Congress and the federal bureaucracy work in mysterious ways. Just when you thought Flagler County would see no federal money for beach repairs, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday announced that it would appropriate $17.5 million to rebuild a 2.6-mile section of shore in Flagler Beach.
The news had local officials in county and city government celebrating today, with the Corps’ portion taking its place among county and state projects that are rebuilding and strengthening the shoreline.
“I think it’s great news,” Flagler Beach Commission Chairman Rick Belhumeur said. “Some of the money could b shifted around and make the rest of the project more robust to match it.”
“Overall this would drastically increase the restoration budget and create a very robust wide beach for all 6.25 miles in Flagler Beach,” County Administrator Craig Coffey wrote county and city officials. “There are many details to work out and we will need to get with our partners at the City to get everyone together, but this appears to be a project back on track with a fully-funded path forward.”
The money is part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, the two-year budget agreement Congress passed in February to end the prospect of a government shutdown. To the chagrin of fiscal conservatives, the Act provided a surge in discretionary spending for two years (and an expected surge in the annual budget deficit to $1.2 trillion by next year), including $17.4 billion in U.S. Army Corps projects alone. (See the full list here.) Fourteen of those projects are in Florida.
“In providing the current working estimates of funds required to fully fund these studies and construction projects, the Corps is showing its commitment to “moving dirt” and, more importantly, to completing studies and construction,” said R.D. James, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works.
It is an unexpected turnaround from where matters stood with the U.S. Army Corps just a year ago.
Long before Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, Flagler Beach and Flagler County governments were navigating the moving sands of a complicated U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to “renourish” 2.6 miles of beach in the city.
After more than a dozen years of talks and studies, what had been pegged at a $39 million plan in 2013 was off the table by 2016, when Coffey put forth a plan to fund beach repairs with state and local dollars. By last fall, even after Congress had authorized (but not appropriated) nearly $32 million for beach repairs ion Flagler Beach, Coffey was explaining to the county commission that pursuing an appropriation “could take years and years, and that could be another five or six years before we’d get our first grain of sand on the beach.” He preferred going ahead with Flagler County’s own $26 to $40 million plan, a more certain project to rebuild dunes that’s been under way for months.
Coffey said the county had been hearing “rumblings” that the Corps would return with money. “And we basically said, we’re in it, we’d be interested in revisiting this, we’re in it all or nothing, meaning we can’t go halfway,” Coffey said of the message sent the Army Corps. In other words, Flagler did not want to hear that it would get money for the design phase only and have to wait for construction money. It wanted the pledge of both at the same time.
That’s what it got Thursday, including enough money to cover what Flagler County has to provide in local match (money it will have to repay in the future).
So this is how the dunes-repair project looks now: Flagler County’s dunes-restoration project will continue to progress south, down to Flagler Beach. The state Department of Transportation will carry out its own portion of dunes repairs in Flagler Beach as part of a reconstruction of State Road A1A, a portion at the north end of town that will include a sea wall. The U.S. Army Corps will then pick up 2.6 miles of beachfront repair in Flagler Beach, though don;t expect to see new sands in the next few months: that’ll take longer.
“It’s going to be a very good, collaborative story, how everyone came together and worked on hardening and worked on dunes,” Coffey said.
But numerous details must be worked out in coming weeks and months, including the sort of inter-governmental agreements that will define how the projects all work together, whose responsibility stops where, who will be responsible for what portions of beach management in the long term, and so on.
One certain benefit of what will now be a federalized portion of beachfront in Flagler Beach: should another hurricane pass through and wash away the new dunes, that portion of beach will be the federal government’s responsibility to repair., Likewise, with Flagler and state governments investing so much money in rebuilding dunes elsewhere, it will become easier in the future to get reimbursement money for those dunes, should they wash away, now that they are considered part of the local government’s infrastructure.
The following is the email County Administrator Craig Coffey wrote Flagler Beach and County Commission members after hearing the U.S. Army Corps’ announcement of project funding:
Flagler Beach and Flagler County Commissioners,
I am writing to you regarding the 2.6 mile Army Corps Project in Flagler Beach. As many of you know, for years we have struggled to achieve the federal funding necessary to undertake this project. For years the design funding was proposed with no end in sight for the construction funding or even if it would qualify for such funding. Having been accepted as a federal project this baffled us as the project had the potential to drag on forever, with no conclusion. Even after the two hurricanes and the severe damage we incurred we could not get financial commitments past the design phase. We also hired a lobbying firm and went to Washington to secure funding after the disaster and discouraged FDOT from building a wall in this location in order to keep our ACOE opportunity open.
After much contemplation and no end game in sight we worked jointly with the City and FDOT to secure a sizeable amount of additional FDOT funding in addition to the FDOT funding we already had. We essentially could not pursue the ACOE option any further without a clear path forward. We advised the ACOE of this issue at all levels.
Fast forward to late 2017, we began to hear rumblings about funding at the federal level that may trickle down to move these projects forward. We again made our position clear that design money alone would not help us. I am happy to report that our project manager Jason Harrah and our Jacksonville ACOE Office (Colonel Kirk) have secured the full funding for the design and construction for the Army Corps project area including the advancement of the local match. This will be huge in several respects: Namely they will lead the charge in the permitting and the $12million plus can be utilized for the remaining 3.65 miles allowing a more robust project. Additionally the design and permitting cost can be shared resulting in savings. Overall this would drastically increase the restoration budget and create a very robust wide beach for all 6.25 miles in Flagler Beach.
There are many details to work out and we will need to get with our partners at the City to get everyone together, but this appears to be a project back on track with a fully-funded path forward.