Flagler County government is looking for permission from almost 150 property owners along the shore in Flagler Beach to use their beachside properties over the next few months–and in perpetuity–to save the beach in what one official describes as the single-largest public works project ever conducted in Flagler.
County officials led by County Attorney Al Hadeed appeared before scores of Flagler Beach property owners and residents Tuesday afternoon at a church hall in the city to make their plea: sign those easements, and let the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers do its work. It’s an enormous project that would quite literally rebuild and expand more than two miles of beach south of the pier, in recognition of rising seas’ unstoppable creep against shore.
“This is a very important project we’re going to make for the future of Flagler Beach,” County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan told the crowd. “We need your help to make this project come true.” A diehard Republican, Sullivan quoted Ronald Reagan’s famous quip ridiculing government–”We’re from the government and we’re here to help”–but said that in this case, “that’s true today.”
Asked if he and county government were recognizing the perils of rising seas, Sullivan demurred, then said: “We’re fighting for the life of Flagler Beach, I’ll say that.”
The county is scrambling somewhat: though this project has been dragging for more than a dozen years, all of a sudden the county has a deadline of March 25 to get all the signatures. “The due date for our easements is per our agreement with the Army Corps and is driven by the production schedule,” Hadeed said. “It takes into account the procurement process which for the major contractor cannot occur until we know precisely what areas will be renourished.”
By the time the meeting opened, 54 property owners had signed. The county needed 87 more. It had arraigned the free help of a title company, a title attorney and the presence of state and federal officials to buttress its case which, judging from the mild and largely supportive reaction at the public forum, was not drawing much resistance.
There clearly was an element of government and peer pressure on property owners to sign, with those who’d not sign made to look like refuseniks indifferent to their neighbors and to the beach’s survival. But a colloquially-rich pitch from Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston to the crowd probably did more to convince reluctant signers than the county’s more technically detailed presentation.
“If your neighbor doesn’t sign, you’re going to be at risk,” Johnston said, ripping a piece of paper to illustrate how, if one property owner refused to sign while two property owners on either side did sign, the beach would create a funnel-like gap in the reconstructed sands that would by no means be limited to the refusenik. Johnston had first mollified the audience with memories of when “I had the first bikini in Flagler Beach,” and of wading out to sand bars in the good old days–sand bars she urged the beach renourishers to bring back.
Sometime this spring a hopper dredger will start excavating sand seven miles offshore of Flagler Beach and piping it to shore, a $17 million project a decade and a half in the works. Over the following months, upwards of 320,000 cubic yards of sand will be dumped along 2.6 miles of Flagler Beach’s shore, building up new, broader dunes and extending the beach visibly into the ocean. It’s Flagler County’s first “beach renourishment” project in its history.
It will not be its last.
In recognition of rising seas and consequently more eroding damage from storms–even tropical storms or severe, unnamed storms–the project is an effort to stave off what is now predicted to be the inevitable shearing off of coastal real estate by accelerating sea rise over the course of the century–by as much as an inch every three years, according to sealevelrise.org’s analysis for Florida. As of last summer sea levels were 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. But those projections may now be at the low end of estimates.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is driving the project, expects four subsequent “renourishments” in Flagler Beach at 10 to 11-year intervals, at an additional cost of $80 million based on today’s projections, though the actual cost–between inflation, rising costs, and a history of previously much lower estimates–the cost is likely to be exponentially higher. And that’s just within the 50-year window of the current project, which assumes a lot. One of those assumptions is that there will be a beach in 50 years, and that State Road A1A will still be where it is today.
The federal government is assuming 65 percent of the initial $17 million cost. But Flagler County government or local cities are not shouldering any part of the initial cost. “All of the funding for contractors to be engaged for this 2.6 miles of work is coming from the Corps and FDOT grants,” Hadeed said, referring to the state Department of Transportation. “The same is true for the non-federal project area in Flagler Beach that will follow the Army Corps work.”
In future years, the federal government will pay half the cost of subsequent renourishments. It’ll be Flagler County’s responsibility to pay the rest, or find the money to do so, through state and other grants, or by using revenue from the tourism sales surtax. But if, say, a hurricane or a named storm devastates the coast and Flagler is declared a federal disaster area, then the federal government will pick up 100 percent of the cost of rebuilding the beach in that particular instance, because the Corps project is essentially federalizing that segment of beach. The same principle does not apply to the remainder of Flagler’s 18 miles of beach–just those 2.6 miles within the Corps’ scope.
The county has already carried out a dune rebuilding project on its own on 12 miles of beach north of Flagler Beach. But it did so with one-tenth the sand the U.S. Army Corps project is dumping, and the work was limited to the dunes. It did not create new beach, as the Corps project is expected to do. Nevertheless, it is Flagler County’s long-term intention to replicate the Corps project on all 18 miles of Flagler County’s beaches. The cost is prohibitive, and the county has no idea how it will accomplish that goal. It is hoping to secure federal dollars, but such dollars are increasingly scarce: Flagler County is not the only coastal community in the United States facing rising seas. The Florida coastline alone stretches 1,350 miles.
Once the Corps project gets under way later this year, contractors will work in construction zones of 1,000 to 1,500-ft increments, and hope to move at a rate of 200 to 700 feet per day. They will work 24 hours a day. They will not affect residents’ walkovers. If any such walkovers are damaged, the Corps will repair them on its dime. The renourishment and the easements will not prevent property owners from using their property just as they have previously, including the building of decks or walkovers.
