Meeting this morning in Palatka, the St. Johns River Water Management District congratulated itself for the way it has been “engaging” with the public in Flagler Beach and Flagler County regarding a planned wetlands restoration project in Flagler Beach. Its own officials hailed their staffers’ “professionalism,” how the public “really appreciated” the district’s way of reaching out to “stakeholders,” and how the latest public meeting on the issue proved to be a “positive exchange.”
But district officials seemed to be presenting an alt version of a project that has provoked more controversy, opposition and distrust that not.
A presentation to a district board committee intended as an update on the project this morning, by Erich Marzolf, director of the district’s division of water and land resources, focused on the district’s efforts and process, and largely papered any suggestion of deep divisions or opposition. The district’s interpretation suggests that while it is going through the motions of engaging with the opposition, there’s little doubt that project itself will proceed.
The water management district is planning a $516,000 “restoration” of some 113 acres of wetlands along the Intracoastal south of Flagler Beach by demolishing marsh piles built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more than half a century ago in an ill-fated attempt at reengineering the area to suppress the mosquito population. The reengineering in fact helped demolish wetlands, which the district now wants to restore. It has done so on hundreds of acres elsewhere.
But in Flagler Beach, the community east of John Anderson Highway–always an environmentally and politically potent force in the county, most recently managing to stop a planned emergency cell tower in the area–has rallied mostly in opposition to the project, claiming it has not been researched enough or proven to be needed. Residents fear the effects on their property and fishermen fear the effect on their catch. But others in the region have also embraced the project, seeing it as an important and necessary way to bring back wetlands and slow erosion.
On Sept. 11 the water management board voted to approve the $516,000 contract but to delay a notice to proceed pending further interaction with opponents, through two public meetings and written exchanges, and through discussions with local governments, through neither the Flagler County Commission nor the Flagler Beach City Commission had been involved more than to the extent that they heard constituents’ reactions about the project. Neither government is much interested in alienating the district, whose grants they seek.
Opponents have focused their energy on two public meetings held since, and in written campaigns. The first public meeting was actually an open house, with no formal presentation or question-and-answer period, and it was held at Flagler Beach City Hall. Quarters were cramped and many of those who went left dissatisfied. The district moved the next meeting to the far roomier Santa Maria del Mar Church, brought in a moderator, held a long Q&A, then opened the floor to public comment. That’s when a solid majority (but not a totality) of the 15-odd people who spoke voiced strong opposition from a range of perspectives.
And that’s what Marzolf, who was at the meeting, avoided speaking of to the district panel this morning, hewing almost exclusively to procedures in the past few weeks than to substantive issues that have divided the two sides.
“We have been very busy addressing questions that we received from the dedicated email address, from emails directly to staff, we’ve been meeting with local government officials, taking them on tours,” Marzolf told members of the district’s Lands and Natural Systems Committee, which met today before the full meeting of the district board.
He spoke of how the nearby state park will allow the use of local vegetation to “revegetate” the new wetlands, of concerns with DDT, turbidity barriers and oyster reefs, all of which, he said, are being addressed. “This is another area where we welcome participation by stakeholders, if they know of a reef,” Marzolf said. He summarized what had been presented to the public last week, including a new map showing the project moving some distance further away from private properties, to ease residents’ fears about the project’s impact.
He briefly spoke of the Q&A taking “maybe two thirds” of the meeting’s time, and said: “We were very happy to see board members in attendance,” naming Board Chairman John Miklos, Alan Roberts and Chuck Drake. “The last portion of the meeting was a public comment session, so the public was able to make whatever comments they felt. I will say, after the meeting, we stayed around for probably another hour, both inside and outside the church, talking with folks, answering questions, discussing various issues, and that completes my update for this month.”
That was it. Marzolf never once sought to speak of the tenor or depth of the opposition.
A couple of board members spoke. “The public really appreciated the new venue, they really appreciated the board being represented by the chairman and Chuck, and it was well received by everyone,” Roberts, who was at the church, said, though while members of the public did speak appreciatively of the venue, the presence of board members was not especially remarked. “Not sure that we changed any minds, but it was appreciated and it was really a move in the right direction,” Roberts said.
“This is the way we should do business, it may not always change minds but at least they see the professionalism in the way we go about our business,” Doug Burnett, who chairs the committee, said. “This is the kind of process that keeps the ripples off the pond with the leadership in Tallahassee, and same in the press. They see how we do business. We don’t get a goose egg when we give it our best effort.”
Board member Janet Price said she hadn’t been at the church but had watched the video of the meeting, describing what she saw as a “positive exchange.”
The discordance of the board members’ interpretation of the Santa Maria del Mar meeting was underscored when the district moved to its full meeting and two people addressed the full board on the issue during the public comment segment.
“You have zero science to back up the rationale for this project,” Betty Ledyard told the board. “You have no compassion for the financial hardships and losses this invasive degradation will create. You are ignoring sea level rise, and in the coming years the marsh will be swamped and the minimal benefits gained will be lost. You have even recognized this fact. You do not have a clearly defined monitoring program.”
Ledyard and her husband Cass, who also addressed the board, own a 26-acre property that stretches north to south along the marsh on the west side of the Intracoastal, parallel to John Anderson Highway. She went on: “You have been an absolute bully, you have not listened to the massive outcry. Individually I’m sure you’re all wonderful people, but individually on this project you have lied to us on multiple occasions.”
Board members did not address the issue when the full board was in session.
Unlike the Sept. 11 meeting, when the wetlands restoration project was up for approval and a dozen people addressed the board, today’s meeting did not draw that sort of attendance, though the board’s decision on issuing a notice to proceed was not on the agenda, either. Based on Marzolf’s update and board members’ interpretation of the issue, that step is likely just a question of time.