The Flagler County Commission on Monday is on the verge of approving an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to “renourish” 2.6 miles of beaches in Flagler Beach. It is one of the most consequential and costly agreements the county will be signing in years, its cost and engineering feat dwarfing even the 11.4-mile dune renourishment project the county undertook over the past month, and just completed for $18 million.
The renourishment, with 320,000 cubic yards of ocean sand dredged from seven miles offshore and much darker than native coquina sand, will build and maintain higher and wider dunes but only between South 6th and South 28th Street. It will do so for the next 50 years at a cost of $100 million. Half that cost will be Flagler County’s responsibility.
The cost is certain to be far higher as years pass: the cost estimate has already more than doubled in just six years. In 2013, the federal government pegged the total cost of the identical project at $39 million. The Corps presentation included in the county commission’s background material for MOnday’s meeting still includes the 2014 cost of $44 million.
The wildly varying figures and the way they’ve been thrown around even in official county documents reflect both analytical and scientific sloppiness, if not calculated fuzziness, in the way the project continues to be presented to the public. And it explains why even county and Flagler Beach officials have only a cursory understanding of it. In an interview today, even Jerry Cameron, the county administrator, referred a reporter to Faith al-Khatib, the county engineer, for details on the project, saying the bulk of its 15-year genealogy predates him. “I don’t have the details on why those decisions were made,” Cameron said. “Every meeting I’ve sat in internally with the Corps has always been from the assumption–this is what we’re doing.”
The public has been allowed to speak about the project during public-comment periods at December’s workshop, but there’s not been a formal public hearing about it
The project is fraught with uncertainties, costs not least among them, but also some advantages.
Higher dunes will protect State Road A1A and the homes and businesses behind the dunes, and the beaches in front of them, thus preserving the county’s and Flagler Beach’s single most valuable tourism and recreation asset. Should a storm wash them away, the federal government will assume 100 percent of the cost of replacement for the duration of the 50-year project.
The first phase of the project alone, which would stretch between May and December 2020, will cost $17.5 million. The federal government is paying $11.4 million of that. Flagler’s responsibility is $6.1 million. The county has secured the money, but only for that initial phase. It’s doing so with more than $5 million in state dollars, $3.7 million of it left-over from its own dune-restoration project, and $1 million in local tax dollars, from tourism sales surtax revenue.
Flagler has none of the money for subsequent phases. But the agreement calls for at least four subsequent renourishment phases, at intervals of 11 years on average, and possibly more, should the Corps decide it’s needed.
Those renourishments are projected to cost $81 million in current dollars, substantially more in inflation-adjusted dollars, with Flagler responsible for $40.6 million of that. Based on recent history and trends, it’s possible that the second phase alone in 20 or 11 years will cost the county around $40 million.
Watch Beach Renourishment on Coney Island
Cameron and al-Khatib say a combination of tourist sales surtax revenue and state grants will have to cover the costs, though when Coffey, the ex-administrator, spoke of future costs, he also included the county’s regular sales tax as potential revenue. Going the route of the tourist tax would lock down limited tourist tax revenue for half a century. Some of that revenue is earmarked for beach repairs anyway, but for the entire county’s shoreline, which itself has burdensome needs. That was the revenue substantially used to repair the 11.4 miles of county dunes after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma. By so disproportionately committing tourist tax revenue just for Flagler Beach’s 2.6 miles of dunes, it would limit or erase dollars available for other beach repairs and reduce money available for the county’s promotional expenses or its capital expenses for tourism or culture.
“Amy certainly has a concern that the amount she has to work with to promote tourism is diminished,” Cameron said of Amy Lukasik, who heads the county’s tourism bureau, “but this is like everything else, limited resources and lots of demands, you have to make choices.”
Reliance on state grants is hazardous: state grants depend on legislative largesse. Flagler is enjoying that sort of largesse now because its legislative delegation has seniority and power. It will have neither when the next renourishment is due, by which time both its House member and senator will have been term-limited out.
And the project doesn’t take sea rises into account, even though sea levels are projected to rise from 14 to 34 inches by 2060 in this area, and from 31 to 81 inches by the end of the century at the south end of the state.
The federal government’s funding source is itself just as uncertain, as the agreement with Flagler makes clear. The federal government need only give Flagler a 30-day notice to inform it that federal funds have dried up, and that the project will not go forward. Renourishment may then be suspended or scrapped altogether. “In addition, the Government may suspend construction of periodic nourishment if the Maximum Cost Limit is exceeded,” the agreement reads. The Maximum Cost Limit is a legal limit set out in the Water Resource Development Act.
Even the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ top officials cast doubt on the viability of a 50-year project. “The curve starts going like this with the costs going way up, the benefits start coming way down, but we do have 25, 30 years to make those decisions,” Joe Vietri, director of the Corps’ national planning center of expertise for coastal and storm risk management, told the PBS Newshour while explaining the renourishment taking place at Coney Island, Brooklyn, in 2013. In the 1920s, Coney Island was the first beach in the nation to be renourished. It hasn’t stopped since, but that doesn;t mean it’ll continue indefinitely.
