It’s been a two-year slog worthy of Sisyphus: parcel after parcel, dune after dune, Flagler County’s legal office–and more specifically, County Attorney Al Hadeed–has since early 2019 been securing easements along a 2.6-mile stretch of shoreline in Flagler Beach to enable the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reconstruct the beach by dumping more than half a million cubic yards of sand and shaping them into new, land-protecting dunes.
So far 138 easements have been signed. Three are left, belonging to two owners. The county has threatened legal action. But in its 104-year history, Flagler County has never invoked eminent domain proceedings against a private property owner. Hadeed wants to keep that streak going. He’s used persuasion, he’s welcomed the help of volunteers in Flagler Beach who raised money to pay to some of the hold-outs, and he’s negotiated, all to avoid losing the $25 million project intended to protect the barrier island.
Today, the County Commission was expected to approve extending another means of persuasion to one of the hold-outs: a hold harmless agreement–a written contract, essentially–that addresses the property owners’ concerns, especially his worry that a future government could ignore the doings of the current government and take his land to do with it what it pleases. That’s not going to happen, Hadeed said.
The county is seeking the easements on behalf of the Army Corps not to take land away from anyone, but merely to allow the Corps to do its work. The land in question–so-called dune “remnants” on the beach side of A1A, each 50 feet in length, less in width, or the size of a roofless, wall-less living room–remains the property of its owners. It remains off limits to pedestrians or anyone else. It will remain free of construction or obstructive plants. Once the Corps is done with rebuilding the dunes, it will stay in its owners’ hands. Periodically–the Corps estimates every 10 or 11 years–another batch of sand will be brought in as “renourishment.” If a natural disaster wrecks the dunes, the federal government will be obligated to rebuild the dunes again, at zero cost to the county. That’s one of the reasons the county is so eager to get the Corps project going. It’s a federalized insurance plan against future disasters that doesn’t apply to other areas of Flagler’s 18 miles of shore. (See details of the plan here.)
The last two hold-outs are Cynthia D’Angiolini and Leonard Surles. D’angiolini owns the remnant across the street from her modest house at 2538 South Oceanshore Boulevard (the remnant pictured at the top of this article). She also owns a remnant almost across the street from Beachfront Grille’s parking lot. Surles, who lives in South Florida, owns the house at 2732 South Oceanshore Boulevard with Elke Vogel, and the remnant immediately across the street.
Surles is worried that he will lose the view from the house, though the new, two-level mansion with a tower that just went up immediately to the south of him on the same block is more likely to have affected vistas overall than any additional sand on the beach. “I have all my savings in this property,” Surls wrote in a comment on this site in June. “If I loose the beach or town I may as well be in the everglades. But, I do not want a BURM or seawall built of beach sand 10 feet wide with vegetation that may soon block my view of the ocean. That’s right ,you heard me 10 feet of beach sand . How long will that stop a raging ocean ? 10 min or 15? Won’t it then take the road as before. I saw this happen in the town I grew up in. [Completely] lost the view of the beach from the road. Isn’t Flagler Beach one of the very few places you can drive along and still see the beach? Delray use to be. Just like Flagler.”
Hadeed has spent the last many months trying to convince Surles that his views will not be obstructed, nor will his ownership of the remnant be compromised.
“We’re trying to do everything in good faith, everything reasonably possible to address their concerns,” Hadeed said in an interview. “Since the dune remnants are erodable properties we’re not intending to change their use. Nothing changes with respect to the owners’ rights, except that they’re giving us permission to fix the beach and their property, because their signature on a voluntary easement helps that entire track, not just their own property.”
That’s a key component of the county’s effort to secure all 100 percent of the beach frontage. If one or two remnants are left out of the equation, the Corps may not rebuild dunes in those tiny, 50-foot enclaves. The enclaves would then create gaps in the 2.6-mile stretch of dune. The gaps create vulnerabilities disproportionate to their size, no different than the sort of dune breaches that, during Hurricane Matthew, allowed the ocean to wash over the barrier island north of the Hammock, at Washington Oaks Gardens State Park. Put another way: gaps in the project could render the whole project ineffective. The Corps is not keen on going ahead with the dune reconstruction only to still accommodate those vulnerabilities–not when federal money is sought after in numerous parts of the country to fight rising seas and rebuild beaches.
Flagler County secured $17 million in federal dollars and $8 million in state dollars to accomplish the first phase of the dune rebuilding. The 50-year life of the project’s cost was pegged at $100 million, half of which would be Flagler County’s responsibility (assuming it could continue to secure state dollars). But that estimate is more than two years old. The cost of the project has increased very rapidly over the years. Less than 10 years ago, the cost had been estimated at $39 million. Still, for Flagler, it’s no longer whether to get the project done, but when.
“This money has been outstanding for quite some time and I’m hoping they’re viewing these efforts as meriting continuing to make those funds available,” Hadeed said of the Corps’ dollars. (Congress appropriated the money.) “There are pressures, to be sure, on the Army Corps, because there are other incidents–we just had two significant hurricane events that inflicted damage in the U.S. We’ve had our money outstanding for quite some time, almost two years now, and hopefully they’ll see merit in continuing to count on our ability. But they have the right to say: look, you’ve had too long, and we need the money elsewhere. There’s always that risk. But I don’t think anybody can say that we haven’t given it a yeoman’s effort. In fact based on talking to my colleagues in other jurisdictions that face similar issues, I think we have devoted more or as much as any local government has done in communicating with their public as to the nature of the project, the benefits of the project, and of course we’ve been very successful thanks to the work of the county engineering department and everybody who supports this project in getting it fully funded. This is not the case in other jurisdictions.”
The project it’s intended to be only the first phase of a multi-phase approach that would reinforce the entirety of the county’s 18 miles of shoreline with the same sizeable dunes that the Corps will rebuild. The next phase is the 2.4 miles of beach north and south of the Corps’ project. “That’s precisely why we view the work we’re doing now as foundational to the rest of the beach that we’re going to repair and renourish,” Hadeed said.
The county has secured grants from the Department of Environmental Protection and the state Department of Transportation to complete that additional 2..4-mile stretch. But it has not yet secured the easements for the 140 remnants along the way. The stretch has fewer owners than did the 2.6-mile stretch in Flagler Beach, so presumably that work will be less arduous, though it usually takes only one or two owners to create big obstacles and long delays.
The agreement with Surles the commission was expected to ratify on Monday applies only to Surles. But the county is hoping to use it to convince D’Angiolini. While the county has threatened litigation as a last option, those proceedings have not begun. The county is in what Hadeed referred to as “pre-mediation” efforts with D’Angiolini.