The meeting was full of surprises and revelations.
Engineers and scientists from the U.S. Corps of Engineers Tuesday morning presented a sketch of the Corps’ proposal to save portions of Flagler County’s eroding shoreline to the Flagler County Commission. The full study—in the works for nine years, costing more than $3 million—won’t be available for public inspection and comment until August. But Tuesday’s abstract was as close as the Corps has revealed, and as detailed a picture of what’s to come, as the public has seen. The more than three-hour meeting at the county’s Emergency Operations Center was instructive on numerous grounds, answering many questions but raising some as well, along with eyebrows.
First, it is not a matter of whether, but of how broadly, the County Commission will want to support and pay for the Corps’ “beach-renourishment” proposal. None of the commissioners questioned the validity of the Corps’ approach, its costs or even its chances of protecting the beach at all. Rather, commissioners are still debating how much of the beach they’re prepared to protect.
Second, and that surprise was not revealed until the tail end of the meeting, the Corps has never done a project like this before. It’s done similar sand-dumping projects in a half dozen areas of Florida, but when asked by commissioners where they could see one identical to the project it’s proposing for Flagler, Jason Engle, a Corps coastal engineer, said he’d “have to research that.” That was a stunning admission that County Administrator and County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin quickly passed over by noting that the similar projects in Florida are equally valid examples of beach renourishment.
Third, the county has no idea how it will pay for its portion of what may add up to $60 or $70 million million over 50 years, in unadjusted dollars. Throw inflation in, and the cost may be closer to 10 times that amount. ($60 million in 1963 is the equivalent of $455 million today.) Coffey, again toward the end of the meeting, cautioned commissioners that should they decide to go with the broader approach, they may have to revamp their tax structure, their sales taxes especially, to pay for it. Coffey’s caution drew no interest from commissioners.
Fourth, all this may, despite the years of study, despite the money invested in the study, despite the growing cohesion between the county and Flagler Beach—where much of the opposition to a dredging project is centered—and despite the beach’s continuing erosion, may come to naught. Whatever the Corps concludes, Congress must approve the project. “In today.s reality, the critical part is getting that funding more than anything else,” said Steve Settle, the Flagler Beach City Commissioner and former congressional aid, who knows a few things about congressional fickleness. Settle is doubtful that Flagler will get lucky, given the budgetary cutbacks.
And that’s before looking at the Corps’ proposal more closely.
Corps of Engineers is favoring “renourishing” a 2.5-mile segment of beach from South 7th Street to South 28th Street in Flagler Beach five times through 2060 by rebuilding dunes and dumping 320,000 cubic yards of sand, dredged from 7 miles offshore, onto the beach. That portion of the project would cost about $39 million. Federal dollars would cover 65 percent of the project’s initial construction. Flagler County would pick up the remaining 30 percent. Costs of subsequent renourishments would be split 50-50 between federal and local dollars.
Renourishment would not merely dump the sand on the beach and hope for the best. It would create new, 10-foot-wide dunes that would cover rock revetments built along existing dunes. Where there is no revetment, the Corps would just build dunes. The 10-foot-wide addition would be covered in native-species vegetation such as sea oats to create an extensive underground network of roots and vegetation, further stabilizing the sand. But judging from Corps officials’ answers, the question of what would happen to the many walk-overs along existing dunes has never been considered.
The Corps considered four “reaches,” or beach segments, in all, ruling out two of them outright, because the cost-benefit analysis made renourishment there unfeasible. That’s the stretch of beach from Gamble Rogers State Park to the Volusia County line, and another stretch of beach from Beverly Beach down to 7th Street South. There are still questions about the fourth “reach,” designated as “Reach A,” from Varn Park down to Beverly Beach. (Reach C, south of 7th Street, is the one the Corps and the county agree on.)
Costs would be far higher if Flagler County decided to add Reach A. The Corps for now doesn’t look favorably on that segment, because its public beach access is very limited: it’s blocked by private luxury homes, which would be the primary beneficiaries of renourishment. The Corps is willing to include the segment, but only if Flagler commits to building public beach access points at least every half mile, assume all those costs, as well as the costs of property acquisition and, if necessary, parking and transit for the public. That will be a challenge because homes are built along that stretch in close proximity to each other. But commissioners appeared to lean toward just such a possibility.
Despite the hazy chances of winning Congressional funding, the Corps and the County Commission are proceeding on the assumption that the project the Corps will recommend will be approved. The Corps will seek public comment on the way. It will hear–and has already heard–a measure of resistance to the project from some Flagler Beach city commissioners and some of their constituents, who have been split over the Corps’ approach.
