Sunday, January 08, 2017

GUEST EDITORIAL: Needed: A Master plan for North Beaches

Coastal erosion planning and control with federal dollars requires a St. Augustine National Historical Park an d National Seashore. Yes we can!

St. Augustine Record Guest Editorial
By Robert E. Olsen

Three months after Hurricane Matthew, and five months until the next tropical storm season, dozens of beachfront homes on Vilano, North Beach and South Ponte Vedra Beach sit precariously on a diminished strip of high ground between Coastal Highway A1A and the open ocean.

Some exposed foundation walls and concrete slabs have become precarious cantilevers over dunes cut away by the storm, and there is now a 20-foot drop to the newly carved beach. Concrete pilings originally sunk deeply to anchor large new homes are now revealed as naked spindly straws. It is hard to enjoy a walk on the beach with such destruction in view.

At the same time, it is heartening to see many courageous oceanfront homeowners securing and adapting whatever Matthew left. Structural repair work, extensive sandbagging and temporary seawall construction are underway at many points.

However, the talk up and down the beach is that a dozen or more beachfront properties are not restorable due to insufficient remaining land, insurance costs or code issues.

And big questions remain for the entire frontage: When will the next big storm hit? Is a beach renourishment project possible? Will future erosion be accelerated by climate change and sea level rise? Will the ocean eventually advance to threaten highway A1A?

A visionary master plan is now needed to address and adapt to the realities facing the North Beaches, and it should include these components:

n A phased transformation of the narrowing strip of land between ocean and A1A from a wall of private homes into a scenic corridor of open vistas to the ocean and increased general public recreational access to the beach.

Provide for the public acquisition of private beachfront properties that have become unusable due to storm destruction or lot erosion. In addition, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation might be set up to receive properties as charitable donations from the owners, providing a beneficial tax deduction to the granting owner.

n The rebuild of Coastal Highway A1A, to further “harden” this essential transportation route against storms, erosion and ocean encroachment. The rebuild of A1A should also include a safe, fully separated pedestrian walkway/bike path along its length. This action, combined with opening up more ocean vistas along A1A, would make this segment a world-class scenic and recreation corridor.

n Restoration of the actual beach and protective dune line with a massive importation of sand and re-vegetation of the dunes.

The South Ponte Vedra – Vilano Beach Preservation Association has already assumed an important lead advocacy role in this endeavor, and its efforts could be an added impetus, when tied to a master plan to open up more of our North Beaches for public recreational access.

Implementing the actions described above will require local, state and federal collaboration. It will also be costly, but the actions would be implemented in phases over time.

Federal support would be key, and timing is good: There is an unusual bipartisan consensus in the newly convened 115th U.S. Congress that America needs a massive infrastructure rebuilding program. A project that includes saving a highway, expanding recreational opportunities and restoring lost dunes and beaches might be well positioned to be part of this.

Olson is a retired architect, urban planner and former senior official of the U.S. Department of Commerce. He resides on Vilano Beach.

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