They could put this on a road sign at the entrance to Flagler Beach: “Welcome to irony.”
Thursday evening, the Flagler Beach City Commission chamber had one of its standing-room-only meetings, this one prompted by a scenic group’s plan to put up a series of new directional signs in the city as part of a broader plan to install such signs along 72 miles of State Road A1A. The purpose behind the project has all the makings of good sense and environmental responsibility. The signs are intended to ultimately reduce the clutter of roadside signage along A1A, 574 of which line the 20 miles of A1A in Flagler County, 344 of them in Flagler Beach proper.
The project is paid for through a $630,000 federal grant, ratified by the state Department of Transportation, administered by St. Johns County, and shepherded through the Scenic A1A Committee. The Flagler County Commission approved the joint agreement between the two counties at a meeting in September 2012.
In principle, the project dovetails with Flagler’s stated aims to keep clutter to a minimum, and its recent demolition, with the A1A group, of certain billboards along A1A.
But the plan rests on a fundamental flaw: any hope of reducing signs relies on local jurisdictions’ willingness to do the removal, so any estimate of such removals is guesswork.
Worse, the A1A group committed one colossal mistake: it did a poor job—if not a non-existent job– of alerting Flagler Beach about what was on the way. The last time the group appeared before the Flagler Beach City Commission on this issue was in 2010, which is the rough equivalent of the Middle Ages in local government timelines.
LeighAnn Koch, who lives on A1A and whose property is slated to be host to one of those signs—which may be anywhere from 3 to 6 feet wide, and several feet long, depending on which drawings are looked at: the A1A group was not precise with those numbers—found out about the coming signs by chance: a neighbor had seen a surveyor, asked, and been told about the impending project. Koch immediately contacted city officials, all of whom were floored. They knew nothing about it.
That was earlier this month. By this evening, when a regular Flagler Beach city commission meeting was already scheduled, city residents opposing the initiative had filled the room, along with several members of the A1A committee. City commissioners were emphatic.
“This is being crammed down our throats,” Rick Belhumeur, the commissioner who barely an hour earlier had been sworn in, said. “That requires public participation. Somebody dropped the ball,” he said. “They’re federal dollars, it requires public input and public meetings. I don’t understand how it got this far.”
Commissioners were responding to a presentation by the vice-chairman of the Scenic A1A group, Bill McClure, who is also a county commissioner in St. Johns.
“I should have probably done a better job that all the municipalities in St. Johns and Flagler County” were alerted, he conceded. “I hear your comments, I can certainly understand.” But he elicited murmurs and displeasure when he claimed that the signs were not supposed to be in front of houses (some are, people in the audience said).
Commissioner Jane Mealy, who’d just been named chairman of the commission, called McClure’s presentation “nonsense” and spoke of the A1A committee’s process in devastating terms (she prefaced her remarks with a warning: “I’m not going to be as nice” as her colleagues, she said). She questioned the committee’s claim that local “stakeholders” were included or that the committee’s meetings on the issue were properly noticed. She said she felt like a charitable organization was telling the city what to do (the A1A committee represents a non-profit organization).
She rejected the claim that no signs would be placed in front of houses that paid extra money “to live on A1A and look at the ocean.”
“To look out and see that when you paid, I don’t know, $10,000, $20,000 extra to live on the beach, that doesn’t work for me,” Mealy said.
And she ridiculed signs that would point to obvious landmarks.
“It flies in the face, all of it, of everything that we have worked on,” she told McClure, “and I don’t think you’re going to say anything in your politically charged way of saying things that’s going to change my mind.”
Flagler Beach Mayor Linda Provencher was no less displeased. “It was never communicated to us that this was getting started,” she said, describing the process as “horrible.” The last time the commission had heard of the project was in 2010, she said, but even then, the city commission had asked that the signs be reduced from eight to four—it’s still eight—that they not be placed in front of people’s houses, and that they not be placed in the core downtown area of the city. “None of that has happened,” she said.
Steve Emmett, mayor of Beverly Beach, echoed much of the criticism, noting along the way that Beverly Beach has always been friends with the Friends of A1A. He said there’d never been meetings that included Beverly Beach, but suggested –to head shakes in the audience–waiting until the signs are up and fighting them then.
Other A1A committee members present included Sally O’Hara, Charlie Faulkner, Anne Wilson, Adam Morley and Danielle Anderson.
Commissioner Kim Carney said she doubted the state Department of Transportation had signed off on the project and wanted to see it in writing—she said some of the signs would have to be taken down because of a coming highway project by the state transportation department. She said she’d attended all but one A1A committee meetings for a year without once hearing about this project.
Commissioner Marshall Shupe said he was under the impression that nothing more will move on the project in Flagler Beach until numerous concerns are addressed. “I don’t want this thing to get into finger-pointing, I’d just like to rectify it,” he said. He would like the project to be reduced to four signs in the city, for example. He also spoke against the possibility of redundant “welcome to Flagler Beach” signs, saying he doesn’t want the city to look like Palm Coast (where welcome signs tend to stutter at several entrances to the city).
The scheduled work-plan for Flagler Beach, however, is the end of May.
“It’s a lot late, and you’ve got to convince me that we’re going to get what we want,” Commissioner Joy McGrew told McClure, pointing to a bill to the city she said the city should not have to pay, since it was not properly consulted. She proposed several specific ways to pare down the number of signs. But it was never clear to what extent McClure agreed to the city’s proposals–anymore than it was clear what authority McClure himself, or the A1A committee, had, to dictate anything to the city. But workers had already poured concrete in certain places for the signs.
Larry Newsom, the Flagler Beach city manager, said he would do all he can to change or stop the project until it was more in line with the commission’s wishes. He said that may add costs to the project, but that doesn’t mean the city commission will approve the spending.
It was two hours before the commission opened the floor to the public: attendance had thinned considerably by then, as many in the audience had read the commission’s intentions to do what it can to alter, if not halt, the project. Halting the project, however, may ultimately not be an option, as it is on a state road where the city’s jurisdiction is limited. A dozen or so Flagler Beach residents addressed the commission, all of them in concert–against the signs. Only members of the A1A committee, among them Danielle Anderson, offered a defense for the signs (she termed herself “shocked” by the public reaction).
McClure, two and a half hours into the discussion, pledged to recast the project in ways that Flagler Beach would approve, saying he would shop the changes to various boards.
But Mayor Linda Provencher, the local vice-chairman of the A1A Committee’s Flagler Beach branch (the so-called A1A Ocean Shore Corridor Management Entity) had never been told of the plan until a resident called her. She was “a little angry” and punctuated the end of the discussion: she said the A1A group had done wonderful things, but she hoped it would recover from this mistake, especially as she, for one, was no longer inclined to be part of the group.
The commission voted unanimously to cease any construction related to the signage in the city until proper input was provided by residents, and direction provided Newsom, the city manager, to conduct the appropriate meetings with stakeholders and government officials.