For well over a decade, going back to the stormy 2000s when hurricanes were battering the Florida coast with sadistic regularity, Flagler Beach and Flagler County have been wrestling with the erosion of the region’s most broadly beloved resource: the beach. Various protections were tried, including rock “revetments” and sea walls, neither of which work very well, look good or please residents and elected officials much.
Attention turned to a proposal to “reenourish” the beach by dredging tons of sand from offshore and dumping it along the shore, building dunes in the process—dunes designed to fail and get swallowed up by the ocean during big storms, only to be renourished every decade or so. That approach, hugely expensive and far from proven, has always depended on federal funding and the U.S. Corps of Engineers (which has never done a project like the one it’s proposing for Flagler).
The planning and study for beach renourishment has been slow, laborious and contested. But it’s been continuous—on the assumption that federal dollars would make the project feasible. Those dollars have yet to materialize, and given the climate in Washington, and Flagler’s weak representation in Congress, many not do so anytime soon.
On Monday, County Administrator Craig Coffey, in what was billed as a mere update of the beach renourishment project, pitched a radically different approach—not only to go ahead with the design and permitting of the project, but to proceed on the assumption that federal dollars may not be there, and to do so with a combination of state and local dollars: from the Department of Environmental protection, the state Department of Transportation, and Flagler County’s Tourist Development Council, which devotes a portion of the revenue from the local 4 percent sales tax supplement levied on hotels and other short-term rentals to beach projects.
The county commission, asking remarkably few questions during a 55-minute presentation, did not say no, though it is delaying approval of the new approach pending a formal presentation of the idea to the Flagler Beach City Commission. It was the first focused meeting on the subject since a three-hour update in April 2013.
“You may not have this alignment of planets and funding opportunities that you have today,” Coffey said, ascribing half the $15 million initial construction cost of the project to the state Department of Environmental Protection, $3 million to $5 million to the transportation department, and the rest from the tourism council. “We have the people in place to help us now,” he said. But the path to securing those dollars was largely speculative.
The controversy, expense and uncertainty surrounding a planned “renourishment” of Flagler Beach’s shore doesn’t match up with the relatively limited scale of the project itself: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposes to dump sand dredged from seven miles offshore on just 2.6 miles of coastline, from the Flagler Beach pier south to the county line with Volusia. It’s a stretch of shore that’s been battered by erosion, especially during the hurricanes of a decade ago.
Other figures are more colossal: the initial reconstruction of the beach means the dumping of 330,000 cubic yards of sand along the shore. It means repeating the operation four times at 11-year intervals over a 50-year window of federal participation. Some $20 million of the $44 million cost, spread over 50 years, would have to be borne by state and local governments. The original construction phase would cost $17.4 million, with the federal government paying $9.2 million.
As federal projects of this nature and magnitude go, the final figure is likely to be much different. Just three years ago, the Corps was placing the initial total cost of construction at $39 million.
The aim is to preserve State Road A1A and the community–the residents, the businesses–behind it, adding just 3.15 acres of shore-bird nesting habitat for endangered species. Storms will alter the figures: more or less sand could be needed, more or less frequent renourishments could result.
That’s assuming the rising seas projected to devour substantial parts of Florida’s shoreline, because of global warming, don’t make the project obsolete before its 50-year lifespan: the Environmental Protection Agency calculates that seas are rising along Florida’s shore by an inch every 11 to 14 years . The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact projects a more dire scenario, with seas rising 31 inches by 2060 in South Florida, and 46 inches by 2075. Swaths of Flagler Beach could be history. A study published last week makes even grimmer projections for Florida.
The Army Corps’ mission is to study and shepherd large-scale projects such as beach renourishment. This project got the federal government’s attention because the beach is popular and has many beach-access points, which ensured a maximum share of federal subsidies. On the other hand, the makeup of the shore is such that the project will impose heavier costs on local or state government to “certify” to the federal government that the project can go ahead. What that means is that 184 parcels will have to have perpetual storm damage easements, and 42 dune walkovers, half of them private, may or may not have to be relocated.
“We hope we could work around those, but if we can’t there could be some costs,” Jason Harrah, project manager for the Corps’ Flagler County Shore Protection project, said, estimating that cost at $3.3 million. Those costs will have to be borne locally. It’s the fine print of megaprojects. County Administrator Craig Coffey said the county could accomplish that work at “much cheaper” cost than the Corps estimates.
