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Study: Flagler’s Beaches Are Eroding Critically, and Will Cost County Alone $5 to $13 Million a Year to Slow

What was left of what used to be the sea wall at Varn Park, in November 2021. (Olsen)

Posted on August 15, 2022

This is not what residents of Flagler Beach–or Flagler County–want to hear, certainly not after huge and alarming carve-out of sand and dunes north of the pier in the last two weeks: anecdotal speculation to the contrary, much of that sand is not coming back. Not unless documented erosion trends of the last 49 years, or documented acceleration of erosion in the past 10, is to reverse course.

Flagler County’s 18 miles of beaches have lost 3.6 million cubic yards of sand since 1972. Almost a third of that loss has occurred in the last 10 years, an indication of how much faster erosion and sea level rise are carving out the barrier island. The state Department of Environmental Protection has declared 45 percent of Flagler County’s shoreline critically eroded.

Those are the findings of the most comprehensive beach-management study to date in Flagler County, a 174-page document produced by Jacksonville’s Olsen Associates for Flagler County government and its engineering department. The document is a preface to the county’s moves toward a long-awaited, long-delayed beach management plan. Consultants are presenting the results of their study to the County Commission on Monday morning.

The last two weeks’ erosion just north of the Flagler Beach pier. (© FlaglerLive)

Those results paint a stark picture of the consequences of climate change and sea level rise, consequences that are not only irreversible for now, but that are on an accelerating course. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) projects an average increase of one foot along the east coast over the next 30 years–equivalent to the same level of sea rise over the previous hundred years, the study states.

“Future climate change and the associated acceleration in the Mean Sea Level (MSL) will increase storm surge levels, which in turn will exacerbate coastal erosion and flooding/inundation of low-lying areas,” the study finds. Sea level rise “will additionally adversely affect the performance, benefits and feasibility of beach nourishment projects. Specifically, an increase in the mean water level will contribute to shoreline recession and increase the sand loss rate from the beach.”

The study’s results will shock, depress and bewilder: the amount of sand lost, and that continues to erode, is colossal and relentless, and the costs to merely slow down the erosion at least for the next half century are crushing.

Unlike Volusia and St. Johns County, which have long had beach-management divisions and beach-management plans, Flagler County has neither, and is only relatively recently getting around to developing a beach-management plan. Hurricanes Matthew, Irma and Dorian accelerated the urgency. Flagler County, in other words, may be playing catch-up on a slow-building catastrophe of the last decades that has it far behind, and in a place from which it will have difficulties recovering. The required repairs the study outlines are momentous, the costs are prohibitive, potentially leaving the county looking for piecemeal fixes yet again or being tempted to further kick the can down the road yet again.

The county’s capacity to execute approved and ready-to-go beach-management plans are not encouraging: after preparation that took a decade and a half, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was ready to go nearly two years ago with a beach-renourishment plan on 2.6 miles of beach south of the Flagler Beach pier, from South 6th Street to South 28th Street. That plan has been hung up by property owners, now down to one, who refused to sign easements–not to give up their shoreline property, but merely to allow the Corps to dump sand there and rebuild dunes. Those property owners refused to sign the easements intended to save their properties, and one of them still does, still delaying the project, which may not start until next June, if then. The Corps has threatened to pull the funding: other communities can use it.

It’s in that context that the Olsen study now lands. Its consultants presented an interim report last February. Detailed as that presentation was, it lacked the comprehensiveness of the final report.

The study analyzes sand loss over the 18 miles of Flagler’s shore up to April 2021 only, so in that regard it’s already a little out of date, because there’s been significant loss since. The study proposes a series of solutions–not to stop the erosion, but to slow it down, and only for the next 50 years. It outlines where and how the beaches can (or must) be re-sanded, or re-nourished. The study, in its grimmest passages, projects towering costs to local taxpayers, even after partnerships with federal and state funding sources are taken into account, to carry out the needed beach management.

The study describes that cost as “the probable order of magnitude financial responsibility of the local community to implement a comprehensive beach management program.” In actual dollar figures, that translates to total annual costs of $7.9 million to $15.9 million, in today’s dollars, with Flagler County’s responsibility–after potential federal and state dollars are taken into account–ranging from between $5.5 million to $13.1 million per year, depending on the approach the county chooses. Olsen is proposing six different approaches, or options. None is cheap.

Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath at the south end of Flagler Beach in 2016. (Olsen)

“The initial cost to construct the first five alternative concepts ranges from $70.5 [million] to $137.7” million, the study states in one of its starkest bullet points. The initial cost means only the very first phase of the 50-year renourishment. “Existing Federal, State and [Florida Department of Transportation] funding as well as existing costshare opportunities from the State (for Critically Eroded shorelines and State Parks) can provide between 28% and 42% of the initial cost. To accommodate the remaining balance, Flagler County would need to consider funding opportunities within the county.”

So even if federal and state dollars account for 28 to 42 percent of the cost, that leaves Flagler County taxpayers responsible for anywhere from $41 million to $98.6 million of the cost just for the first phase, with expected additional phases every decade or so, going by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ timeline: those dunes will continue to erode. “An acceleration in sea level rise (SLR), assuming currently accepted USACE Intermediate project for future sea level rise,” the study states, using the acronym for the Army Corps of Engineers, “will increase the sand demand volume and corresponding cost. The USACE Intermediate SLR projection would increase the total required maintenance sand volume by 22%, from 6.9 [million cubic yards] to 8.4” million cubic yards.

“This would apply to initial construction, as well as future periodic nourishment events,” the study states. “Funding vehicles such as loans, bonds, etc. may be required to cover expenses at the time of a construction event and repaid over time using revenue from cost-sharing opportunities and a local funding source.”

Already, as County Attorney Al Hadeed is cautioning, the required sand for the 2.6 miles of the Army Corps project has now doubled, from 500,000 cubic yards to 1 million cubic yards, because of recent, pronounced erosion. The County Commission has yet to contend with those added costs. The Corps project was approved and funded based on several-years-old sand needs. That’s just on 14 percent of the county’s shoreline.

At least finding sand is not an issue. The county has secured access to a federal borrow pit 11 miles offshore (called Area 3) that contains 43 million cubic yards of sand, about four times the amount “needed to construct and maintain” the county’s dune system, if it were to adopt the most extensive restoration approach. The proportion of sand available drops as the effects of sea level rise are taken into account, since more will be needed. The alternative is sand mined from onshore sources. Those are 60 to 120 miles away from Flagler, the study states.

The study projects partnerships with federal and state agencies, such as the one tempering the costs of the Army Corps project in Flagler Beach. But those partnerships will be limited both by available dollars and other communities competing for those dollars, leaving the county responsible for a significant share. The county’s funding sources are already leveraged. The tourism sales surtax tax may be maxed out at 5 percent, although that’s not definitive. Using its portion devoted to beach management “is not expected to be sufficient to support the requirements of a beach management program without significant impacts to the other existing tourist development activities within Flagler County,” the study finds.

Damage from the November 2021 nor’easter at Jungle Hut Road Park and northern Hammock Dunes.

The county’s property tax rate is twice that of Palm Coast’s, and there is no appetite for higher taxes or a taxing district, the beach being considered a community-wide asset, not just an amenity for beach-side residents. Yet the county will have to find a revenue source if it is to enact the beach-management plan even in scaled back form. The study includes various forms of special taxing districts, a sales surtax and bonds–loans, which would nevertheless have to be backed by dedicated revenue–as funding mechanisms.

“This highlights the essential need for Flagler County to establish a dedicated source of local funding regardless of project scope and/or project cost-sharing opportunities,” the study states.

That’s one of the principal recommendations the study outlines. The first is to establish a “comprehensive approach to beach and dune management,” with the county assuming “governance over all 18 miles of shoreline and assum[ing] the position as Local sponsor and administrative head for all beach management activities in Flagler County,” as it effectively has already in many regards. Other recommendations include surveying the extent of coquina rock outcroppings at the north end of the county’s shoreline, outcroppings that cannot be simply covered up in sand, as they are a protected feature of the shore, and to study the feasibility of sand-delivery method.

Then come implementation steps: seeking easements along all 18 miles of the shoreline, picking the specific renourishment option out of the half dozen Olsen is outlining (the differences are of breadth and cost), and attempting to expand both the state designation of Flagler’s critically eroded shoreline, up from 45 percent, and to expand the U.S. Army Corps’ project area from Flagler Beach, both of which would lessen local costs–should state and federal dollars be available. Curiously, the recommendations leave silent public input, town-hall meetings, hearings and the like, though the study’s scope is rigorously scientific and prescriptive only in those regards. Politics and policy are left to the commissioners, who hold a workshop on the study at 9 a.m. Monday.


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