Flagler Beach city government Thursday evening got major questions answered, largely to its benefit, regarding the future of State Road A1A and the dunes along the way in the city. In return, the commission gave its unanimous approval to the plan, which addresses the length of the city’s beaches and includes, at its northern end, a buried sea wall.
The Florida Transportation Department has committed to a roughly $40 million plan to protect Flagler Beach’s State Road A1A and partly rebuild its dunes damaged by Hurricane Matthew, both at the south and north end of the city. The department is also committed to annually pay for the maintenance of those dunes, whether it’s half a million dollars or $1 million a year, with the city—not the county–carrying out the management. All the money would be provided by the state, assuming the Legislature appropriates it. That’s one of the big assumptions still hobbling the otherwise good news for the city.
The transportation department has also agreed not to build sea walls at the south end of the city, but will build a sea wall at the very north end of the city–from North 18th Street to Beverly Beach. The sea wall would covered in sand and vegetation and would, even buried, not look like a sea wall. Beverly Beach has not been opposed to sea walls, as Flagler Beach has been.
In a surprising shift Thursday evening, the Flagler Beach City Commission largely accepted the northern wall, as they did the full recovery and management plan. They had little choice and every reason to, since the entire project would be paid for without the city having to contribute a dime, at least not directly. (State transportation dollars are still taxpayer dollars, but from across the state.)
The transportation department has also committed to rebuilding A1A where it is, and possibly keeping its new shift further west at the south end of the city—and the lower speed limit, which the commission and many residents prefer. The road was shifted west several feet to accommodate the emergency repairs. Keeping it there would enlarge to dunes buffer, which commissioners want. But the decision on the exact positioning of the road isn’t settled, and may hinge on factors such as a trail alongside it. City commissioners were not of one mind on that issue. And it’s not yet clear if the $40 million includes the cost of rebuilding the road itself or only the sea wall and the dunes. “I believe it’s just for the dune work,” City Manager Larry Newsom said after the meeting, before adding: “the only thing I can say is I’m not sure.”
Department of Transportation officials outlined the plan with the Flagler Beach city manager and each of the five city commissioners and the mayor behind closed doors on Wednesday—in serial meetings, individually, so as not to violate the sunshine law. The meetings were intended to bring the commissioners up to date on the department’s plan ahead of a meeting of the city commission Thursday evening, where the plan was unveiled publicly.
“The department has agreed that we will not jeopardize the potential funding for the Army Corps project. That means that there will not be a wall within this section south of the Pier,” Amy Sirmans, the transportation department’s project development engineer, told city commissioners. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan she was referring to is a federal project, more than a decade in the works but more recently accelerated by the hurricane’s effects, to “renourish” the beach from South 7th to South 28th streets by dredging and dumping millions of cubic feet of sand on the beach and rebuilding the dunes. But the Corps has stated flatly that if a sea wall was built, the renourishment plan would be dead.
Still, Sirmans said, there’s a section of beach north of the pier that the department has listed as vulnerable to a future storm, and a third section that is even more vulnerable further north. It’s that northernmost section that will see a wall built. That wall will be “very close to the road, it’ll be covered with sand, vegetation, you won’t even see it,” Sirmans said.
The state wants to put dollars toward dunes restoration between South 7th and South 28th in addition to whatever the Corps will do to renourish the beach.
The department will seek money from the Legislature when lawmakers meet in March. But as far as Flagler Beach is concerned, “now we have a beach management plan,” City Manager Larry Newsom said, referring not to the transportation department’s plan but to the city’s own beach management committee, which worked on it for two years. That plan had not been sent to the state until now.
Commissioners, including Jane Mealy and Rick Belhumeur, were supportive of the plan, including the buried wall at the north end of the city. But there was some skepticism.
“I’m just a little surprised that we’re in support of a wall,” Commissioner Joy McGrew said. But even she conceded: “The management plan that’s out there is the tremendous carrot that makes it work.” She was heartened by the state’s concept to “try and get us something that’s never been done before,” even though that plan is not yet very clear. “But if it just comes back as another rock and dirt and throw some plants on it, I’m just, you know, ‘let’s do the same thing over and over again.’ So I will support it, but I want those out there to know that I have asked and passionately asked that we do something different than we’ve ever done before.” (There would not be rocks at the north end of the city, and it would be in the city’s hands to manage the ongoing maintenance of the dunes.)
Commissioner Kim Carney was also slightly reluctant, but “in the spirit of cooperation,” she said she’d approve.
Commissioner Marshall Shupe said the wall being discussed is not like the dreaded and despised wall around South 13th Street, but rather a “retaining” wall.
And that’s how the commission got to a unanimous endorsement of the transportation department’s plan.
Initially, the two transportation officials who appeared before the commission Thursday did not produce dollar figures. But when pressed by Paul Eik, a candidate for the city commission in next March’s election, one of them revealed more details.
“There are numbers, but the actual down to the dime, I can’t give you that today, but roughly this will be about a $40 million up front, and then plus that annual maintenance,” said Adam Lovejoy, government affairs liaison for the transportation department’s 5th district, which includes Flagler County. He placed the annual maintenance cost at anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million. “We have gotten the approval of this entire concept to be able to say, we’re committed to whatever that number is we’ll work out over the next few weeks.” There was this caveat: “If we can get past the Legislature this year, we can do this quickly, get there with this and get it in there with state dollars, and if not we’ll have to look at other ways to piece things together.” Still, Flagler Beach’s project would not be singled out for approval, but would rather be part of the overall request by the department, which means the approval would be much more likely than not.
The city commission’s unanimous support will carry a lot of weight, the transportation officials said, as does the governor’s support for Flagler’s recovery efforts. “I’m optimistic but we’ve got many, many more steps,” Lovejoy said.