“This is being built to sacrifice itself to protect A1A and the adjacent revetment,” Harrah said. “That’s what that beach will be put there for, and that’s what that beach will be renourished for, or that dune, and that’s to sacrifice itself” in 11-year cycles.
The feasibility phase of the project was completed. The report of the project has been approved by the executive branch and been transmitted to Congress for authorization through the Water Resource Development Act, renewed every three years. The bill is expected in summer or fall. But for this project to be funded, it’ll need some lobbying.
Meanwhile, the next step is the $900,000 design and permitting, which takes about two years. To date, the project has had no federal funding for either. “The key here is I do not need a Water Resource Development Act authorization for design and permitting, I do need a water resource bill for construction, so it has to be completed prior to construction,” Harrah said.
In other words, so far, no federal dollars have been appropriated for these steps in the process, and none may be appropriated in the future, Harrah cautioned. “We’re living in the land of no earmarks, so those have since passed, so all the project appropriations have been passed down to the OMB, Office of Management of Budget, and the assistant secretary of the Army, so she gets thousands of requests for projects, beach projects, California, all over the country, and there’s only so much money to go around. So essentially, they put restrictions on these.”
Some factors that count against Flagler’s project: Beaches damaged by Hurricane Sandy are devouring a lot of the federal funding for now, and the project would end up protecting a road as opposed to more crucial or valuable infrastructure. That’s for design funding. Conditions are even stiffer for construction funding. The absence of a strong congressman is also a factor: Flagler County hasn’t had stable representation in Congress for years. It’s last strong hope was John Mica, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but he was redistricted out of Flagler almost four years ago. His replacement, Rep. Ron DeSantis, besides being new and powerless, has been ineffective and, because of his more national ambitions, largely uninterested in advocating for his district (he’s running for Marco Rubio’s senate seat).
There are alternative to the usual funding formula for the design phase, but in that case the $900,000 design cost shifts to the local government (or the local government with state grants). That doesn’t guarantee that the federal fund will pay for construction in the future. An other alternative is to delay the design and permitting phase until the federal government is ready to pay. That delay would be open-ended. A third alternative is to hire a firm other than the Corps to do the design, but Coffey is advising against that approach.
The County could also choose to do nothing. If a storm then demolishes parts of the road, the state transportation department has pledged to repair it, attaining the goal of the renourishment by way of a disaster.
Coffey is pushing an even more independent approach: not only pay for the design phase without federal funds—through a Florida Department of Transportation agreement “to facilitate” funding for design, but to sign a $3.8 million funding agreement with the transportation department for the construction phase while continuing federal lobbying efforts—and seeking dollars from such pots as the Flagler County Tourist Development Council, which Coffey now directly oversees.
“There is a way forward, it’s not crystal clear at this point, but the initial way forward we’re recommending are these basically six steps,” Coffey said of the outline that mostly skips federal involvement, or diminishes it from an absolute necessity to a bonus-like possibility. He’d presented his option at the end of the hour-long discussion, with few details, and a sense of urgency that contrasts with a project that’s been debated for years, but never on the assumption that the federal government would not shoulder a major portion of the cost. Yet his sum-up acknowledged the difficulties.
“If you tell us not to worry about this anymore, let mother nature do what mother nature will do, we will do that,” Coffey said. “It’s not in our nature, it’s not in our make-up DNA to do that. Even though this is not the prettiest project we could bring you as it’s structured financially and whatnot, we feel we’ve got to keep trying to do something to moving the project forward.”
Coffey pushed. Commission Chairman Barbara Revels pushed back. “We are not going to dump a project or fund a project in someone’s community without benefit of hearing from them,” she said, referring to the Flagler Beach City Commission, “even if it is our responsibility.”
So before the commission gave Coffey a go-ahead to bring the sort of large-scale, big-dollar agreements to the county commission for ratification, it asked that he present the proposal to the city commission first, with Revels’s help, though four Flagler Beach city commissioners and the Flagler Beach mayor attended Monday’s county commission workshop.
The city commission had been split on beach renourishment in the past. Its newest member, Rick Belhumeur, who attended Monday’s meeting, summed up his perspective: “Planning stage is supposed to take at least two years so moving forward is a good thing. Using money now from DOT is a great way to proceed because that money might not always be there.”