With 11 property owners still holding out, Flagler County’s 15-year plan to rebuild 2.6 miles of dunes in Flagler Beach may come down to an Aug. 19 verdict by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps could tell the county then that despite the $25 million Flagler has secured, despite easements signed by property owners for 128 parcels forming the length of the project, despite the fortification of the beach and the protection of State Road A1A behind it and the line of homes and businesses on the west side of the road that a stronger dune system would create, the refusal of just 11 more property owners to sign easements would create too many gaps in the new dune system, undermining the purpose of the whole project–and killing it.
The corps could also take a more magnanimous view. The county has been securing additional easements, albeit at a painfully slow pace. All but three of the remaining property owners are represented by an attorney, pre-empting direct contact between the county and the property owners, though Flagler Beach residents have been serving as proxy lobbyists. Six easements have been secured since the county first submitted its certification, which may give the corps a sense that, this late in the process, and with $17 million in federal funds invested–and a potential 50-year, $100 million timeline for the project–too much is at stake to turn back just yet.
Nevertheless, the corps has already given what amounts to a few extensions. According to a December 2018 Corps and county timeline, the easements should have been secured by early 2020. The corps’ next deadline was March 25. The coronavirus emergency intervened. The corps offered an extension. The Corps was to open bids in April, start construction in May and have the project completed, after dredging some 330,000 cubic yards of sand from a borrow pit offshore, by early October. All of that has been pushed off to less determined dates: without the easements, the corps will not proceed.
“We’ve continued to secure easements, we’ve gotten three additional easements since the last time we met,” County Attorney Al Hadeed told county commissioners earlier this week. The three easements belonged to two owners represented by John LeRoux, a Clearwater attorney.
“Those were the products of individual Flagler Beach residents and officials reaching out and speaking to them, and in particular identifying from them concerns that they had about the project and about the easement documents that they were to sign,” Hadeed said, “and carrying those questions to us. We provided responses in writing, we provided exhibits and input form our professional staff, and they were satisfied based on those explanations to give them the confidence to go forward and sign those easements. So that effort is continuing. We do have some additional concerns that need to be addressed and we are working on those now in conjunction with our partners.”
Other potential easements are in the works. “That has given the Army Corps some confidence in our continuing ability, and we’re going to continue to secure those easements,” Hadeed said. “We’ll know where we are Aug. 19 and we’ll figure out what the next steps are with the Corps. Hopefully we’ll persuade them not to terminate the project, so we’ll be going full bore between now and then to try to secure the remaining outstanding easements.”
Jane Gentile-Youd, a Plantation Bay resident and former county commission candidate who is not fond of Hadeed, told commissioners she’d been contacted by one of the hold-outs, who told her that if Hadeed were to apologize to him, he’d sign. The issue goes back to a time last May when Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston, a staffer, Hadeed and Police Chief Matt Doughney walked along the project line’s properties and Johnston knocked on some of the doors of the hold-outs. The man was upset by her allegedly not wearing a mask or not social-distancing properly, and though Hadeed answered some questions, away from the person;s property, the man was upset with Hadeed, too. It’s not clear if that easement is being secured.
“Our intent was not for owners to be harassed nor vilified, but there’s a right on the part of everyone to know who is signing and who is not,” Hadeed said, referring to a county webpage that’s kept a tally of the hold-outs, by name. It’s public information. But property owners and their attorney see it as harassment.
In continuing efforts to get easements, the county is again pressing the point that homeowners are getting what Hadeed describes as a “very substantial material benefit” in new dunes–in place of non-existent dunes right now–, and the right to build walk-overs. That right has a caveat: existing homeowners have learned that if they don’t sign an easement, Flagler Beach will not permit them to build a walk-over, “because the city separately has determined that it is inconsistent with their comprehensive plan and their beach management plan to allow a person to build a walkover on a dune remnant, where a dune is not fortified, where the dune is not restored.”
Property owners see the maneuver as extortionist. The county, which is ostensibly not involved in city rules, sees the signing of easements as ensuring short and long-term advantages for the property owners and for the surrounding community.