To Flagler Beach, there’s a force out there more powerful than the sea and more threatening to the city’s beaches than erosion. It’s the Florida Department of Transportation.
Flagler Beach’s most important asset is its beaches. The city wants to protect those beaches the way Fort Knox protects its gold. The transportation department has a different mission: to build and maintain roads. State Road A1A is one of those roads. Erosion is threatening its existence, in some parts along the Flagler County shoreline more than others. The transportation department’s priority is to protect that road against the sea’s encroachment. Protecting the beach is secondary to protecting the road, even if protecting the road might mean the end of the beach.
A stretch of A1A just north of South 13th Street has been battered by erosion to the point of blowing away rock revetments in serious storms. The department built a seawall there, The department’s solution is to extend what was billed as a short, temporary seawall now in place for a few dozen yards north of 13th Street. The department would extend the wall past South 14th Street. The Flagler Beach City Commission is livid at the possibility. So are most city residents. So is County Commissioner Barbara Revels, whose office is on A1A, and who spurred the city commission to formalize its opposition. Last month the commission drafted a resolution asking the state to lay off a seawall plan pending the completion of a broad study that might present alternatives to a seawall. The resolution also sought to get all other Flagler County governments to join Flagler Beach’s opposition.
Earlier today, the Flagler County Commission agreed, with conditions, especially with $6 million in state funding that the transportation department is prepared to spend on the project.
“I would just hate for us to lose the $6 million because this is going to take time to sort through and come up with different solutions that are more compatible with our beach re-nourishment study,” Commissioner Milissa Holland said. “I want to make sure that there’s two parts of education that are going on with our legislators. One of them is, please we strongly ask that you keep that money intact so that when we are moving with the construction phase or whatever viable solution we can all agree on, that that money is sitting there, ready to go.”
That sounds fine, County Administrator Craig Coffey said, but it may not be the way the state sees it, because that $6 million is part of the 2009 federal stimulus package. It can’t sit in state coffers unused indefinitely. Flagler Beach Commissioner Jane Mealy, who presented the resolution to the county commission on Monday, along with Flagler Beach Acting Manager Bruce Campbell, proposed tying the timeline to the completion of the study—a more scientific basis on which to base any beach-protection project, city and county officials agreed, than the transportation department’s seeming headlong rush into another seawall.
Seawalls are controversial. They do some of the things they set out to do: they protect structures against the sea sometimes with excellent results, sometimes not. (An 18th century seawall in India worked so well that it warded off the effects of the 2004 tsunami that killed almost a quarter million people. A $1.5 billion seawall in Kamaishi City, Japan, the world’s largest, was useless against the tsunami there last month.) But seawall opponents say that even absent disasters, seawalls prevent the natural ebb and flow of beaches and beach sand, ultimately letting the sea devour the shoreline up to the seawall, and eliminating the beach. Engineering documentation about seawalls don’t dispute that result. That’s what Flagler Beach fears will happen to its own beach should the transportation department proceed.
At the same time, the county doesn’t want to see A1A disappear. The road, too, is a vital economic and scenic artery for the county. And it’s under threat. Whether there is a solution that entails saving the road and the beach, short of colossally expensive and unending re-sanding (or re-nourishment of the beach) is unclear. That’s what an ongoing and yet incomplete study may determine. The study is being conducted by the Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, the county and Flagler Beach.
“To have one agency jump ahead unilaterally, in advance of the completed study, with such a permanent solution” a draft letter that was to bear County Commission Chairman Alan Peterson’s signature read, in support of Flagler Beach’s position, “is not acceptable and wastes the millions of local, state, and federal dollars that have been invested to date on the study.”
Whether that language makes it into the letter the county is directing Coffey to write is not clear. Coffey is submitting a new draft next week with guidelines he received today. Monday’s action by the county commission attempted to compromise between competing interests. The letter will explain why the county supports delaying the seawall project by 18 months to two years. It will support Flagler Beach’s position explicitly. It will cite both the beach’s and the road’s values as economic engines for the county (what Peterson called “the importance of the dual role and that it would be the most efficient utilization of the funds if we could find a solution that solves both issues”). And it will ask the state to hold on to the $6 million, keeping Flagler’s name on it.
None of this is new. In 2005, the state was barreling ahead with an identical plan to build a $20 to $30 million, three-mile seawall, in two separate sections—one in Flagler Beach, one in Beverly Beach. City and county officials joined forces and defeated the proposal.
Nor is the controversy over seawalls new. Or the absence of a permanent, viable solution that addresses all concerns.
On May 19, Flagler Beach is hosting a town meeting where city and county residents will voice their concerns, and where Department of Transportation officials will be present either to address those concerns or once again explain their stand on the seawall. By then, Flagler Beach hopes to have secured support from Palm Coast and Bunnell for its resolution against the seawall.