After flirting eliminating the July 4 fireworks off the pier, with eliminating the parade, with cooler patrols at beach walkovers and aggressive policing to discourage under-age drinking, the committee the Flagler Beach City Commission appointed to study the future and feasibility of Independence Day activities on the increasingly crowded barrier-island city has dropped all controversial ideas from its final report, adopting instead a moderate, stay-the-course approach that will be recognizable by all, with a few notable improvements planned or proposed.
The committee’s report is all but complete and will be turned in to the City Commission in mid-January. The committee of five met for its next-to-last time this morning, if with a bare quorum of three, along with City Manager William Whitson, Police Chief Matt Doughney, Tourism Director Amy Lukasik and Mayor Suzie Johnston, who sit as non-voting members. The group went through the report as drafted with legal-brief precision by Committee Chairman Scott Spradley (the Flagler Beach attorney), with only minor edits at this point.
Biggest question first, though that question is addressed toward the end of the 20-page report: “From the outset of and even before the Committee’s formation, the subject of the 4th of July Fireworks Display has been studied and discussed,” the report states. The spur of the committee’s creation was actually a proposal by Commission Chairman Eric Cooley to cede July 4 fireworks to Palm Coast and shift fireworks shows in Flagler Beach to New Year’s eve. Cooley, who had some support on the commission–not least from the mayor–contended that the July 4 crowds had grown too large on a geographically limited city, overwhelming services and putting safety in jeopardy.
“There are strong opinions for continuing with the Fireworks Display. There are also many who are indifferent, primarily because of the logistical issues associated with the 4th of July, which are all exacerbated by the high-volume crowds coming for the evening Fireworks Display,” the report states. “Not to be forgotten are those who are not in favor of fireworks at all, with this group consisting primarily of pet owners and others concerned with problems associated with the high-volume traffic of 4th of July evening. All of these points of view have been considered by the Committee in making its recommendations.” but the end result was: keep the fireworks. But with conditions.
“It is the desire and hope of the Committee that our recommendations concerning traffic, parking and safety will be implemented by the Commission, which we believe will make the Fireworks Display more appealing and a safer and more enjoyable experience to those who have concerns about those challenges,” the report concluded.
Those recommendations preceded the pages on the fireworks. The committee is recommending putting an end–not to the shuttle service that had in previous years been bringing visitors from the mainland to the island, to lighten the parking load on the island, but to the free aspect of that service. The committee is recommending that riders be charged in the range of $5 a person, so residents are not subsidizing visitors. Previous arrangements would continue, including the use of the volunteer traffic corps known as Flagler React, the use of the county’s Fire Flight helicopter to assist with traffic the night of the fireworks, and the city’s push for more use of rideshare services like Lyft and Uber.
Parking has been an issue. Visitors have been alienating residents by parking in yards and swales. The report cites “recent studies” by the Florida Department of Transportation that concluded that 20,000 cars per day pass through Flagler Beach during peak periods, presumably like July 4. “Using that figure for 4th of July estimations at 2.5 passengers per car, results in an estimate of 50,000 visitors to the city,” the report states. That figure of 50,000 has been bandied about at committee meetings and elsewhere, but it is not necessarily accurate. The figure may be inflated for two reasons: average vehicle occupancy in 2017, the last year for which figures are available, was 1.67, according to the Department of Energy. That would result in 33,500 people crossing into the city. The figure doesn’t take onto account vehicles passing through the city rather than actually stopping, parking and visiting, which would further lower the total. Placing an actual figure on the number of visitors, based on extrapolated rather than more precise data, may unnecessarily inflate a number–or at least a condition–that needs no inflation: the city is crowded to capacity on July 4. There’s no disputing that, even if the actual number of people in the city that day is not accurately known.
Meanwhile, parking spaces in the city have diminished significantly. Parking is no longer available at the south end of State Road A1A. It is no longer available in the lot next to Veterans Park, where the farmer’s market used to be, now that the lot will be the future site of a hotel, which may well be under construction by July 4 (the developer is projecting construction for the second or third quarter of the year). But there will be new parking areas in addition to the Babcock shopping center: for those willing to pay for shuttle service, there’ll be parking at Boston Whaler’s plant and at First Baptist Church on Roberts Road. The three sites will add up to 730 parking spots–still a mere fraction of visitors’ numbers, even if each vehicle averaged three people, or 2,200 people total. If even 30,000 people are visiting the island that day, off-site parking will account for just 7 percent of the total, leaving the rest still clanging over residential streets on the island.
It is still not even certain that the church and the boat-builders’ lots will be available. “The Committee urges the Commission to continue its efforts to negotiate the use of these properties for July 4th parking,” the report states. “But even if those efforts are completely successful, it is the belief of the Committee that there is current need to increase the July 4th parking inventory East of the bridge, to the extent any additional spaces can be located or can be made available.
The report also notes the challenges of overcrowded beaches. Inebriation’s lubricants flow a bit more than a drop in the ocean on July 4, potentially creating safety issues, though none of the committee meetings produced a statistical report that would provide a more concrete picture of the problem–if there is a problem. Typically, the next day’s booking report at the county jail lists several arrests for public intoxication, but the reports have generally not been overwhelmed by such arrests.
“After examining these challenges, the Committee recommends a concerted effort by the Commission to curtail underage alcohol consumption in the downtown celebration area,” the report states. “The Mayor has specifically volunteered to lead an Underage Drinking Awareness Campaign, in tandem with being active in her role as Mayor in publicly supporting Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Additionally, Chief Doughney has made several recommendations concerning law enforcement presence in the area. Specifically, the Chief will continue ATV patrols during the day on the beach in the downtown area.” He will call on other law enforcement agencies to help with enforcement against underage drinking. But committee members were careful to signal against enforcement that would be too heavy-handed.
As for the parade, the committee “wholeheartedly supports continuation,” but “the parade is simply too long given the typical July temperatures. A shorter parade, therefore, may serve to improve the experience for the viewing public and for entrants. Shortening the parade means limiting entrants,” and vehicles per entrants. But the proposal may run into First Amendment issues, especially concerning political candidates, who love to fill the parade’s ranks in election years. Between the parade and the fireworks, the city intends to organize Veterans Park much like its First Friday festivities, with the same organizer: Vern Shank, also known as D.J. Vern.
The committee will meet one last time on Jan. 6 to finalize the report, the latest draft of which appears below. (The committee is still taking public input through the city’s clerk.) “It’ll be presented to the commission the following week, and we’re done,” Spradley said.