Wednesday, February 15, 2017

NOAA PHOTOS SHOW HURRICANE DAMAGE, Commission to Vote on Remedy: Include St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore

On February 7, 2017, Commissioners will discuss financial arrangements to replace sand lost in Hurricane Matthew. Lest they resemble King Canute, they must face reality: a coherent plan for coping with coastal erosion requires enactment of the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore. Anyone who thinks we can preserve and protect our nature and history without the Department of the Interior and National Park Service is "just whistling' Dixie." And they can go pound sand.

Posted February 15, 2017 12:01 am - Updated February 15, 2017 04:41 am
St. Johns County mulls local share assessment options for sand replacement projects

A big ticket proposal by the state to get sand back behind homes along St. Johns County’s storm-ravaged coast could spell relief for some property owners, but not without a price.

The State Hurricane Recovery Plan includes a proposed $60 million project for the county that would provide about 24 cubic yards per foot of sand dune restoration for certain eligible areas, but at just a 50 percent cost share.

Although local officials say this is the largest grant program the state has ever put forward for beach restoration, the county and community groups like the South Ponte Vedra-Vilano Beach Preservation Association have been lobbying Tallahassee to increase the state’s share to 75 percent. (The project can also be scaled down to $50 million for about 20 cubic yards per foot, $40 million for about 16 cubic yards per foot, or $30 million for about 12 cubic yards per foot of restoration.)

Whether the remaining local share is $30 million or $15 million, or another figure altogether, it appears likely the property owners who would benefit from sand replacement projects will be picking up the tab. Exactly who will be paying what, and how, is yet to be determined.

This undertaking is one of many efforts on the table or in progress by federal, state and/or local agencies through a myriad of funding components.

For a rundown of the county’s projects along the coast, some of which predate the storm, see the Feb. 5 edition of The Record or go to For more information on the county’s potential liabilities after the storm, see the Feb. 12 edition of The Record or go to

Commissioners at their Feb. 7 meeting were presented with two assessment options — a Municipal Service Benefit Unit or Municipal Service Taxing Unit — to be considered for filling in the gaps when it comes to paying the local share on projects that will benefit private property owners.

Damon Douglas, special projects coordinator for the county, said either option would require the county’s upfront financing of the project, likely through borrowing, and the recouping of debt service via the assessment.

Douglas said the essential difference between the two assessments is in the way in which they are apportioned. An MSBU is a non-ad valorem assessment, not tied to the value of the property, whereas an MSTU is more of a traditional ad valorem assessment, based on the taxable value of the property after exemptions.

With an MSBU, the board sets a maximum rate (which can be adjusted downward) and the number of years for which the assessment will be collected and determines apportionment methodology. With an MSTU, the board sets a millage each year during its regular budgeting process and collections are affected by fluctuations in property values. The county currently has 8.5 mils of a 10 mil cap on MSTUs remaining.

Neal Shinkre, public works director for the county, said the next steps are getting a sand volume study done for the county’s entire coastline in order to determine eligibility and cost per home, working with coastal communities to get buy-in on project scope and instituting a financing method, and obtaining temporary construction easements. That process could take another month to two months.

Commission Chair Jimmy Johns had asked how many homes are expected to get sand, to which Shinkre replied it could be anywhere between 500 and 1,800 homes, but it was too early to tell.

Johns also questioned what happens if homes getting sand restored become inhabitable next hurricane season or before the debt is paid off, to which Shinkre and Douglas said there are statutory processes through which the county can recover that money, at least eventually, or through tax certificates or tax deeds.

During public comment, oceanfront homeowners spoke generally in favor of implementing an MSBU or MSTU and for pursuing the $60 million project, by any means necessary, rather than scaling down.

Linda Chambless, vice president of the preservation association, said it would be difficult for her and fellow homeowners to accept “another hardship,” in the form of a tax assessment for the sand projects, but that she didn’t see another viable option.

“They (the state) said that’s what it’s going to take to give us emergency protection and that’s why it’s so large,” she said of the proposed project’s scope. “We desperately need protection from the future storms.”

Joe Bateman, also with the association, said the clock is ticking for oceanfront homeowners looking to shore-up their properties and voiced support for putting a funding mechanism in place.

He also said he appreciated the legalities and complexities involved and acknowledged there’s still much to be worked out.

Survey says

In November and December, the county conducted a two-question survey by mail of 593 parcels located between Vilano Beach and just south of the entrance to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.

The first question, whether the property owner would be willing to provide a temporary construction easement to the county to get sand behind his or her home, yielded 358 “yes” responses and 55 “no” responses. Another 180 did not reply.

The second question, whether the property owner would be willing to provide the easement and pay for the sand, yielded 283 “yes” responses and 110 “no” responses. Another 200 did not reply.

Shinkre told The Record on Tuesday the survey was general in nature, narrow in scope and did not include any specific or estimated figures in terms of cost. He said the county’s goal in conducting the survey was to gauge the community’s interest, at least conceptually.

“We just wanted to get a pulse of the community, but we don’t have information to provide in detail,” he said. “The key will be who is eligible.”

Douglas told The Record on Tuesday he saw the survey responses as a “thumbnail sketch” of the desires of the affected communities. He said the county will be going back to those communities once they have more specific information on who will be affected by which projects and to what degree.

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