Flagler Beach residents at the south end of town are getting no breaks. There was Hurricane Matthew’s shredding of State Road A1A in 2016, Hurricane Irma’s added erosion in 2017, road reconstruction this year, and now beach reconstruction set for next year.
Residents filled half the seats at the Government Services Building’s chambers earlier this week to hear explanations of, and ask questions about, the pending makeover along 2.6 miles, as the dunes are rebuilt with 550,000 cubic yards of sand dredged and piped in from a bar 10 miles offshore. The dunes will rise 19 feet, covering up the rock revetments in place now (not removing them) and creating a 40-foot berm that slopes down to the beach. The sand will naturally erode, re-exposing the rocks over time.
Concerns focused on the length of the project, its effects on dune walk-overs, on private property, on turtles and other living organisms along the beach (some of which will be obliterated), on cost and future such “renourishments,” should the dunes fail again.
“The whole purpose of this project is to avoid any kind of detriment that you saw to A1A after Matthew,” Project Manager Jason Harrah said. “We’re putting this dune out there to sacrifice itself when those waves come.”
The $17 million project is the culmination of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project a decade and a half in the works. It will be the first of a projected five such renourishments over the next 50 years, at a cost estimated today at $100 million. That cost is almost certain to rise: it has nearly tripled since the project was first conceptualized. In 2013, the federal government pegged the total cost of the identical project at $39 million. The following year, the cost had risen to $44 million.
Flagler County government will be responsible for half the cost of future “renourishments.” For the first renourishment next year, the federal government is paying 65 percent of the cost, leaving Flagler County responsible for 35 percent. The county got a $6 million grant from the state Department of Transportation to cover that burden. But Flagler has not lined up funding sources for future renourishments. Those details were not part of the discussion at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hearing.
The hearing’s scope was limited to the corps’ responsibilities, the timelines and breadth of the project and its impact on the beaches. Strictly speaking, it was a hearing on the “Erosion Control Line,” a technical term that delineates the zone on the beach that is public from the zone that is privately owned. Most beaches have such a line, as does the entire length of the project in Flagler Beach. The project is going to change the line, essentially adding 60 to 70 feet to the public size. The corps will be acquiring a so-called “perpetual” easement.
“That grants somebody that lives in Oklahoma that’s paying federal tax dollars of this money that the administration provided us, they have that right to go sit on the dry portion of the beach,” Harrah said. “They can’t sit on the dune, but on your property, they have the right to put a chair down, read a book, because they’ve used their tax dollars to build a beach.”
But in fact “there really is no private ownership in the sense that you can put up a fence and say no trespassing, coming up from the beach,” County Attorney Al Hadeed said. Flagler Beach confirmed the “customary use of the beach” by the public with an ordinance in 2018, as did the county. That makes the erosion control line in Flagler Beach more of a technicality.
The private walkovers are not part of that customary use. There are 42 walk-overs in the project area, many of them private. They won’t be necessarily covered over by sand, but corps officials left it unclear whether the walkovers will be usable at all times. They said the walkovers would be packed with sand, with sand over the steps to some extent, making them possibly impassable, at least for a few months. Over time, the sand will naturally erode, re-exposing the walkovers.
Plans and permits are to be completed by Jan. 17, the contracts advertised through the end of February and awarded at the end of March. Construction would start in mid-May and end in December 2020. Harrah said the contractor would cover 500 feet of beach per day. That made no sense to some in the audience, since at that rate the project would be completed in a matter of weeks, not months. But the disparity remained unexplained beyond Harrah saying that nothing stops the contractor, who will be working 24 hours a day, from finishing the project months in advance.
“Flagler Beach is very fortunate to have this project. This is one of 28 projects we have in the state of Florida,” Harrah said.
One resident raised concerns about the type of sand that will be dredged in. It will not be the rust-colored coquina sand that gives Flagler’s beaches their distinctive character. “It will look strikingly different at the time of construction,” Engineering Consultant Chris Creed said. “But through time there will be a blending of this material that will adjust more back to the natural conditions as more coquina shell begins migrating on shore.” He conceded that some living organisms in the coquina sand will be obliterated, but then will “repopulate” over time.
The project ends at South 28th Street. But the county has plans to continue an identical project, on its own dime (with state grant dollars) south of 28th.
Should there be a named storm that devastates the dunes again, with the area declared as a federal disaster area, the federal government will pay for 100 percent of the repairs to that segment of beach. But in case of lesser storms that damage the beach, Flagler County government would have to assume 50 percent of the cost of repairs, the same proportion the county must pay in expected major renourishments every 10 to 12 years.