The Flagler Beach Pier will be demolished and rebuilt as an 800-foot concrete pier, with $10 million in federal funds already allocated, and $2.5 million in money the city must still find. The city hopes the new, more hurricane-resistant pier will be completed by the time Flagler Beach marks its centennial in 2024.
The Flagler Beach City Commission in a special meeting Wednesday evening took a series of four votes to move ahead with the plan. The meeting followed a 70-minute hour-long workshop where City Manager William Whitson outlined the city’s options and Allison Taylor, a Bureau of Recovery specialist with the state Division of Emergency Management, explained why the city was at risk of losing that $10 million, and why one approach was more prudent than another.
“You know Matthew is 2016. We are getting further and further away from that original declaration date. And the further you get away the less, I guess, more skeptical FEMA is of time extensions,” Taylor said.
The pier lost 163 of its 800 feet during Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The Federal Emergency Management Administration awarded the city $10 million for a replacement at the time. But the city did not move ahead, putting the money at risk of being reallocated. The city is having to file an extension with FEMA to ensure that the money isn’t lost. To show good faith, the commission held what turned out to be one of its lesser-publicized workshops and meetings, dealing with one of the more consequential issues in the city, with direct bearing on the city’s residents and on the city’s identity. Only a handful of people not associated with government agencies were at workshop and meeting.
The commission’s four votes were all unanimous, reflecting unanimity and eagerness to move forward. And the meeting was attended by Deputy County Administrator Jorge Salinas and County Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord, a signal of the county’s involvement and willingness to help.
Salinas briefly addressed the commission about the money. “In terms of funding support, that will have to come to the commissioners for them to review and consider,” he said. Randy Stapleford, a representative of the office of Rep. Mike Waltz, who represents Flagler, was also in attendance. “As far as the delays, there’s enough reasons out there why there’s been a delay with Covid,” he said.
Covid has been the go-to explanation for innumerable delays, but it is also the case that the pier rebuilding project had been on late City Manager Larry Newsom’s list of priorities, but had not moved forward even in pre-covid years. Newsom had in mind a 1,000-foot, concrete pier that would be built parallel to the old one.
Sometime in 2016 or 2017 the city got a contract from the state allowing it to proceed with the first option, Lord said. “Unfortunately, no action has really happened. So that is on the state and FEMA’s eyes, they say hey, all these years have gone by and Flagler Beach still hasn’t moved forward.”
Whitson on Wednesday presented two options to commissioners. Option A would preserve the first 100 feet of the wooden structure, like a nod to its historicity. The rest would be replaced and extended back to the pier’s pre-2004 length, in concrete. The pier was 800 feet before the 2004 hurricane season. (It is now 637 feet. It reopened in June 2017, eight months after Hurricane Matthew sheared off its end and forced it closed.)
The second option was to preserve the original pier and build a new, concrete pier of equal length (not 1,000 feet, as Newsom imagined) closely south and parallel to it. As officials spoke of it Wednesday, that option was fraught with risks and uncertainties.
Taylor was strongly discouraging of the city going with the second option.
“If your costs did come in higher, you’re not going to get any more money than what the project was originally offered,” she said. She cautioned the commission about long timelines for environmental reviews by numerous regulatory agencies. “When you’re working with that many parties, it can take a long time.” There was no guarantee that the state would grant the land to the south of the pier to build a second pier. And Option B would not require an environmental review, since it’s only a replacement of an existing structure.
Lord was also discouraging of the second option. It lacks any allowances for cost overruns. Option A has those allowances.
“If you stick with Option A, because it’s the original footprint getting you back to where you are but better and stronger with concrete,” Lord said, “if there are cost overruns, justifiable cost overruns that are documented, procured in the right fashion, one of the things that Allison mentioned is the fact that you can come back to FEMA at the end of the day and reconcile, say hey, we ended up eating half a million dollars, over $1 million, and then you justify–why? Because concrete costs twice as much as at start of the process.”
Lord said there’s also a possibility that the state would pick up 12.5 percent of the cost, leaving the rest to the city.
The plan would be for a pier 800 feet long, 25 feet wide, with a 17-by-31 foot end “T.” That’s what FEMA gave the city $10 million for.
There are two different ways of measuring the pier. One is from the pier’s own gated entrance. The other is from the sidewalk. If measured from the sidewalk, then the 800 feet the commission voted on Wednesday would mean that the resulting pier is shorter than it was pre-2004.
Johnston called Option B “a gamble,” because it would imply bigger costs to build the parallel pier and future costs should the existing pier be again damaged by a storm–as it is certain to be.
“If we went with Option B do we have a long term plan for the old pier?” the mayor asked. “Because you know the the structure is weakened, and once it becomes inoperable or uninsurable, do we have a plan to remove it, or are we going to just let it stay and become an eyesore?” The city, Whitson said, would have to remove it, and possibly face the removal cost. The once certainty: storms will damage the pier. It has experienced losses in 1944, in 1960, in 1964, in 1984 and so on.
Documentation for Wednesday’s meeting referred to another loss in 2005. But it was in 2004 when Florida was struck by four hurricanes–Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne–and the pier lost 144 feet. Frances was the culprit. That October, the commission awarded a $259,000 contract to John Toft Construction Inc. of New Smyrna Beach to repair and restore the pier. John Toft had conducted several repairs on the pier after previous storms, including after Hurricane Floyd damaged 600 feet of the pier. Even then, fishermen complained that the city wasn’t reinforcing the pier with concrete. The reason was the price tag. It would have cost three times as much.
Commissioner Jane Mealy–who moments earlier had actually favored Option B–made the motion to go with Option A, which was swiftly approved. The three other motions were more procedural, controlling the way the city would find an engineering firm and bid out the project through what Whitson termed the “traditional” request for proposal process, directing the manager to lobby for the remaining funds needed. The manager was also directed by a unanimous vote to seek an extension on the FEMA funds.
“We are now go for the pier,” Commission Chairman Eric Cooley said.