Scenic A1A Lands $460,000 Grant to Remake Varn Park and River-to-Sea Gateways
FlaglerLive | May 2, 2011
When you drive up State Road A1A about a year from now, you’ll notice some changes at Varn Park, near Beverly Beach, and at an entrance to the River-to-Sea Preserve in Marineland. Both those spots currently are not too visible to passers-by. Varn Park is barely more than a dusty, unpaved parking area. A small sign points to the River-to-Sea entrance, one of the county’s most lustrous, if hidden, natural gems.
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Come next year, Varn Park will undergo a revamp: better and paved parking, and a remade walkover to the beach, among other improvements. In Marineland, the entrance to the River-to-Sea Preserve will become a true gateway. The public will have better access to the Intracoastal, the beach and the ocean through the county park there. “Right now,” says Sallie O’Hara, program administrator for the Friends of A1A Scenic and Historical Coastal Byway, “few people know that that’s a wonderful county park full of natural intrigue and natural phenomena. We’re bringing a lot of people to that area this year and we can announce that next year they’ll see improvements as far as the entrance, the gateway entrance, the parking area, from A1A.”
The reason: the Friends of A1A just landed a $560,000 federal grant, one of 94 in the nation, but just three in Florida, provided by the Federal Highway Administration’s National Scenic Byway Program. Flagler County’s grant is by far the largest of the three in Florida. Indian River Lagoon got a $150,000 grant, and Big Bend Scenic Byway, in the Panhandle, got $74,000 for an interpretive center.
The federal byway program emphasizes the history, folklore and natural surroundings of America’s more rustic small highways. Flagler County’s portion of A1A won the byway designation in 2002, thus vastly increasing its abilities to land federal grants. In a very difficult budgetary environment, when grants have become a lot more competitive, Friends of A1A’s success stands out as something of a coup.
“We’re always glad when our work is recognized and we are rewarded with a grant from the national byways,” Ann Wilson, president of the A1A group, said Friday afternoon. The Friends of A1A have tallied around $5 million in grants over the years. The group incorporated in 2004, but it was a grass-roots organization since 1997, when it started the byway movement.
Several factors helped Flagler County land the grant, O’Hara said: the aim of the grant is in line with By-way goals—access to coastal and recreational opportunities. The dollar value was requested was not disproportionate. “And the fact that strategically, Friends of A1A has been working with all the municipalities, trying to make sure we implement our plan as we envisioned it with our partners,” O’Hara said, also played a role.
Finally, and just as convincingly to the federal highway administration: Flagler County had ready money to match the federal grant. The county match of $140,000 will swell the award to $700,000.
The matching dollars aren’t coming out of property tax dollars or recurring, current revenue. They’re part of an arrangement over the Development of Regional Impact in the Hammock, dating back several years, with Bobby Ginn, the original developer of the project. The county used to own a 30-acre park at 16th Road in the Hammock. Ginn wanted to develop it. The county gave him that acreage in return for 50 acres on the ocean, 250 acres along A1A, plus $1.7 million cash for park enhancement, development and maintenance, leading to the creation of the Malacompra Greenway (it starts at the end of Malacompra Road, comes down Malacompra on the South side, and proceeds along the east side of A1A to Fox’s Cut.) The matching dollars for the federal grant are coming out of that pot.
The many people coming to that area this year that O’Hara referred to are doing so the third week of May as part of the A1A group’s second annual Environmental Education Fair, a two-day event May 20-21, featuring some 45 exhibitors, vendors, workshops and other activities. The River-to-Sea Preserve overlays historic grounds—“ the long, low line where the wilderness of waves met the wilderness of woods,” as Francis Parkman, the great historian, described it—where Spaniards and Timucuans met, parlayed and slaughtered each other. “This is the land promised by the Eternal Father to the faithful,” Pedro de Santander, a 16th century explorer and exploiter had written the King of Spain, referring to this stretch of Florida, “since we are commanded by God in the Holy Scriptures to take it from them, being idolaters, and, by reason of their idolatry and sin, to put them all to the knife, leaving no living thing save maidens and children, their cities robbed and sacked, their walls and houses leveled to the earth.” It was a different kind of river-to-sea preserve then.
Those are some of the intrigue and phenomena underfoot in the preserve today, which the federal grant will help make more visible.
For the A1A group, the federal grant is a big victory, particularly as a contrast to a run of three straight defeats at the hands of the Flagler County Tourist Development Council, over the same grant: what had started as a $32,000 request from the council last year had been halved to $15,000 by February, for a beach clean-up project, but O’Hara never won the council’s full confidence that the money—which included a $75-an-hour fee for O’Hara’s work—would achieve the desired ends. The defeats tarnished the A1A group’s luster. The byways grant burnishes that luster again.
The county administration, in cooperation with the Florida Department of Transportation, will be in charge of bidding out the projects and monitoring the grant’s execution in line with federal regulations.