislature created the Coastal Construction Control Line program to protect the coast from improper development that could harm beaches and dunes, according to the FDEP.

The program requires approval for removing sand from dunes, which is not something they would typically approve, she said.

“There will be a fine. I just don’t know how much,” Sellers said.