“You have to be able to adapt to a very changing future scenario,” Vierti said. “But I would not suggest to you that 30 years from now or 35 years from now, that that still might make a lot of sense.”
The Flagler project is based on a 50-year scenario.
The county administration this week issued a release and a save-the-date announcement in quick succession written as if the County Commission will approve the deal regardless when it meets at 5 p.m. Monday. But some commissioners still have questions, particularly about the long-term financing. Yet the save-the-date notice, issued yesterday afternoon to government officials and local media, announced a “ceremonial signing of the agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers for our federal beach project” on July 23.”
The notices recalled the now-defunct Craig Coffey era, when the then-administrator pushed issues through the commission with heavy-handed assumptions that it would rubber-stamp whatever was presented. Coffey had used that approach at a joint December workshop with the county and Flagler Beach commissions to win conceptual approval for the Corps project–the same project he himself had rejected only two years earlier.
The notice angered County Commissioner Dave Sullivan, who was at a week-long conference of the state’s county association in Orlando and had not been prepped about the matter so he could field emails or calls from constituents and Flagler Beach officials about it–or even know that he’d be dealing with the matter on Monday. (“I should have been given advance warning,” Sullivan said.) The release was also issued before the Flagler Beach City Commission heard a presentation and discussed the matter Thursday evening, though that commission gave its go-ahead (as it had in 2016).
“We’ve always been willing to go along with it,” Flagler Beach City Manager Larry Newsom said. “We just wanted to know exactly how it was going to be funded, so I think the board is satisfied with the funding program.” Flagler Beach Commissioner Rick Belhumeur, who’d raised issues with future funding, said he was satisfied with the knowledge that the county could bail out of the project at any point.
“Are we locked into something? They said no, the corps said no,” Newsom said.
That’s true, but with caveats. If the county were to stop participating in the project, either because it can’t finance its share or because its voters decide they no longer want to go that route, it may do so without financial penalty. But the federal government will withdraw from the project “unless,” the contract with the corps states, “the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) determines that continuation of such work is in the interest of the United States or is necessary in order to satisfy agreements with other non-Federal interests.” On the other hand, if Flagler were to commit to any phase of the project but fail to pay that share after committing, it will be liable for extremely steep interest rates on payments due.
The agreement was drafted for the county by County Attorney Al Hadeed and Corps District Commander Andrew Kelly and would bear their signature, along with that of County Commissioner Donald O’Brien.
“I’m in favor of us somehow getting this project done, just because of the federalization aspect of it alone,” O’Brien said, referring to the federal government’s responsibility should a major storm wash away that portion of the beach. It’s not an innovation, he said, considering how much beach renourishment takes place elsewhere in the nation, or regionally. “That’s the same thing that’s happened with communities north and south of us, but the devil is in the details on the funding side of it.”
In fact, Flagler’s version of beach renourishment is very distinct from those the Corps has undertaken elsewhere, from Coney Island to Miami. In all other places, the Corps dumps sand on the beach itself. Flagler’s is a dune-rebuilding project. When a Corps official was asked at a public meeting in Bunnell six years ago if the Corps had undertaken an y such project elsewhere in Florida, he was not aware of one.
But the longevity of the timeline worries O’Brien. “I would be concerned about committing future commissions to a major project like that, that may not be what people want,” he said. “So if it’s a situation where we can have an option in the future, then that would make me feel more comfortable about it.”
Once the project starts, it won’t be pretty. At least not until the bulldozers are done spreading the sand. The dredged sand will be piped in from offshore and belched onto a portion of beach in a dark and voluminous slurry. That big pipe will emerge in the south staging area of the project, on the beach, parallel to the Flagler Beach water tower. That beach parking area will be closed to the public for the duration. The contractor will also stage equipment at North 3rd Street, just north of the pier, for fuel equipment.
In brief, here’s what to expect during and immediately after the months of construction, as summarized by the county:
- Contract will stage equipment near the beach (metal pipe, trucks, etc.).
- Construction will likely occur 24/7 until complete.
- Sand will be pumped onto the beach from offshore and graded into place by bulldozers and other equipment.
- Sections of the beach will be closed off while working.
- Updated progress maps will be published on social media and local news.
• Safety personnel will be on site to direct the general public away from potential hazards.
- Beach will naturally reshape and equilibrate.
- Escarpments will form along the new template (local sponsor is responsible to remove and maintain beach template).
- Dune vegetation will be planted by the Corps.
- Walkovers will naturally become exposed as sand erodes.
- Signs will be posted warning the public to stay off the newly constructed dunes (local sponsor responsibility).
- Protection measures will be implemented for new dunes (i.e. fencing, marking areas of walkovers, etc.).
- The Corps and the county will monitor the beach frequently to determine when renourishment is needed or soon after major storm events.