Last Updated: 9 p.m.
A project 15 years in the works to preserve 2.6 miles of shoreline in Flagler Beach is on the verge of collapse over the opposition of just 13 property owners whose opposition to signing easements the county attorney describes as extortionist. The alternative might be a sea wall.
The lawyer representing most of the property owners, however, says the county’s tactics have been intimidating and alienating, while the city has used tactics he described as blackmail.
The project, designed to protect the homes and businesses along A1A and A1A itself by building a robust dune system with massive amounts of sand dredged offshore, had finally got a $17.5 million congressional appropriation two years ago and $8 million in state funding shortly after that, precluding Flagler County or Flagler Beach from contributing any local dollars. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was preparing to move ahead and complete the project by next year.
Flagler County government had to secure 141 easements from property owners so the Corps could dump the sand on their property. The dumping was not to remove or interfere with property rights, vistas or beach access so much as theoretically improve the properties and almost certainly prolong the properties’ viability on a segment of shore slowly being ravaged by erosion and rising seas.
The county secured all but 15 of the 141 easements. Thirteen property owners (two of them owning two parcels each) have refused to sign, 10 of them because they want money from the county, even though all other property owners did not get money and the county has no money to give out–not for a project that will in fact improve property owners’ properties, in the county’s view. The other property owners are resisting because they worry they’ll lose their view of the ocean, or their beach access.
The 10 retained the same lawyer, Clearwater’s John LeRoux, an eminent domain and property rights specialist.
“All you’re hearing is the county’s perspective and the city’s perspective, and what they want to do for a public project. These owners haven’t asked for this, and they certainly haven’t asked to be treated this way,” LeRoux said late this afternoon. (LeRoux returned a call immediately after this article initially published. He said it was his first interview with a media outlet since the beginning of the county’s campaign to get the easements. “I did not want to get into any sort of words within the press I wanted to keep our lines of communications honest and open,” he said, referring to Hadeed. He changed his mind when the matter was being aired openly, but from one side.)
“They tried to intimidate people, they showed up on doors when people were supposed to be separating,” LaRoux said, citing Hadeed, Suzanne Johnston, the county tax collector, Matt Doughney, the Flagler Beach police chief, and a fourth individual (a staffer with Johnston) who knocked on doors. “They had people standing on their doorsteps wanting to talk about easements, they weren’t wearing facemasks.” Some of the tactics were successful, LaRoux said, since they secured easements, “but with some people it had the opposite effect,” alienating the rest. “That turns off a lot of people.”
His clients, he said, have been contacted through Facebook messages, through cell phones whose numbers had not been given out, and through city notices such as the one about beach walk-overs. LaRoux said the city told the hold-outs that they could not get permits for future walkovers as the walkovers would be considered hazardous. (That claim has not been verified.)
Hadeed confirmed that he was part of the quartet of officials LaRoux cited, who visited some 20 property owners in mid-May, though Hadeed himself, he said, remained off each property unless asked a question, which was the case in one particular instance where the property owner at 1600 South Oceanshore Blvd. (one of the owners who owns two parcels) was unhappy with the visit. But Hadeed said the quartet was wearing masks, was distancing, and was wearing highway vests to clearly identify them. He cast doubt on any of them being intimidating, least of all Johnston, whose demeanor tends to approximate that of Maggie Smith in Dowton Abbey. “Can you see Suzanne being threatening? It doesn’t ring true,” Hadeed said. “Maybe they perceived her–she’s from the government–maybe they perceived her being threatening.”
Hadeed said there was nothing nefarious about what he termed a “walkabout.”
“I referred to it a little bit jokingly as a walkabout, but I announced that at a public meeting that we were going to do that, that there were a number of people we couldn’t reach and we were going to go door to door,” with a notary and a witness, Hadeed said. “They went strictly to make contact, Matt came along just to make sure everything went smoothly.”
The beach-rebuilding project entails dumping 330,000 cubic yards of sand dredged from a sand bar 10 miles offshore and shaped into a 10-foot dune along 2.6 miles of beach south of the Pier, between South 6th and South 28th Street. Every property owner that refuses to sign an easement creates a gap in the dune wall that plunders the viability of the project, accentuating erosion in those portions and potentially endangering the properties behind it. For that reason, “they need a 100 percent participation by owners in order to proceed with the project,” County Attorney Al Hadeed said of the Corps.
