A majority of Flagler Beach residents now appear to favor so-called secant walls, those blunt, thick, rugged sea walls of piles drilled into the dune line, reinforced with concrete and steel and, in normal circumstances, buried under dunes.
But that support generally rests on a fundamental misconception–that sea walls would not only protect State Road A1A behind them, but the beaches in front of them as well.
According to numbers tallied by the Department of Transportation and obtained by FlaglerLive, 27 of the 48 people who contributed written opinions to the state following a “listening session” about A1A options last week in Flagler Beach said they were either fully or somewhat in favor of building secant walls. (See: “Sea Walls, Granite, Dunes: FDOT Options to Strengthen A1A Are Nothing Flagler Hasn’t Seen Before.”)
Out of 58 responses, 21 people were either opposed to secant walls outright (seven were in that column), or favored beach renourishment and dune rebuilding only (12), or more rock revetments (three). Several responses did not fall into any of the categories.
“If you’re going to fix the problem, you might as well go with the secant wall with vegetation,” Joe Kovach said. Or, as Graig Foust of North central Avenue put it: “1: first priority should be to protect the community, which to me means A1A. 2: Second priority, attempt to maintain the beach, but not at the expense of #1 above. It seems to me that secant wall method is the best. I realize that the beach may wash away during severe storms, but if all we must do is then restore the beach, we have saved the time and expense of rebuilding A1A yet again, plus be still be doing beach restoration that would need to be done anyway.”
Taken at face value, the numbers project a distinct turnaround from the public response the department got and Flagler Beach government itself gave in the wake of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, when opposition to walls was loud and shrill. Numerous storms and catastrophic erosion along the shore since have also eroded resistance to walls, however ugly, environmentally suspect and damaging to beaches’ longevity they may be: sea walls tend to protect what’s behind them at the expense of what’s in front of them, including habitat.
The Transportation Department’s data is especially significant because it will be used to dispense with more anecdotal or fleeting opinions heard at government meetings, in social media and in comment sections, providing both DOT and local governments with a more detailed and documented perspective on residents’ wishes.
But DOT’s tally may not at all be as clear as the numbers indicate, especially when reading the words behind the numbers. Based on their responses, many residents seem to have misconceptions of what secant walls do and don’t do, and to what extent they protect (as opposed to impact) the beach. Most notably, many respondents who want both road and beach preserved equally confuse the walls’ protection of State Road A1A with protection of the beach.
In fact, the two are not at all synonymous, and can potentially be mutually exclusive. While a renourishment project alone would protect both beach and road (or provide 96 percent protection to the road, in the words of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Jason Harrah), a wall project would protect the road but more likely damage the beach, according to Harrah. That’s why the Corps, which is set to carry out a huge beach renourishment at the south end of Flagler Beach, will not do so should a sea wall be built anywhere in its planned project area.
A closer look at the responses point to many of those misconceptions and misunderstandings of sea walls. The responses suggest that, while DOT provided a listening session residents greatly appreciated, its explanations about how sea walls work–at least based on the response it elicited–were either wanting or tendentious.
“Preserve turtle nesting availability,” Palma Berardi of North 12th Street responded, voicing support for walls. “Already have very narrow beach in many areas–don’t like projects that reduce beach area. Dune restoration seems a waste of money; washes away.” But absent significant sand renourishment, walls are more likely to impact turtle nests and narrow the span of the beach, according to the Corps.
“In north Flagler Beach (North 17- North 13th) we have wide healthy dunes,” Mary Louk of North Central Avenue wrote. “I would like to see the secant wall installed from the roadside, limiting the impact to the existing dunes.” In fact, the installation of a wall there would counter the very health of the dunes Louk is seeing as the scouring effect of the ocean would more rapidly carve out what would be left of the dunes. Dunes, when healthy, are nature’s walls, which is why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ project south of the pier is built around recreating broad, sloping dunes that would widen the beach.
“I like the secant wall placed in high damage areas,” a respondent identified only as D. Black said. “Then add the granite to provide additional stability. Then dune renourishment.” But DOT would not combine sea walls with rock revetments, nor would it combine sea walls with renourishment: that’s why the Corps of Engineers would not go ahead with its plan to renourish south Flagler Beach if DOT were to build walls there. The two are incompatible.
Still, in its tally of responses, DOT counted such responses as favoring secant walls, thus creating the impression of more support for such walls than there may be.
DOT’s tally buttresses its decision no longer to just rebuild A1A and wait for the next storm to shred it. John Tyler, the Florida Department of Transportation’s District 5 secretary, told the Flagler Beach City Commission in November that that was no longer an option, for understandable reasons. It kept costing the department (and taxpayers) millions of dollars each time, including in this last round, without achieving a different result.
