Don’t expect immediate repairs or life extensions on Flagler Beach’s seawall along South 13th Street. That much is clear, based on a vote of the Flagler Beach City Commission Thursday evening. For now. The rest gets complicated.
It’s not always clear what the commission is talking about when discussing beach-saving and seawall matters, though that’s generally true of every agency involved in possibly the most divisive issue in Flagler Beach these days. Especially when various beach-saving issues, from dumping sand on the beach to building or extending seawalls to other alternatives all get discussed at the same time, as they were Thursday evening, as they have been for months and years, without adding clarity.
The commission debated the matter of the state Department of Transportation’s seawalls along State Road A1A, namely an extension of the life of the existing seawall along 13th Street South, at a cost of nearly $400,000. The seawall is projected to have a life-span of 13 more years without additional work, which would add 50 years to the seawall’s life.
The question, which several people asked before commissioners Thursday, was: why spend that money to extend the life of a wall that may not be necessary in that much of a long run, if an alternative could work better? That presumed alternative is the undertow–and antithesis–of all discussions about saving the beach at this point, and it has a name: Holmberg Industries, a beach-saving technology that has not been used in the United States, except in the Great Lakes, where the setting doesn’t have much to do with the Atlantic, though the technology has been used in Saudi Arabia, reportedly with success: it rebuilt a beach. Government agencies, including, so far, a slight majority of the commission, aren’t interested in Holmberg, named after the company’s fiery founder. Holmberg has a fierce following among some Flagler Beach residents.
The city isn’t ready to name its alternative plan. It was uncomfortable about turning down seawall money outright.
“I can’t see spending that type of money and burying it in the sand,” Commissioner Marshal Shupe said. The city has lived with the seawall long enough, it can live with it a little longer. But he didn’t want to see the money disappear—which it would, if DOT doesn’t use it on the wall.
“We are most comfortable with waiting,” a DOT official told commissioners. “It’s up to you.” But he clarified: the money isn’t guaranteed to be there in the far future, but waiting six months would not be a problem.
“Do you absolutely guarantee that seawall is going to hold up that road for 13 years?” Commissioner Jane Mealy asked.
“That’s our best estimate,” the DOT official said.
She asked whether, if a huge washout were to take place, DOT would repair the wall anyway, if the money was there or not. The answer was, more or less, yes.
“If there’s ever any question why things take so long, unfortunately this is a prime example of that,” Commission Chairman John Feind said. “We said two months ago we wanted the unsightliness repaired, part of the quality of life, economic development.” FDOT complied, gave the city some options, including a nearly-$400,000 plan to “fix” the existing seawall on 13th Street, to make it less unsightly, through so-called “encapsulation” (think of covering up concrete and steel the way you might cap a tooth). That drew opposition from people who thought investing more in the seawall meant enshrining it as the principal solution to beach erosion.
“The seawall is there, it’s not going to go away, that’s true, but I don’t see why we should ignore it,” Feind said. Commissioner Jane Mealy doesn’t think the seawall will survive 13 years, given the ferocity of recent storms, including this past weekend’s. But Commissioner Kim Carney couldn’t see how adding concrete or rocks improved the sightliness of the wall. “This just seems like it’s really a lot more money than I ever thought it would cost,” she said, while extending its life beyond 50 years was beyond the scope of what the commission had in mind. “It’s not going to add to the beauty of our beach. Sand will add to the beauty of our beach.”
When Commissioner Steve Settle motioned to table the matter of spending money on the existing seawall—pending DOT’s signal that it would eliminate the $4000,000—it passed 4-1, with Feind in dissent.
That wasn’t the entire beach-related discussion Thursday.
The first beach-related item on the commission’s agenda was also confusing. The U.S. Corps of Engineers is doing a long-term study on the feasibility of dumping sand along the beaches in order to “re-nourish” them. The study may not be completed until 2017. Flagler Beach’s lobbyist is recommending that the city involve an agency called PCX (for Coastal Planning Center of Expertise) in the study. The agency is connected to the corps and is based in Brooklyn, N.Y. The corps claims PCX’s involvement would speed things up. But information about the company is scant, and its involvement depends on the county—which is the main sponsor of the beach study—not Flagler Beach. The question was whether the Flagler Beach City Commission should be behind PCX’s involvement, assuming the county would endorse it as well.
Commissioners agreed, 3-2, to send a letter of support for PCX—to the county. The vote was more indicative of what would happen to PCX than of the dynamics regarding beach-saving issues on the commission.
Commissioners Settle and Carney were opposed. “I just feel like we’re circumventing the county with a letter from Flagler Beach,” Carney said. “Can’t we just hold off and see what the county wants to do with this recommendation?” Settle wanted it more explicitly stated that the PCX involvement should have little to do with Flagler Beach’s priorities on saving its beach, other than as a back-up plan. Settle wanted to open the way for alternative beach-saving measures. He didn’t name Holmberg Industries, though that undertow was part of that discussion, too.