The Flagler County Commission will soon take over all 18 miles of beaches to manage them, and save them. An ordinance is in the works to essentially surrender Flagler Beach’s portion to the county. But saving them will be exorbitantly expensive: think $5 million to $13 million a year in local burdens alone. And it will not be a one-time cost, but a permanent adjustment to a new normal of relentless sand “renourishment” of beaches and dunes, sea-wall construction and rock revetments.
Meanwhile, the county will need more studies. More public input. More analysis of funding sources, of which it currently has none, except for only the first phases of two projects that only cover a portion of the county’s 18 miles of beaches. It’ll all need between 9 and 16 million cubic yards of sand over 50 years, depending on the extent of sea level rise.
The county commission this morning heard the results of the $250,000 beach management study it commissioned last year, and was left with two certainties: doing nothing is not an option. Starting to do something is unaffordable for now, even with six options presented by Olsen Associates, the Tampa-based consultants the county hired for the study. (For an outline of the study, see: “Flagler’s Beaches Are Eroding Critically, and Will Cost County Alone $5 to $13 Million a Year to Slow.”)
The six options are variations on the extent and width of dune and beach renourishment up and down the Florida coast, from piecemeal approaches to a top-shelf approach that would extend an impending U.S. Army Corps of Engineers beach and dune renourishment project on 2.6 miles of Flagler Beach all the way from the Volusia County line to the St. Johns County line. That would be the most solid, most durable approach, building dunes of some 44 cubic yards of sand a foot. But it would be just as expensive as the Corps project, which is expected to cost at least $100 million over the next 50 years, not counting the cost of inflation–or recent findings that its initial sand needs of 500,000 cubic yards will have to be doubled, sharply increasing costs.
County Commissioner Greg Hansen summed up whare the commission is at this time, in relation to the consultant’s conclusions: “The first three are just Band Aid fixes,” he said of the six alternatives presented. “And then four, five and six are unaffordable at this time. They’re just too much money. So I just want to make sure you don’t put us on record to just kind of pick one of these because I think there’s still some more stuff that has to come out.”
Sea walls are an option in some areas, but they are very expensive, and they’re not easily welcomed. “It’s not going to be a cheap one,” County Engineer Faith al-Khatib said. “But our recommendation to save our beaches, it might be a combination, building a wall and also during nourishment project. But any discussion about dollar amounts immediately zooms numbers upwards: $1.8 million just for design and permitting on a 2.4-mile stretch of beach, al-Khatib said. “We cannot just do band aid the way how we did after [Hurricane] Matthew,” she said.
At the same time, Olsen’s Christopher Creed left commissioners with no illusions: “The erosion is not going away. So you’re either going to sacrifice a project or you’re going to sacrifice existing upland, and eventually that’s going to not be acceptable to the community because you’re going to start having infrastructure impacts. And you’ve already had some already through some of these storms. And so you really know what those look like. The problem is not going away.” He added: “All the science points to the problem getting worse in the future with sea level rise. We’re continuing to watch that to see if that truly does materialize, but most communities are making plans for that to happen for all of their planning, all their critical infrastructure as well as their beach and dunes.”
The county agreed to prepare a beach-management plan in November 2019, after that trio of hurricanes–Matthew in 2016, Irma in 2017, Dorian in 2019–had done their share of damage to the coast. It wasn’t until February 2021 that the county approved the definitive contract with Olsen Associates to develop a beach management study. Olsen presented preliminary results in February, and its final study today, as the county, and especially Flagler Beach, have been reeling from inexplicable and colossal dune loss in the past few weeks below and just north of the Flagler Beach pier. There was more loss in the last few days.
One way to lower the county’s financial burden is to partner with state and federal agencies, as it did for the band-aid approach it conducted after Hurricane Matthew, rebuilding thinnish dunes all along the coast, down to Flagler Beach, or the way it’s doing with the Army Corps project. But those approaches take a very long time.
“I keep saying I’ve watched Jason grow old with this project. The planning for the Army Corps project started in 2001,” Flagler Beach Commissioner Jane Mealy said, referring to Jason Harrah, the project manager on the Corps project from its inception. He was in the meeting room today. “And now we’re finally getting to do it, so I can see this kind of plans that you’re talking about now going on for another 20 years, which doesn’t help us right now.”
Harrah had some reassuring words. “Studies now for the Corps will not take 15 years, we will not have the federal lapse in appropriations like we had the cause that,” Harrah said. “All Corps studies now under the smart planning process are three years, $3 million. To exceed three years requires congressional approval, so we cannot go past three years.”
Studies start with a sponsor–for example, the county commission–asking the Corps to look at the issue with specific parameters. Then the Corps has to have the authority to conduct the study, followed by a $3 million appropriation. St. Johns County followed those steps in 2014, got a 3-mile area studies, and followed that with yet another study that could yield an additional 5 to 7 miles.
“But in the event that you would elect to tell us, we want you to look at expanding the Flagler Beach study from here all the way to St. Johns County,” Harrah said, “that starts with a letter from the Chairman of the Commission saying: we want to enter into this and then we start the authority and the appropriations.” The corps will analyze the area for a year, then let the county know what areas would qualify, excluding areas that have sea walls.
Handwringing aside, commissioners were left to speak the only certainties they could, at least to seem as if they were on top of the issue, about an otherwise entirely un-certain future.
“The problem is not going away,” Commissioner Donald O’Brien said. “And obviously we need to figure out how we’re going to take action going forward amongst the options that we have. I think the biggest priority needs to be preservation of life and property, no matter what we do. So we have to prioritize that way amongst those 18 miles. Probably the biggest thing that stuck with me was, we need to identify a dedicated funding source so if we are going to undertake this, we can properly plan and have the funds to be able to do that long term and not band-aid it or take a piecemeal approach.”
“A financial plan is in order to be able to look at having sustainable income if we’re going to do these,” Commissioner Andy Dance said.
In the immediate future, Commissioner Dave Sullivan spoke of the benefit of jetties, or “you can put a tractor in there at low tide and for very short term fixes, start plowing that sand back up on the beach. I don’t know what the rules are with that at all. I know that it’s done all along the coast, and it’s been done for years and years and years. But funding is a key issue here. I think we have to go with a long term study.”
First steps, Hansen said, are to take over management of the beach, and issue a sponsor letter to the Corps to extent the Flagler Beach project as feasibly north, starting with the required (and $3 million) study. “We’ve talked to Jason and Faith and I’m pretty sure we’re going to do that,” he said, “At least to initiate the first part of the study, but as soon as we get our act together about what we want you to look at, I think that’s coming up pretty soon.”