When workers and their construction equipment began to dig up new swales along South Daytona Avenue in Flagler Beach, residents along the affected course were upset. They didn’t see it coming.
It wasn’t exactly a secret. Flagler Beach government had discussed it and taken action about it at commission meetings last year, since receiving a grant for it, but information about the planned project hadn’t gone out to residents with sufficient clarity, and residents aren’t generally glued to their video simulcasts of the meetings (which haven;t been working, anyway) to keep up with the cavernous details of localized city projects.
The project when approved last year was to stretch between 10th and 26th streets on South Daytona and Central avenues, though the Central Avenue segment is being delayed because of effects from the A1A reconstruction. Oak Street and Palm Drive are also due for swales.
And when the city engineer held a roadside meeting for residents Thursday evening, at the corner of South 15th Street and Daytona Avenue, some 30 residents who showed up were no less upset, including about the engineer’s chosen venue, in the midst of blustery winds that echoed blustery moods.
“I have several issues with the project, but lets first talk about the inappropriateness of having a meeting with residents in the middle of a city street,” Kare Padgett, a resident along the avenue, wrote City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur, who was also at the roadside gathering. “The project manager parked his truck in the grassy area near the corner of S. Daytona and 15th street and the residents gathered around him in a huddle and no one could hear what was being said or what questions were being asked because of the traffic in the street and the windy conditions. When asked why they were having a meeting in the street, the project managers reply was ‘because I was told to.’ None of the people there understood or could fathom why the meeting wasn’t held in the commission office, a place where we would have been out of the elements and in an environment more conducive to a meeting.”
Commissioners weren’t exactly bombarded by emails: swales in Flagler Beach aren’t anything new (City Commissioner Marshall Shupe had his yard dug up by the city’s contractors a few years ago). But the place and timing of these swales are what’s rankling the residents affected. Commissioners got only a handful of written reactions, one of whose subject line was: “Stupid idea to put swales along S. Daytona.” There was no additional wording to the email other than a request to the commissioners to call the writer–David Haas, a former county administrator.
Belhumeur isn’t opposed to the swales. He says it’s a done deal. But he didn’t like the manner and outcome of the roadside meeting, and spent part of the day today figuring out how to get a special meeting called to discuss it, and let residents voice their concerns. He had not succeeded–it takes two commissioners to call a special meeting, or the mayor–but by mid-afternoon, he was under the impression that a special meeting had been called. It is set for Wednesday, Feb. 12, at 4 p.m. in the commission chambers on South 2nd Street. “It’s like Kim said,” Belhumeur said, referring to fellow-Commissioner Kim Carney, who is currently chairing the commission. “It’s already been approved, the contract has already been awarded so there’s nothing we can do about it other than explain to these people why it’s being done.”
Asked why he was in contact about a city issue with Carney outside of a public meeting, he said “she sent me a text, just to let me know the meeting is coming up,” and that the issue “is already done and over with,” with no further commission votes ahead. “We cannot vote or do anything about this, it is budgeted, it’s going to get done, there’s nothing the commission can do about it.”
In fact, the notice from the city refers to a “City of Flagler Beach South Flagler Beach Swale Project Meeting,” and all commissioners were informed of the meeting and may attend it, but the notice also specifies that “The Elected Officials, who attend will not take any action or take any vote at this meeting. This is not an official meeting of the Flagler Beach City Commission.” (A previous version of this story had referred to it incorrectly as a special meeting of the commission.)
The city is executing, through contractor Kimley-Horn, a $500,000 grant from the St. Johns River Water Management District to dig new swales. City Manager Larry Newsom said the matter was approved by the district, discussed and ratified by the city commission. It’s to carry out an overdue necessity in Flagler Beach. “Typically there should have been swales a long time ago, we should have had a swale program probably way before I got here,” Newsom said.
The city commission ceremoniously accepted the check from the St. Johns Water Management District at its Feb. 14 meeting. Two weeks later, at its Feb. 28, 2019 meeting, it approved a $32,000 contract with Kimley-Horn for design and contract administration. The vote was unanimous. No members of the public spoke. Last Oct. 24, after Fred Griffith, the city engineer, detailed the project for commissioners, the commission awarded the actual construction contract, valued at $464,000, to Jacksonville-based W. Gardner LLC. Commissioner Shupe even asked whether the city would hold “tailgate” meetings–streetside meetings–to inform residents, and Griffith said he’d like to hold a town-hall style meeting. It was Shupe in fact, who “recommended the tailgate style neighborhood meeting,” according to records of that meeting. Only one person addressed the issue from the audience–a resident of North 12th Street entirely unaffected by it.
“We believe that we now have an outstanding storm water improvement project designed which will assist us in attenuating storm water flows and reducing the amount of storm water run- off down into the Flagler Avenue right-of-way and the alleyways between South 9th Street and South 26th Street,” an administrative memo to the commission stated at the time. “In addition it also includes the reconstruction of swales in several other poorly drained streets on both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway. These city streets have been experiencing similar situations of excess storm water run-off that is adversely affecting these residential neighborhoods from time to time. We remain hopeful that this project will in addition to reducing minor flooding or standing water in roadways will also serve to increase aquifer recharge, protecting our future wellfields, and reduce storm water run- off from being deposited into our saltwater estuaries of our area which are so valuable to our ecosystem in which we live and work.
But the city manager acknowledged that people may not be understanding why the swales are needed in front of their houses. Residents are complaining that the swales are not necessary because they don’t have a flooding problem. That may be the case, Newsom said, but the swales are being dug for two reasons. First, because swales are in and of themselves an environmentally sound way to filter runoff before it reaches the aquifer or a body of water like the Intracoastal.
Second, because allowing water to “percolate” in swales along one avenue means that the water is not flowing downhill against properties along lower avenues–and causing flooding there, which has been a problem. “The main purpose of the swales is to make sure the water that comes off the roadways based on storm events, doesn’t actually impeded on the houses,” Newsom said. “My goal is to keep the water out of the houses.”
There’s another issue from the residents’ perspective. “They’re not happy because a lot of the time they like to be able to park on the side of the road in front of their houses, and they still can,” Newsom said. The construction will interfere for a while.