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Without four property owners' participation, St. Augustine officials say flood relief project is 'dead in the water'

Four property owners are hesitant to give up a slice of their land for St. Augustine's biggest project to keep flood waters at bay.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — St. Augustine’s biggest project to keep the historic downtown from flooding could be thwarted, or at least drastically changed.

That’s because some property owners have not given the city an easement to build a seawall on the edge of their properties.

At risk is $19 million of federal money allocated through the state. The city will lose that funding if the project isn’t built in the next four years. 

This issue came to light during John Valdes’ last meeting as a St. Augustine City Commissioner in November. During that meeting, he called out three property owners – by name -- saying they alone are blocking a key flood prevention project.

During the meeting, Valdes said, "These people are affecting the lives, happiness and prosperity of a lot of other people in this city."

He blames the property owners for not giving the city permission to build a flood wall on the edge of their properties.

Their attorney, Manny Papalas, disagrees. In a letter to city leaders this week, Papalas accused the city of disparaging the homeowners. He says his clients aren’t trying to block the project, but are concerned it could devalue their property.

The City’s Chief Resilience Officer Jessica Beach has been talking with the property owners for more than a year about the project, hoping to get them on board with it. She said from the city staff's perspective, the process with the homeowners has been "amicable."

"You’re probably looking at a 3-4 feet of exposed wall from the ground up,  maybe hip-height," she told First Coast News this week. 

The flood wall would "essentially hug the marsh and land" around the marsh, south of Lake Maria Sanchez.  The wall's purpose, Beach said, would be to "keep that surge coming up form the marsh that goes into Lake Maria Sanchez."

When that tide water pours into to marsh and into Lake Maria Sanchez, as residents have seen at least six times in six years during named storms and nor'easters, the lake overflows.  And that water ends up flooding streets, businesses, and homes.

Beach said that floodwall is needed to build the best version of the Lake Maria Sanchez project which is expected to keep 200 acres of St. Augustine’s downtown and neighborhood from flooding during minor hurricanes.

"This is going to address our coastal flooding we have and that's with our high tide and our noreasters and low level hurricanes," Beach said. "So actually hurricanes Irma, Ian, Nicole, and Dorian, we probably could've mitigated substantial flood damage if we were able to put that floodwall in place." 

However, without the participation of all homeowners along the marsh, there would be gap in the planned wall... rendering it obsolete.  In fact, the city could not use the funding unless all of the directly affected homeowners are 'all in.'

One of the property owners told First Coast News this week that she does not want a seawall in her backyard that the public can walk on. Another told First Coast News he doubts the wall would be efficient. 

However Beach says the latest version of the plan would build a wall that is not wide enough to walk on. It would not be open to the public, Beach said.  She also noted that it would have a pointed top or another design that would keep people from being able to walk on it. 

Beach said the size of the easements vary, depending on the property.  She said two of the biggest easements would be 20 feet wide, some of that would be in the marshland.  She said the wall itself would be a slender wall and not nearly 20 feet wide, however, the extra room is needed to access the site for construction purposed. 

Because of funding stipulations, there is a deadline of 2026 to build the project.  Also, because of the funding agreement states eminent domain cannot be used, according to Beach.

"It's not an option," Beach referred to eminent domain. "And it doesn't really benefit the city nor the property owners and it's a long, lengthy expensive process. We'd rather have them be cooperative and on board with the project."

In order to not leave $19 million of funding on the table, there is a Plan B. However, it would mean elevating part of nearby South Street by three feet.

"There are challenges with that," Beach said, "It’s doable, but it’s going to look very different than what’s there now."  She also noted it would not bring the most optimal results.

Papalas, the property owners' attorney, said in his letter that his clients continue to be willing to talk to the city.

Meanwhile, city officials say they still hope to get them to share the edge of their land.

And Valdes chooses not to mince words. "Not having them on board plus the fact we can’t eminent domain, we’re dead in the water. Excuse the pun."


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