A year-long effort between Flagler County government and a grass-roots group and its Go Fund Me campaign to secure easements from 13 hold-outs so 2.6 miles of shore can be rebuilt with ample dunes in Flagler Beach has paid off. Only three owners and holding four parcels remain. All others have signed. The project is on th verge of starting, pending condemnation from the county in court to secure the remaining easements.
Almost exactly a year ago–in what was to be one of the last, large-scale public meetings of the pre-covid era–Flagler County government officials at a church in Flagler Beach spoke to scores of property owners along State Road A1A, urging them to sign easements that would allow the U.S. Amy Corps of Engineers to rebuild the beach with new dunes and new sand at decennial intervals for the next 50 years. The county described the project as an existential necessity for the barrier island.
With memories of Hurricane Matthew’s and Irma’s ravages still fresh in mind, most property owners agreed to sign.
Thirteen property owners did not. By July, the county administrator was warning that the project, 15 years in the making and with $25 million in federal and state dollars secured and waiting to be spent, was near “dead in the water.” The money could be lost, and with it a chance to preserve the beach and, possibly–considering ineluctably rising seas–the homes and businesses behind it. The county had begged, implored, cajoled. The property owners rebuffed it. Most of them wanted money. The county was intent on keeping all dollars on the project itself, not on payoffs.
In stepped Carla Cline and Craig Atack, two residents whose families and identities are intimately associated with the beach and the town. They set up a Go Fund Me account, raised $60,000, and went to work on the remaining hold-outs. The approach, kept autonomous from the county’s, worked. As of today, they won over five property owners with four more easements in progress and soon to be signed. Along the way, the county won yet another extension from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The federal agency was impressed with the community’s commitment to the project and the extent of its grass-roots involvement.
Now, County Attorney Al Hadeed and County Administrator Jerry Cameron are replacing the pessimism of last summer with optimism in inverse proportions. The project will go ahead. So will the county’s plan to take the holdouts to court and get by eminent domain what the county or the Go Fund Me group couldn’t get by less confrontational means.
“We will be successful in securing them,” Hadeed said. It’s not clear when the county will file suit. It’s still hoping to secure the easements through negotiations. But it won’t be long, because while the project can go forward even without two easements at the southernmost end of the project area, in the South 2700 block, it cannot start without two other easements secured in the core of the project area, in the South 2400 and South 2500 blocks.
“But I am optimistic for the first time that we are going to bring this to conclusion,” Cameron told county commissioners Monday. “We are not going to loose that funding and we’re not going to put that whole island in jeopardy because of failure to take action to protect the beach.”
One owner, Cynthia D’Angiolini, owns the two parcels in the core area of the project. “That individual we were not able to have a two-way conversation with except in early May,” Hadeed said in an interview today. “The Go Fund Me group finally made contact, provided an offer, but that owner turned it down. That puts us in a situation where we’re going to have to petition the court to secure that easement. So that’s one owner with two remnants in the base area.”
The two other dune “remnants,” as small parcels of land on the east side of A1A are called, that belong to owners who don;t want to sign, are not immediately critical to the project. Since they fall at the very end of the project area, the Corps’ contractor can go ahead and rebuild the dunes (with what will be some 550,000 cubic yards of sand dredged from a borrow pit a few miles offshore) along the rest of the shoreline, and return to the tail end when those easements have been secured.
The county is not seeking to take ownership of the parcels in question–only to give the Corps the right to work on the parcels when dumping sand and rebuilding dunes. Property ownership and property rights do not change. “We’re not depriving them of ownership of the remnant simply because the only necessary thing we need is the right to do the project on their land,” Hadeed said. It appears that some of the owners who refuse to sign are not convinced, though they also have other concerns.
“For instance,” Hadeed explained on Monday, one of the owners said “he is perfectly willing to allow the Army Corps to come in and put the sand in, but he doesn’t want to sign the easement, and the Army Corps, as you might imagine, cannot do that. They absolutely cannot do that. He said he’d be willing to sign a one-time easement. In other words, OK, I’ll sign an easement for one time, therefore he gets around the problem of well, the Army Corps can’t do something as the federal government without the permission of the land owner. But then the Army Corps replies: Thank you, but that can’t help us because we’re going to operate a 50-year program.” The Corps can’t be in a position of having to secure easements time after time–or risk not securing them subsequently. The easements are perpetual.
Others have been concerned about losing their ocean view. “The dunes aren’t going to be higher than they are now and the planting material is not going to be different than what presently grows on the dunes of Flagler Beach,” Hadeed said. Those certainties have been codified in an ordinance by the county.
Some are concerned that the public is going to have access across their dunes. “That is not correct,” Hadeed said. It’ll be no different than the present right of the public which is limited to “customary use” of the dry-sand beach, itself also codified two and a half years ago.