It is the first step in what would be a significant re-definition of the county’s beaches, and it cost $250,000. Yet the manner in which the county commission discussed and approved the sizable appropriation today was remarkably opaque.
County government wants to re-designate its 12 miles of rebuilt dunes as a “Flood Protection and Wildlife Preservation facility.” The county hasn’t drafted the the legal paperwork yet, but County Attorney Al Hadeed said the designation would not harm property rights or values and would incorporate the recreational aspect of the beaches in the new designation.
To that end, the county commission this afternoon approved spending $250,000 for engineering work that will establish the so-called “erosion control line” to delineate the new designation.
Commissioners discussed the matter only verbally at a previous meetings, and in one-on-one discussions with the county administrator. Commissioners had not a single written document to back-up the expenditure or to present to the public for inspection, either before or after the meeting, nor clarity about what the money will pay for other than “engineering.” The administration later provided a reporter one document–an agreement between the county and Flagler Beach on dune-rebuilding, but that agreement controls only the rebuilding in the city, not the 12 miles of beach today’s appropriation addresses.
Commissioners heard only a vague statement by County Administrator Jerry Cameron about the source of the $250,000 appropriation: “Revenues from partnerships or agreements with people on the coast that stem from attempts to control beach erosion, so it’s like money being applied to a like project,” he said. “It is coming from a source that has a direct nexus to what it will be used for.” Commissioners did not ask for further details. John Brower, the county’s finance director, did not return a call. In a text, Cameron deferred questions to a spokesperson.
The spokesperson this evening clarified: the money is taken from “reimbursements” from private property owners–from Hammock Beach Club, Hammock Dunes and Ocean Hammock. The reimbursements were for part of the $20 million the county spent in 2018 and early 2019 to rebuild 12 miles of dunes, though it boasted doing so at $8 million under its original budget, and the agreements behind those expected reimbursements were based on that original project.
The purpose behind the redesignation, which must yet got through numerous steps, is to more easily tap into federal dollars and pay for three times as much sand on dunes as the county dumped on those 12 miles of dunes. Funding from the Federal Emergency Management Administration could be accessed “under much less onerous rules,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said, “so I think it behooves us as a county to get our entire beach built up to protect our citizens and their homes.”
Some 10 months ago, Flagler County government announced it had completed the rebuilding of 12 miles of dunes carved out by Hurricanes Matthew, Irma and an unnamed storm in 2016 and 2017. The $20 million project was paid for with federal, state and local dollars, including revenue from an increase in the local tourism sales surtax and money from the three homeowner associations.
The “sacrificial dunes,” as the county refers to them–they are intended to be a buffer to keep ocean waters from flooding the barrier island– were rebuilt with just 6 to 8 cubic yards of sand per linear foot of beach. The federal project about to begin rebuilding 2.6 miles of Flagler Beach’s dunes will dump three times that much–about 23 cubic yards of sand per foot, or a total of 350,000 cubic yards over the 2.6 miles.
The legislature and the governor must approve the re-designation. (Hansen will be lobbying state government to secure the designation.) There’s no guarantee that either will. There’s less guarantee that the county will find federal dollars to further rebuild its dunes: it took Flagler Beach and the county more than a decade and a half to go through the steps necessary to qualify for the federal beach-rebuilding project that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins next year in Flagler Beach, and to secure the $17 million dollars just for its first phase–and just for 2.6 miles of beach. The county signed an agreement with the Corps that has Flagler on the hook for at least $50 million of that project’s cost over the next few decades, even though the county has no idea how it will afford the bill, which is certain to grow. (The county can always bail from the agreement, but that means the Corps will abandon the periodic rebuilding of the beach, expected to take place every 11 years.)
“Once that’s done,” Hansen said of the designation, “then the bigger problem, the next problem, is actually come into funding to do the beach, and that means this opens the door to go to the feds.” In other words, the county also has no idea how it will pay for the additional 12 miles of dune-strengthening north of Flagler Beach, even if it gets the new designation–or how it would afford periodic renourishments on that scale, every decade, when it is already on the hook for upward of $10 million every decade in Flagler Beach. Those issues were not raised today.
“I don’t think the money is going to be there,” Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said after the meeting. “The amount of sand would be incredible. Incredible.”
Commissioner Donald O’Brien was concerned about the re-designation’s impact on private property.
“Is there any danger of us degrading someone’s property rights that are in this area,” he asked the county attorney.
“It would obviously depend on how it’s drafted,” Hadeed said. “But the way we would draft it initially is not to encroach on those right, essentially relying on our customary use designation that already exists by ordinance.” The county commission, behind Hadeed’s urging, last year passed an ordinance that ratifies the “customary use” of segments of private beaches by the public along the county’s shore. Private property extends to the high-tide waterline. But it has been customary for that private property to be used by the public over the years. The ordinance preserves that use and anticipated a state law that gave property owners new rights to restrict access.
“This does not take away any land owners’ property rights that extend out to the high water line, or the erosion control line,” Hansen said of Flagler’s planned re-designation.
O’Brien was assured that once Hadeed has the re-designation legal work drafted, the commission will get to “vet it and understand it and think through it,” in O’Brien’s words. Presumably, the documents will, this time, be included in the commission’s back-up material for public inspection as well.