The issue Tuesday, however, was not whether to approve the project or not. The issue was what direction to give the study’s final form. Still, the study is the cornerstone of the project: not only will the study define the scope of the project. It will also congeal its political and funding possibilities.
“Today, the study is fully funded and will be presented in June with all the back-up for public comment,” County Administrator Craig Coffey wrote the five commissioners in a memo Monday. “You are not being asked whether you agree with the project at this time or whether you want to continue, as the study is fully funded and will be completed shortly.”
Yet whether the commission wants to proceed or not, and how, is precisely what Coffey was asking commissioners.
In the very next sentence, he wrote: “You are being asked to provide guidance on: 1) Whether at this time, are you ok with not delaying the project and just proceeding with Reach C?” (“Reach C” is the technical term the Corps gives to the stretch of beach between South 7th and South 28th streets. “Reach A” is the segment of shore in Beverly Beach that is largely blocked by private homes.) Or, Coffey asked, “Do you want staff to pursue the public beach access and parking/transit issues for reach A so that it might catch up back up (sic.) with Reach C??”
By answering either question, of course, the commission would be going on record with not only formalizing its support for the project, but with broadening its scope, and local costs. Coffey is attempting to set the agenda along those lines, while creating the impression that the commission is not committing itself to anything by merely guiding the study’s scope. But every decision the commission makes in line with the Corps’ direction further commits the commission to the Corps’ project–and its costs–making it politically difficult to reject the final project should it be federally approved and funded. Coffey is pressing that agenda even as he concedes that broadening the project to include Reach A may add local costs and political ramifications–including property rights issues–that haven’t been figured out yet.
“Staff does not know if pursuing the access issue for Reach A is financially or physically practical, but if we were able to qualify the area for federal funding, it could mean tens of millions of dollars over the 50 year period. Adding the area could also mean federal assistance for those properties and the county during a major storm event. However, this could also cost several million to pursue this access.”
The addition of Reach A may be doubly controversial, as its primary benefit would be private homes. The federal government would fund the renourishment in that area, but at no higher level than it would in Reach C: at 50 percent of costs, with the other 50 percent charged to the local government (after the initial construction of dunes, when the ratio is 65-35).
In the end, commissioners were vague. They favor going ahead with Reach C in the study, but they want Reach A to be “left on the table,” whatever that means. Corps officials made clear that the project will not improve its chances of winning federal dollars with anything less than proven commitment from the county. That commitment, as far as Reach A is concerned, is now guesswork.
The Corps during the meeting addressed many questions raised by commissioners and members of the public. Sea turtles, for example, would not be harmed by the project. To the contrary, Katherine McConnell, a Corps biologist said, the sand addition will improve turtles’ habitat, since turtles tend to snub rock and rock revetments.
Kim Carney, the Flagler Beach City Commissioner, had a bag of the sort of sand the Corps is proposing to dump on the beaches. The sand in the bag looked like a winter sky over Hamburg: gray, murky, uninviting, a sharp contrast with Flagler’s coquina-orange sand. Yet Jason Harrah, the Corps’ project manager, said the dredged sand would be “very, very comparable to what’s out there now.”
The question of State Road A1A came up: the Corps, as it turns out, has considered moving A1A a full block. But its engineers said that it would be meaningless, because the road left in its place would still have to be protected, since it is lined with businesses and activity. So moving A1A is not an option for now.
In a final surprise, Coffey told the commission at the end of the meeting that he already had ” tentatively instructed the Corps to proceed on project C,” but that he wasn’t ready to tell them to include Reach A, deeming that a policy decision. Unsure of itself, the commission seemed to leave it again up to Coffey to define the scope of the project, pending additional numbers.
Meanwhile, the Corps will publish the final study in August and accept public comment then (between Aug. 23 and Oct. 31). A revised report will be filed by December. It will then go through several review steps before being submitted for Pentagon approval by July 2014. Only then would it be in play for congressional funding—in the thick of the mid-term elections.
Locally, county commissioners agreed to hold a joint meeting with the Flagler Beach Commission in September, as a way of keeping the city at the table.
It appeared entirely coincidental that the cover of the power-point presentation (featuring an aerial image of A1A stolen by either the corps or the Department of Transportation, from FlaglerLive, without attribution) was embedded against an image of the ocean, making it appear that the cars driving down A1A are sinking into the sea.