So the viability of the entire project has come down to 10 owners who would “essentially extort us into writing checks to them,” Hadeed said, and three additional owners who are resisting for other reasons.
If the project doesn’t go ahead, Hadeed said, the Florida Department of Transportation could revisit plans to build a sea wall or retaining wall along A1A, an options Flagler Beach residents have opposed because of its unsightliness and potential long-term damage to the broadness of the beach. But the transportation department is focused on one thing: preserving its road. “They own a lot more land than people realize,” Hadeed said of DOT and the east side of A1A. “We might well be seeing them go back and revisit that engineering solution and put up a retaining wall.”
The county has been seeking easements since the beginning of the year. It has already burned through a March 25 deadline previously set by the Corps, as it’s kept pleading with property owners. “We’re fighting for the life of Flagler Beach,” County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said in the context of a February meeting with property owners, where the county made an all-out pitch for the easements. By then 54 property owners had signed. The county then secured 72 more.
But the 13 remaining property owners have formed an invisible wall of their own.
“If we can’t get this logjam broken within the next couple of weeks, this is essentially a dead project,” County Administrator Jerry Cameron said. “The Corps is not going to move forward with gaps in it. I don’t know how we would deal with that unless these folks come to the conclusion that we are in fact improving their property considerably by this effort. And if in their own interest and the civic interest they are unwilling to cooperate with what is a very beneficial project, I think that we’re essentially dead in the water.”
The county and Flagler Beach residents have been desperate to convince the hold-outs to sign. Commissioner Hansen wanted a letter sent to each of the property owners saying, “you’ve got to decide now. There is no money. I mean, just make it formal. That’s it. This is your last chance. Either join us or the project is dead. They need to know the weigh of their decision.” But the county has already made those entreaties, and the property owners have nothing to lose by not signing–except potentially losing their properties and endangering the loss of property for those along the segment.
Hadeed has compared the situation to a bunch of property owners whose roofs are caving in, with government proposing to fix their roofs at no charge, only to be asked by the property owners: “How much will you pay me?”
Those property owners think that “if they wait to the very end, that the governments are so desperate, that we will start writing checks,” Hadeed said. “Well, a, there is no other money, because all the money that we’ve had, we put it into the dune restoration project. Every penny. If we were to start paying people, well, that’s money taken away from the ability to build and restore dunes in Flagler Beach and Flagler County. So the only thing we’re asking is permission to do the project. We’re not taking the land. We don’t want ownership. We don’t want to acquire any property interest. We’re going to go and restore the property. We’re going to create lands where there is no land. We’re going to enhance views. We’re going to enhance the access to the beach. And in doing so, we are not creating any damage to their property or to their property interests. In fact, we’re conferring value to their property and protection.”
Hadeed also spoke to the fairness of it: the 80-some property owners who have signed easements did so without expectations of money. It would not be fair to them if any payments were made to remaining property owners just because they held out longer.
The money nine of the 10 property owners LaRoux is representing would amount to about $15,000 per parcel, for the beachside parcel the county is seeking to get easements for, or what would have amounted to $135,000.
Asked how the property owners he represents consider the easement an infringement on their property rights, LaRoux referred to the current legal language of the agreement: “It is overly broad,” he said, adding, referring to Hadeed: “He even said in the subsequent project that they do without the U.S. Army he would not use this language because it’s too much in favor of the government.” From that, LaRoux is interpreting the language as a taking. “Doesn’t that in and of itself tell you there is something being taken away from you?”
Hadeed doesn’t see it that way: property owners’ parcels are being improved, not taken. And he says LaRoux’s $15,000 gambit is incomplete on two scores. First, he agrees that LaRoux pointed him in the direction of a provision in the agreement that opens the way for a payment–as long as it’s below $10,000, per Army Corps rules, a provision the county and the city were, in any case, not interested in pursuing. But then LaRoux came back with the proposal for $15,000 per parcel, not $10,000, plus $5,000 in legal fees, per parcel. “He went outside the very thing that he pointed out to me,” Hadeed said.
“When I talked to the folks it was like DOA,” Hadeed said, using the acronym for “dead on arrival.” By which he meant he’d asked both the county and city commissions whether they were interested in spending money, and both had said no. But the precise proposal of either a $10,000 or a $15,000 payment was not brought out in a public meeting at any point, including the emergency meeting the county commission held on this matter earlier this month.
