Sunday, December 18, 2016

Blocked beach access means less federal funding for beach "renourishment" and a higher tax burden for local residents.

Support the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore to stop this wasteful spending benefitting a few selfish one-percenters, many of them snowbirds. It's our money and our beach -- a public trust.

Blocked beach access means less federal funding for beach "renourishment" and a higher tax burden for local residents.

Posted December 18, 2016 06:22 am
AFTER MATTHEW: St. Johns County continues long-time efforts to protect beaches while pursuing new projects

CHRISTINA.KELSO@STAUGUSTINE.COM Beach erosion and demolished dunes overtake the scenery at Mickler’s Landing Beach on Saturday December 17, 2016.

Life isn’t exactly a beach along St. Johns County’s coastline these days.

Officials say all 42 miles of the county’s beaches experienced erosion with sand loss estimates north of 3 million cubic yards as a result of Hurricane Matthew.

More than two months after the storm, the county estimates more than 500 homes (many of which are damaged and/or exposed to the whims of the ocean) remain at risk. Meanwhile, short- and long-term plans for restoration, renourishment and maintenance of the beaches are at various stages of development.

Many local, state and federal agencies have their hands in the recovery process, creating as many complexities as possibilities. The county is in talks with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Inland Navigation District and the St. Augustine Port, Waterway and Beach District, brainstorming workable solutions.

Neal Shinkre, public works director for the county, said there is some confusion, and understandably so, concerning the county’s efforts. Some projects pre-date the storm, many of which have been tweaked since the storm, while others have only come into the picture since the storm.

Oceanfront homeowners and groups like the South Ponte Vedra/Vilano Beach Preservation Association have acknowledged these efforts while also expressing frustration it took a hurricane to get the county’s full attention. The dialogue between the county and beach communities has been technical, financial and, often, emotional. Officials have recognized the slow pace of bureaucracy but say progress is being made nonetheless.

County Administrator Michael Wanchick, at the Dec. 6 commission meeting, said patience for information and action tends to shrink in disaster situations.

“People want that information almost immediately, they want answers almost immediately, but the time in which it takes to respond to these questions expands,” he said. “Not everybody approaches these issues in the same manner or wants the same thing.”

Wanchick said many actions and processes involved are “interrelated,” especially when it comes to working with other agencies. For example, he said when the county goes to the state for help, one of the first things the state asks is what FEMA is going to do, and that, therefore, the county can’t tell the state what it needs until it knows what’s coming from FEMA.

The county, which suffered an estimated $151 million in damage to assets including beaches, facilities, roadways and drainage infrastructure, has a kickoff meeting with FEMA scheduled for Jan. 9, marking the beginning of the reimbursement process.

“It will be extremely important and it won’t be quick,” Wanchick said.

State of the Beaches

Shinkre on Friday outlined the county’s existing efforts along the beaches to the south and to the north of the St. Augustine Inlet, many of which have seen changes since Matthew.

Two projects in the south were already in place before the hurricane. One is the Summer Haven River restoration project, approved last year by the Florida Legislature and funded to the tune of $2.8 million. The other is an Intracoastal Waterway dredging project, considered regular maintenance, which usually happens once every 5 to 6 years.

Both projects are permitted to put their dredge material on the beach at Summer Haven. Shinkre said that’s around where State Road A1A connects to Old A1A, which is no longer there, thanks to Matthew.

The river restoration project, coordinated by the Port, Waterway and Beach District with state funding, is underway. A new breach cut down the middle of the coastal community is already closed. The Intracoastal dredge, administered by the Corps and FIND, is expected to begin in 2 to 3 months.

Shinkre said the washed-out roadway is just one post-storm item the county will work on with FEMA, which will likely only reimburse the county for what was there rather than facilitating any upgrades. He said the county also asked Port, Waterway and Beach, Corps and FIND to redirect dredge material farther inland.

“We’re trying to push the sand farther west so that our roadways that were all gone at least are filled with this sand for now,” he said. “What we have now, post-storm, is a big hole with not only a road that has disappeared but everything underneath the roadway, and the whole berm that was protecting that roadway has disappeared.”

As far as restoring the roadway, Shinkre said FEMA only reimburses up to 75 percent, leaving at least a 25 percent chunk of the project unfunded. Estimates for that project are in the $2 million to $2.5 million range, but Shinkre said those were not firm numbers.

To the north is a long-standing project called the St. Augustine Beach Shore Protection Plan, set for its fourth nourishment. The $15 million project is largely funded by the Corps and FDEP, with the county kicking in a small percentage.

“We have a good beach there and, really, the shore protection that’s been done all this time, for the last 17 years, really stood ground,” Shinkre said. “The work that was done held.”

However, on Nov. 18, South Ponte Vedra, LLC, and Ponte Vedra Beach resident Al Giombetti filed a petition opposing FDEP’s modification and renewal of a permit to the Corps that would allow it to dredge the St. Augustine Inlet and place that sand on St. Augustine Beach.

“Petioners fear this project will exacerbate the erosive forces on their shores to their great detriment,” the petition reads.

Citing findings and mandates of the Inlet Management Plan and the Strategic Beach Management Plan, both adopted by FDEP and applicable to the area, but only after the original permit was issued, the petitioners argued they were being denied their entitlement to a portion of the dredged material.

FDEP on Dec. 12 dismissed the petition, although South Ponte Vedra, LCC, and Giombetti will have until Dec. 27 to file an amended petition.

“If the petition is carried on, we’ll have to go through a judicial process and, unfortunately, that will take away this year’s funding and we’ll have to wait for the funding next year,” Shinkre said. “That’s never a guarantee, but we’re optimistic.”

Otherwise, he said that project will commence in the spring.

The county has been working with communities in South Ponte Vedra and Vilano Beach for quite some time, particularly on getting a feasibility study done for a stretch of beach extending from just south of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve down to the inlet.

The Corps in spring, upon completion of its feasibility study, recommended a beach nourishment project that would run from just south of the Serenata Beach Club to about one mile north of the inlet. Shinkre said the Corps’ recommendation was for a $65 million, 50-year project, similar to that for St. Augustine Beach, which would begin with an $18 million nourishment and subsequent re-nourishments every 8-10 years.

However, the Corps said only 22 percent of the $65 million would be federally funded, due largely to limited public access to the beaches. Shinkre said the county is working with the Corps to get that percentage share up to 50 percent. (By contrast, the St. Augustine Beach project is 80 percent federally funded with additional support from the state.)

The Corps’ recommendation is only half the battle, however. The next step is for the Corps to go to before the appropriations committee and secure funding, which could take 2-3 years.

“We have to fight for it, we have to lobby for it, for our residents, compared to other projects,” Shinkre said.

Another project established before the storm, administered by FIND and the Corps, would have directed material from their routine dredge of the St. Augustine Inlet (about 200,000 cubic yards of sand) toward Anastasia State Park. The county asked both agencies to redirect that sand to the north of the inlet, behind some private homes.

“The goal is to see what we can do with the same amount of money, but going to the north,” he said. “We don’t have those answers yet. We don’t know how far north we can go.”

Shinkre said the project was already bid out by the Corps and that there are complications that arise with putting sand behind private homes versus on uninhabited beaches in state parks, namely, obtaining temporary construction easements. He said he doesn’t anticipate a problem getting easements, considering the sand would be paid for by FIND and the Corps. Work could begin as early as February or March.

Due to the relatively small amount of sand that can be diverted, however, he said fewer than 15 homes would likely benefit. Additionally, he anticipates the fine sand would wash away within 2 to 3 years.

“It’s not a permanent thing, but it will buy time,” he said.

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