Below is a Q&A with Hadeed.
You said you need to get the easements by March 25. Why that particular deadline, considering that the project is about 12 to 14 years old? Whose deadline is it?
The due date for our easements is per our agreement with the Army Corps and is driven by the production schedule. It takes into account the procurement process which for the major contractor cannot occur until we know precisely what areas will be renourished. All of our key permits are now in hand with some miscellaneous items still being finalized. Our expectation is that finalizing the miscellaneous items will coincide with the completion of our easement efforts. We have to do a formal certification of the lands to the Army Corps on or before March 31st to stay on schedule.
The reason we are now commencing to procure the easements is because we were not fully funded until December 2, 2019. We determined in house that proceeding during the holiday season with property owners and the public would not be fruitful.
Is there a ratio below which the project could not go forward? Say, if 10 percent or more of property owners don’t sign? Can a property owner sign on after the March 25 deadline?
Re the percentage of easements to obtain, we are aiming for 100%, as that provides the greatest protection in blunting major storm force winds and tides. On the 12 mile stretch we obtained 95% of the private properties and were able to proceed with the project without sacrificing its structural integrity or purpose. Notably, some of those who did not grant the easements are now seeking them, an opportunity we welcome for the future. There is no option, however, of signing on to the Army Corps project after the deadline. If we do not secure 100%, together with the Army Corps and other partners we will have to revisit the project to assess whether performance objectives can be met. While I cannot speculate on a percentage, we need a very near unanimous number of easements to proceed. This is a performance driven project in every sense, as I outlined at the meetings yesterday and in other venues.
How much tourism sales surtax dollars (or Tourist Development Council dollars) are being used for this project? And isn’t TDC money tapped out as far as the next round of renourishment is concerned, 10 or 11 years from now?
We are not using TDC funding in this phase of the work. All of the funding for contractors to be engaged for this 2.6 miles of work is coming from the Corps and FDOT grants. The same is true for the non-federal project area in Flagler Beach that will follow the Army Corps work. it will be funded from outside grants and no TDC funds.
It is true, however, that for the 12 mile effort we did use TDC funds to get us to the finish line on that project. The majority of that funding came from various sources — a legislative appropriation, an emergency grant from the Governor, from DEP funding, FEMA funding for our public beach lands, and from special assessments from the Hammock Dunes DRI area.
That is not to say that we will never apply TDC funding, but the scale of these kinds of projects is far beyond what TDC funds provide annually. We can look to them, however, to partially subsidize any shortfall in funding or when we have a unique need for grant matches or other unique circumstance that we cannot presently predict.
Fundamentally, the efforts to finance the beach work to date characterize our efforts to seek and obtain funding from diverse sources. While I have no crystal ball about what future governments will do, that is the approach, necessarily, we will pursue in the future, including specifically for the post-construction/installation costs you reference.
As for those future costs, the City of Flagler Beach is, with the concurrence and support of the County, negotiating with the FDOT for an annual grant that will allow the City to maintain the dunes. With respect to periodic renourishments, it is a 50-50 proposition. We have to match the Army Corps amount. The costs and degree of work is unknown and will depend upon the conditions then existing. This will be influenced by the cycle of natural events but also whether the Army Corps has renourished the beach after a declared storm.
For the balance of the new dunes in Flagler Beach for which the Army Corps has no present responsibility, they will be considered “engineered beaches” with the requisite easements and, therefore, will be eligible for FEMA funding. Our routine match for FEMA projects is 12.5% unless we can influence the state to pay the local share (as once was approved for the rebuilding of the beaches at Marineland in 2001) or we are able to obtain funds from other sources. By necessity, we are entrepreneurial in our approach.
There was no mention of the words”sea rise” once yesterday, though this seems to be the central problem. Why no mention of sea rise, what is the county or the Corps doing to account for expected sea rise even in the near term, and isn’t the project, especially in its 50-year span, nullified by what are now predictions of much higher sea-level rise than expected even a few years ago?
Concerning sea level rise, the Army Corps’ engineering analysis took into account the latest sea level rise data for the 50 year life of the project. The resulting design is based on that science and the data available. The design is intended to meet the challenges of sea level rise, but note that this does not mean that the analysis is static. That is, when renourishment is on the table, the Army Corps along with other stakeholders can evaluate what has changed in order to adjust design principles for the renourishment.
This is no way to claim that the project will insulate us from a major category storm that hits our beaches directly or close enough to have a catastrophic impact. But this step we are taking is presenting a substantial mitigation measure to blunt the force of any major storms. The restored dunes should be viewed as not only a recreational and environmental enhancement, but in dire times, it is designed to dissipate the storm impact. The dunes and their sand and vegetation are in essence sacrificed to protect what we have.
Our knowledge of the beach environment will not be static or fixed in terms of design considerations. The County has responsibilities under the permits to monitor the condition of the beach after completion of the work, which we would do anyway. Also, the Army Corps’ connection with the dune restoration will similarly be dynamic. The Army Corps will assess the status of the beach restoration along with County, and I am sure the other stakeholders will offer their perspectives for consideration. This approach is integral to our performance based approach to the project.