Posted on March 29, 2023
The Florida Department of Transportation’s much-anticipated plan to protect State Road A1A in Flagler Beach is almost anti-climatic, shifting much of the responsibility back to other governments.
The plan, disclosed today at a public meeting in Flagler Beach, will mostly rely on existing plans by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild 2.6 miles of beach and dunes south of the pier, and plans by Flagler County to rebuild beaches north and south of that stretch.
Notably, the preliminary plan rejects any additional rock revetments or sheetpile walls. Revetments are considered ugly and diminish beach areas. Sheetpile walls are not particularly sturdy and require ongoing maintenance and additions of sand, making them cheaper up front but costly in the long run.
“I’m always optimistic,” Flagler County Engineer Faith al-Khatib said today. “There is a benefit for Flagler County resident as much as for FDOT to protect everyone. So whatever we do here is a benefit for the state, for FDOT and also for the resident of Flagler County.” But, al-Khatib said, even the county is working on solidifying additional funding, “there are a lot of moving targets.”
The U.S. Army project is mostly funded and should start in a year, if with five times more sand than originally projected (1.6 million cubic yards of sand instead of 300,000 cubic yards), due to intervening erosion. New cost estimates are still being calculated. The Flagler County plans are partly funded, and their total cost is uncertain. But with the state transportation department’s backing, Flagler County would stands a higher chance of getting state dollars, especially now that the transportation department is seeing renourishment as its main protection for A1A.
The Transportation Department is not entirely out of the picture: it is planning a secant wall, or sea wall, on 1.3 miles of beach straddling the Flagler-Volusia county line, from half a mile north of Hybrid Road in Volusia to South Central Avenue in Volusia County. The Flagler County portion of the sea wall would extend some 3,200 feet.
The department built one such secant wall from North 18th Street in Flagler Beach to Osprey Road, completing it in 2019 as part of a $25 million project that also rebuilt a segment of A1A south of the pier after both areas were severely damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
The wall held up well during Hurricanes Ian and Nicole, though its sand cover had washed out even before those storms struck.
The secant wall at the south end of Flagler would be one of two. The department would build a 1.28-mile wall from Sunrise Avenue north in Volusia County. The department is estimating that the two walls together would cost roughly $100 million–a colossal, unexpectedly high cost that puts it well in range of beach renourishment costs over a long period. When costs of Flagler County’s Army Corps project were estimated a few years ago, stretched over the 50-year duration of the project, the figure was $100 million. That was to be both the federal and the local share. The costs have risen since, though by how much is unclear.
The Army Corps considered building sea walls, but ruled out the option “because the cost was two or three times [that of] beach and dune renourishment,” Jason Harrah, the project manager for Flagler’s Army Corps renourishment, said. “For the Corps, typically a beach and dune will do something very similar to a wall in a more environmentally friendly way.” Had DOT considered building a wall in the federal project area, the Corps would have likely pulled out its renourishment project, Harrah said.
Transportation department officials are presenting the proposals as “initial recommendations,” so they’re not set in stone. The department is still soliciting public input, as it was today at Flagler Beach’s Wickline Center.
“At the end of the day, they’re responsible for the preservation of A1A,” Flagler Beach City Commissioner Scott Spradley said today as he was attending the DOT meeting. “Nothing to do with the beaches, and most of the residents, their concern is the beaches. But you can’t have effective beaches without A1A there. So it’s these competing interests. As far as shifting responsibilities, that sounds like it’s still a developing issue.” Spardley said he was not surprised that “DOT would support handing some of this off to the county.”
The department has relied on some 100 written public comments to get to this stage, after holding public meetings in Volusia and Flagler County earlier this year. The aim, repeated by DOT officials, was to stop doing the same thing and expecting a different result. (See: “State Transportation Department to Flagler Beach: Simply Rebuilding A1A Again Won’t Do.”)
The cost of doing the same thing for two decades has been prohibitive, as a slide DOT is showing in one of its latest presentations indicates: going back to 2002, installing rock revetments, repairing washouts on A1A, rebuilding A1A in 2019, and carrying out “stabilization” projects has all cost over $39 million, not including the $20 million Flagler County spent to rebuild dunes after Ian and Matthew–dunes that, by the time Nicole and Ian struck, were long gone.
And not including the $15 million DOT has spent so far for emergency repairs since Ian and Nicole. Those emergency repairs have dumped more than 51,000 cubic yards of sand and 32,000 tons of rock along the Flagler and north Volusioa shorelines. The repairs are ongoing.
To end the cycle of repeating the same thing after every storm, DOT worked through what it calls a “strike team.” That team assembled representatives from Flagler and Volusia governments, the transportation department, the Army Corps, and the state Department of Environmental Protection and vetted proposals while listening to the public along the way. The framing principle was “resiliency”–how to build something that will last.
In developing the recommendations, the department considered several factors: roadway protection, initial costs and future maintenance costs, possibilities of sharing costs with other agencies, like the federal government, environmental permitting, aesthetics, impacts on wildlife, the environment, water quality, recreation, parking and public access, and the duration of construction.
Unsurprisingly, the public response following the meetings in January favored long-term solutions. (See: “Sea Walls, Granite, Dunes: FDOT Options to Strengthen A1A Are Nothing Flagler Hasn’t Seen Before.”) While responses at first blush seemed supportive of secant walls, on closer inspection, that support was based on a misunderstanding of how walls work, and whether the walls would provide as broad and aesthetically pleasing a beach as would beach renourishment.
The latter option is still the most favored, though it is also not much less expensive than secant walls. (See: “In Major Shift, Flagler Beach Residents Appear to Favor Sea Walls, But Misconceptions Abound.”)