Earlier this month Flagler County government had all but decided to move ahead with the $900,000 design and permitting of what will ultimately be a very expensive and multi-decade anti-erosion project to save the county’s beach from the Flagler Beach pier south to the county line.
It did so by giving up on federal dollars and agreeing to pay that bill with county and state dollars instead, which County Administrator Craig Coffey says are available now. It’s a gamble. Nothing says that federal dollars would be available for the county to then manage the greater cost of construction: $44 million over 50 years, more than half of which would be the federal government’s responsibility based on current plans, according to figures commissioners heard at an April 4 workshop. The county could spend the money and have nothing to move forward to subsequently.
Coffey acknowledged the risk. “I’ll say the same apology I made to my board,” he told the Flagler Beach City Commission last Thursday. “This is not the way we normally bring a project, to say hey let’s move forward to design phase, we have no idea how we’re going to do construction. We have a general idea, but we don’t have a good idea. But what’s the alternative? The alternative is to do nothing, and if my board tells me to do nothing, I will do nothing. But that’s not in our nature, to do nothing, and we’re going to keep trying to fight the good fight until someone tells us not to worry about this anymore.”
The county commission wasn’t ready to ratify Coffey’s recommendation to move forward with the design until it heard from the Flagler Beach City Commission, as it did on April 14.
“We’re looking for some sign of support for us moving forward in the manner that we discussed at that workshop,” Revels, herself a Flagler Beach resident—and the chairman of the county commission—told her Flagler Beach colleagues last week.
She and Coffey got that support in two words that summed up a majority of the commission’s sense on the issue: “Go forward,” was how Mayor Linda Provencher put it.
She and most commissioners had already heard Coffey’s presentation on April 4. They were in the audience. But they couldn’t have addressed the county commission or given commissioners their go-ahead then because under the Sunshine law they’re prohibited from making decisions outside of their own meetings. So Coffey and Revels agreed to formalize Flagler Beach’s inclusion, promising city commissioners that they’d be equally present “at the table” in subsequent developments of the project.
No clear idea where the money for construction will come from, but no desire to sit still.
The details of the project were worth hearing again because they are complicated and, in a literal sense, multi-layered: the project entails building 10-foot dunes that will coat sand over rock revetments along State Road A1A—the project is intended to keep the road and the properties behind it from washing away—while “renourishing” the beach. The U.S. Corps of Engineers projects rebuilding the same dunes in roughly 10-year increments, over the next 50 years. That’s assuming water levels will not rise to such a point as to make the current plans obsolete—a very big assumption that recent studies are making difficult to maintain. Water levels along Florida’s shore are projected to rise significantly until the end of the century.
Delaying design and permitting should not be as viable an option as going ahead with it. “Your state moneys you have right now that can apply to this project could go away, could go away with a governor, could go with a change in staff at DOT,” he said, referring to the state Department of Transportation. “Right now we have committed staff at DOT, all the planets are kind of aligned. We have people in place at least to keep it moving forward.”
The U.S. Corps would do the design. The county could outsource the job for less money. But it would still come down to a $180,000 bill from the corps to review the plans, and more if the plans have to be fixed. “It’s a little bit of a racket, to say it in a nice way,” Coffey said, “but they’ve been good partners and we’ve had the same project manager for a little over five years now which has been great.”
For the design, the county is relying on its own money from Tourist Development Council revenue, generated by a 4 percent sales surtax on short-term rentals, hotels, motels and other short-term lodging. It’s also relying on state transportation dollars. For construction, it’s eyeing the same pots and that of the Department of Environmental Protection.
Only Commissioner Kim Carney was opposed to the plan. “I don’t in my heart believe that sand on those rocks is the answer to our beach. I don’t. I never will,” Carney said before discussing the city’s small, dreaded sea wall south of the pier. “Covering up that sea wall, we’ve already had a study done, the sea wall only has five or six more good years left in it, so something has to happen. We either cover it, we put a new one in, we do something with it, but I don’t believe this is the answer. It’s a lot of money, and I will say for the money I do not believe the citizens of Flagler Beach or Flagler County should spend a cent on this project because it is not our road. It is our evacuation route and we have to help, but every effort should be made to peel every piece of dollar out of FDOT that we can get because this is in the millions, and it’s not right.”
Other commissioners were more complimentary of Coffey’s approach. “We have to have the county start moving forward with this,” Commissioner Marshall Shupe said.
“Some of this funding might go away, we could have a storm and the DOT spend all that money before we get to spend it, so it’s better than nothing,” Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said.
The presentation drew only two public speakers, among them an official with locally based S.E. Cline construction, who is proposing to mitigate some of the project’s costs (commissioners asked that he submit his proposal for later review), and Doyle Lewis, who frequently attends city meetings, and whose appearance elicited an indecorous remark by Shupe, under Shupe’s breath (“Oh gees, Doyle Lewis”) as Lewis was making his way to the mic. Lewis did not hear the remark.
Commission Chairman Jane Mealy was grateful for Coffey’s appearance. “We come over any time we’re asked to, we’d be happy to,” Coffey said—words Palm Coast City Council members, who have been trying to meet with county commissioners on other matters for months, might find apply to certain government bodies more than others.