Opponents of sea walls also filled the comment box, and in several cases did so with a clearer understanding of the options and their consequences: “I am opposed to the 2 proposals referencing walls (sea wall and secant wall) for several reasons,” Marie Finn of South Central Avenue wrote. “1) While they may protect A1A, they do not keep our beaches and dunes serviceable, functional and resilient for decades to come, which is actually your mission statement per the handout. 2) Sea walls, over time, will fail (as seen in Wilbur by the Sea). Storms will wash out the sand in front of the wall and then there will be a vacuum situation created, causing the sand behind the wall to wash out, diminishing the strength of the wall. 3) We will lose the Corps project. Who, then, will help replenish the beach? And what about the nesting turtles? 4) Who will be attracted to the businesses on A1A if we have a serviceable A1A but the beach is washed away? And what about the new hotel — who ants to come to a beach that has no beach? My community needs to be fully advised that the sea wall options negate the Corps project. That needs to be explained. No one wants to lose the Corps project — we’ve all worked too long and hard for that — so it needs to be clear that the Corps project goes away if DOT puts in a sea wall.”
The only misconception in that instance is that the Corps project would negate all DOT projects or sea walls. It will not. Tyler told Flagler Beach City Commissioner Jane Mealy that DOT would carry out i projects on the remaining parts of Flagler’s shore, outside the Corps area, should the Corps proceed. (Louk, the resident quoted above, supports secant walls at the north of the city and the Corps project at the south portion.)
Finn’s statement was echoed almost word for word by Harry Cepura, who noted skepticism at DOT’s commitment to the city’s beaches. He raised a question DOT officials could not answer beyond generalities at the listening session: “Who will maintain the dune and beach if a seawall is installed? Nowhere does FDOT state any future maintenance.” (The Corps project’s commitment is spelled out in a contract you can read here.)
The Department of Transportation hosted the “listening session” in Flagler Beach last week, where it displayed the four options it is considering. Doing nothing was not one of them. The four options, as reported at the time:
- Building more secant pile sea walls like the one it built at the north end of Flagler Beach in 2019. That’s the option the department favors most.
- Dumping more granite revetments, as it periodically has at the south end of Flagler Beach and in Marineland.
- Dune restoration and beach renourishment through colossal and recurring sand dumps.
- Building Sheet pile walls like those occasionally seen in front of properties around Painters Hill.
Responses opposing secant walls and favoring beach renourishment were
The Department of Transportation built a secant wall at the north end of Flagler Beach in 2019, after Hurricanes Matthew and Irma damaged the shoreline there and south of the Flagler Beach pier. The wall was buried in sand for a while but lost it all even before Hurricane Nicole hit. But while it laid bare and scraggly-ugly against the shoreline, it withstood Nicole’s and Ian’s assaults, as well as the onslaught of other storms and unusual high tides. The wall’s protection contrasted with the effects of the storm south of the pier, where A1A was again shredded, requiring millions of dollars in emergency repairs, and millions more to come to solidify the road again.
The freshness of the latest destruction and the contrast between the south side of the city and the north side almost certainly played a big role in the public response. But that leaves open to question how the public would have responded had the Army Corps’ renourishment project, the first of its kind in Flagler, been carried out by now.
The project has been delayed for three years because of hold-outs who wouldn’t sign easements allowing the Corps to do its work. The last of the hold-outs, who alone delayed the project a full year, finally agreed to sign just this week. The project is getting re-calibrated, to account for further erosion over the past three years, and will get under way in April 2024, according to county officials.
Once the project is completed, Harrah said the 2.6 miles of beach it covers will be significantly broader than the beach as it looks now, and dunes far ampler than those the county is rebuilding at the north end of Flagler will be restored–and rebuilt again soon after they are eroded, as needed.
County Attorney Al Hadeed and County Engineer Faith al-Khatib conceded last fall, soon after Hurricane Nicole struck, that had the renourishment project been completed by then, the damage to A1A would likely not have been anywhere near as severe, and the road may not have been damaged at all. Residents have not had the opportunity to see what a renourishment projects looks like, and can do for their beach.
But once they do, they will be able to compare renourishment with secant walls and see advantages and differences between both. If DOT were to then solicit their opinions about how to protect A1A, their responses would likely be different than those collected last week.
“Dune restoration = FB desire for natural environment,” Angela Smith, a member of the Flagler Beach Economic Development Task Force, said, referring to the city by its initials.
Corps project or not, sea walls also had their supporters on the south side: “Put a seawall on the south side, like the one on the north side,” Diane Cline of South Flagler Avenue suggested to DOT. “Put major funding into plants, complete with follow through care to ensure they prosper. The top priority plant is saw palmetto and the plants need to be big enough to survive being neglected.”
DOT officials said they would decide what options to proceed with by march, ahead of the legislative session, so they know what sort of funding to request from lawmakers.
To read all written responses to DOT, go here.