“That’s a nominal interest, if we pay them we have to go back and pay everybody else,” Hadeed said late this afternoon, “and the amount he asked for wasn’t even in the rule, and he knew that.”
As LaRoux noted, the county has hardly been the only agency involved in attempts to convince the property owners to sign. Several Flagler Beach residents addressed the Flagler Beach City Commission last week–preaching to the choir, as several of them said, since the commission is all in for the project, but hoping top send out yet another message to the property owners.
“This is as long as we’ve lived here, the most, the biggest project and the most important project that we actually have control over, thanks to people in this room,” John Fisher, who lives at 16th Street and A1A, said. “And to give this up is going to give up the beach. And what we have in front of us is an incredible opportunity to save our little beach town, and to save Flagler Beach in many ways, because it will not be the same without the beach. And we have this opportunity. If anybody knows anyone who’s voiced opposition or indecision on this project, I know Mr. Hadeed has helped us, and I will, certainly go to bat too for anybody that has an open ear that would be interested in seeing what the facts are as they’ve been presented.”
The county discussed excluding the parcels from the project. But the Army Corps wouldn’t go for it. “They said that that would not be possible, that it would violate the congressional directive as to the restoration of these dunes,” Hadeed said. The 2.6 miles in question fall “within a specially designated critically eroding shoreline as determined by the Department of Environmental Protection. Which means that it has the highest likelihood of sustaining additional further catastrophic damage as opposed to any other part of the beach.” The segment parallels the entirety of the segment that Hurricane Matthew sheared off in 2016, carving into A1A like a giant-toothed coal extractor.
“What does it mean potentially if we lose the project?” Hadeed asked rhetorically. “Right off the bat we’re going to lose $25 million of funding that we have secured from federal and state sources, and we have spent a lot of time trying to assemble how we’ve reached that point, even to have the Florida Department of Transportation pay our local match requirement.”
The 2.6 mile segment is only part of a larger project the county hopes to carry out on its own on either side of the segment, building similar-sized dunes, though it doesn’t have the means to do so at the moment. If it were to secure the money, it could use the same dredging spot that the Army Corps will use. The county is to lease that borrow site. “But if we don’t have a project to dedicate it to, it’s like almost a useless gift, I hate to say it that way,” Hadeed said.
The easements were submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for review on June 30. The Corps is expected to render a decision on the project soon. The verdict is expected to be grim.
Business owners with property on the beach are as concerned as residents. who has also been active in pushing for the easements. “My message is to those who haven’t signed yet,” Scott Fox, owner of Tortugas on A1A, said, “and just knowing the consequences of what holding out is going to do and how that’s going to affect everybody in this city and this county, and surrounding counties, everybody that enjoys Flagler Beach, from insurance to quality of life to their neighbors. It’s a domino effect, and it affects more than just them. I’d also like to propose us all thinking outside the box and coming up with ways. Obviously we can’t write them a check. We all know that money is not there. But maybe the commission and the city can come up with some outside the box ways to maybe present something that may seem like a win-win to everybody, and I’ll let you collectively put your heads together on some ideas for that, but time is of the essence and I think we’re in the final hours.”
John Lulgjuraj, co-owner of Oceanside Beach Bar and Grill on A1A, is also pressing the hold-outs to sign, but he wanted a more considerate approach, describing them as “people who went through a lot of personal issues. There’s a lot of things we don’t know about in people’s personal lives, and a lot of them feel like they’re being attacked now, because a lot of public information about them has been out there.” Lulgjuraj cautioned against being combative.
LaRoux has been “I asked him if there was some other alternative, I think that was last week some time but I haven’t heard back from him.” Hadeed said all options were taken to the Army Corps, while the option of paying money was a no-go.
The county, meanwhile, lists the names and addresses of the hold-outs prominently atop the public web page the county created to inform and encourage property owners to sign–the Scarlet Letter-type tactic Lulgjuraj was alluding to, but with spreadsheet-like detail. If it is a form of social shaming, it stands in contrast to the property owners holding hostage their neighbors and the barrier island, and by extension the city’s reliance on its beach for its quality of life, its tourism economy, and of course its identity.