The signs, fruit of a $230,000 grant that never got its proper public hearings in the county or the city, have been going up elsewhere along A1A in Flagler County this week. But after an intense campaign by city commissioners that reflected almost unanimous public outrage against the signs, and the personal intervention of the state Department of Transportation’s secretary, the A1A Scenic and Historical Byway group putting up the signs was barred from planting them in Beverly Beach and Flagler Beach.
“Hopefully it’s over,” Jane Mealy, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission, said today (May 18). “It takes a lot to make me angry and if I do get angry it’s usually over in about five minutes. Not that one. I’m a big home rule person, I get very annoyed when the state says you can’t do this, you can’t do that, but then to have a non-profit tell us what to do, that really bothered me, and it didn’t go away in five minutes.”
The A1A secured the federal grant in 2012, after ostensibly winning some support from governments along A1A in St. Johns and Flagler County to proceed with the project. The support the group won, however, was based on sketchy plans rather than concrete examples of where the signs would be planted, what they would look like, what they would point to, and what signs they would replace. Flagler Beach had in 2010 agreed to four signs in the city.
Then the A1A group’s contractor began drilling foundation holes in Flagler Beach and Beverly Beach, without the city’s knowledge. That’s when residents discovered that there were to be eight signs in Flagler Beach and one in Beverly Beach, with many signs blocking residents’ views and adding to clutter. The A1A group saw the signs as a way to reduce signage clutter along A1A. But the oversize signs appear imposing and, in several places where they have been planted, redundant, given the presence of other, more familiar signs, or the absence of a compelling need to point to such landmarks as, say, the Flagler Beach pier.
The signs themselves appeared to lack direction and purpose.
Flagler Beach residents quickly mobilized and descended on the city commission, filling seats at two meetings and a workshop, and hearing A1A officials, including Bill McClure–the St. Johns County Commissioner now running for a congressional seat–Sallie O’Hara, the A1A group’s consultant, and Danielle Anderson, who had formerly chaired the A1A group, defend the grant’s purpose and the group’s approach. But residents and the city commission were alternately either not convinced or offended by the A1A officials’ rather dismissive demeanor toward the city’s demands for more transparency and explanations.
At a city workshop organized to give residents a chance to give their opinions of the signs in writing, the response was nearly unanimous: keep them away from the city. The city commission directed City Manager Larry Newsom to speak with state transportation officials to reflect the city’s opposition to the signs. In early May, Newsom sent a letter to Noranne Downs, the transportation department’s District 5 secretary, which has jurisdiction over state roads in Flagler County, summarizing the issue from the city’s perspective.
Newsom made sure to note how the A1A group’s heavy-handed and non-inclusive attitude had carried over to the drilling of the signs’ foundations. “Despite my request to cease and desist on the installation of the signs until the matter could be delved into further,” Newsom wrote, “phones at City Hall started ringing when contractors were seen on-site, digging into the dune[s] with the intent of installing 8′-deep footings (east of the Coastal Construction Control Line and without an FDEP permit). On our stretch of SR A1A, the road lies on top of our primary frontal dune, offering a scenic view of the ocean unparalleled by much of Florida’s Atlantic coastline, but also exposing this fragile ecosystem to environmental hazards.”
Newsom, reflecting the city commission’s unanimous vote, then explicitly asked that the transportation department halt progress on the signs’ planting in the city.
He then went one better. The commission had hired Newsom, who started work the first week of January, based in part on his long experience working with state officials as a county official in the Panhandle. That experience proved useful in this case. Spending the weekend at his home in the Panhandle earlier this month, Newsom dropped in on the state transportation secretary in person, and pressed the city’s case, according to city commissioners.
It worked. The signs were killed.
Then on Tuesday city officials briefly panicked again when city offices got nine more “location” calls from contractors–required calls before contractors dig in certain places. They were again referring to those signs.
“They were going to come in and pull the foundations out,” City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said. “Larry’s advice to them was, check with DEP first before pulling the pillars back out of the dunes.” City officials agreed that leaving the foundations in place was safer, for the dunes, than removing them and potentially causing more harm.
Belhumeur said the signs were unnecessary. “Gamble Rogers, I don’t know how anybody can miss that. You can’t miss the pier,” he said, referring to what the signs would have pointed to, had they been planted in the city.
It had been unclear whether the A1A group’s contractor would charge the city for not having the signs. City commissioners were adamant that they would not pay a dime for the signs, whether to pl;ant them or remove them. On Wednesday, Anderson said there are no associated costs with the city’s decision.
As for the signs elsewhere on A1A, Anderson said the group will move next to attempting to remove some of the clutter,m as intended in the original grant. “It’s not finished, this is just the first step in the process,” Anderson said.