Palm Coast Seethes as Flagler Ends Hammock Dunes DRI’s Obligations to County and City
FlaglerLive | December 20, 2011
The Hammock Dunes development is almost 30 years old. ITT first proposed it in 1982, when Ronald Reagan was president, Ma Bell was everybody’s long-distance carrier and Palm Coast was a smudge of a subdivision. It became a so-called Development of Regional Impact two years later, or DRI, entailing the massive development of almost 7,000 homes in 42 clusters sprawled on 2,258 beachfront acres. In exchange, ITT would meet various obligations to the county, from park building to land swaps to road and bridge construction, including the construction of the Intracoastal bridge.
Monday evening, after a remarkable three-hour hearing that featured polite but pointed rancor between county and Palm Coast officials as each side cast doubt on the integrity of the other’s methods and facts, the Flagler County Commission declared the Hammock Dunes DRI essentially closed. That means the developers, who by now include the Admiral Corporation, have been released of all significant obligations either to the county or to Palm Coast in future years, whether it’s the widening of the Intracoastal bridge or the widening of Palm Harbor Parkway, both of which Palm Coast contends should still have been the developer’s responsibility.
If the DRI had stayed in effect, the developer could have applied for an extension, potentially reopening development options and forcing the county to fight them, and residents of the Dunes to contend with the consequences. The DRI has, in fact, been extended several times, and altered significantly: The projected 6,600 homes were reduced to 3,800, and may be reduced still further, with many of those not yet built and only 15 or so per year being built. The DRI was expiring in 70 days anyway. But the county wanted to move up the date for two reasons. The Legislature in 2009 arbitrarily extended the life of DRIs across the state. It could do so again this January. The county wants to pre-empt that possibility.
The developer could also file yet another so-called “notice of proposed change” meaning the first step in applying for a significant variation on the scope of the development. The county wanted to prevent that possibility, too. Six of those notices of proposed change have been filed in the life of the DRI. The most recent, by developer Ginn-Luber Adler (ITT and the Admiral Corporation, original developers, being only peripherally involved at this point) wanted to apply a make-over to the area near 16th Road, building up to 1,147 units there in a 34-acre residential cluster and eliminating the existing beach club and a part of the golf course while erecting a high structure near the beach. The county spent $200,000 in legal fees and an estimated $100,000 in staff time fighting the proposal through courts all the way to the Florida Cabinet, which ruled in favor of the county last summer and against Ginn-Luber Adler.
The County’s Motives
Both county government and Dunes residents have been exhausted by the battle—or battles—and want an end to it. Monday’s unanimous decision by the commission to close out the DRI did just that. In exchange, the county released current and former developers from their obligations to local governments. And that’s what angered Palm Coast, a city that likes to shift as much of its financial burdens onto developers, or other governments, as it can.
“I did not want us to be in a position where we were laying an agreement that had problems in it that would tend to engender litigation, lawsuits, which are very, very expensive, there are public dollars that are being spent, as well as the incredible distraction of time of everybody that’s involved in litigation, including your staff,” Al Hadeed, the county attorney, told the commission on Monday, “but including the people that live there, the anxiety they have about what’s that litigation mean. My efforts were designed to minimize that, and I hope you see that in the agreement.” Admiral has agreed to hold the county harmless in the event there is litigation.
The Dunes Community Development District will still make contributions of up to $1.8 million to the county, pending approval by the CDD governing board. Admiral will pay the county $350,000, $125,000 of which will go to the school board. The county contends that given current development trends, the Dunes will not be growing anywhere near levels projected a few years ago, nor will the barrier island. So there’s no more need to perpetuate the DRI in hopes of recouping infrastructure dollars from the developers, especially at the risk of triggering more development changes within the DRI that the county might yet again have to battle.
Palm Coast Protests
To the county, the end of the DRI was “a long time coming,” in Commissioner Milissa Holland’s words. To Palm Coast, it was supposedly a kick in the teeth.
“I am concerned about the fact that Palm Coast has not been party to these discussions,” Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts told the commission. “Consider my appearance here tonight a follow up to the letter that I sent you on Dec. 14. In that letter, I request that you continue this matter, this essentially built out agreement, until Palm Coast has had sufficient time to review all the documentation that purportedly supports this action. This is after all a development of regional impact. The development clearly impacts more than the barrier island. It’s by definition its impact is regional and Palm Coast is part of that region.”Netts said the city was told of the impending closure of the DR only on Nov. 1, and was subsequently sent a series of draft proposals, each different than the one before, leaving it no time to review it. That aside, Netts said the city was concerned about the impact on Palm Coast’s infrastructure, now that developers are no longer financially responsible, particularly with traffic on Palm Harbor Parkway.
“If you excuse the developers—ITT, the Admiral Corporation, the successor developers—from this obligation on Palm Harbor Parkway, you place that obligation solely on the shoulders of Palm Coast residents. If you think about it, it’s very clear that at least a portion of the traffic on Palm Harbor Parkway is the result of development on the barrier island. Think of how the residents access the Creek course for example,” Netts said, referring to the Creek golf course at Hammock Dunes. “To put all this burden on Palm Coast residents, we don’t think is fair or equitable. We are willing to sit down immediately to discuss alternatives.”
Palm Coast attorney Katie Reischmann, Sara Lockhart, a senior planner with the city, and Robert Boggs, a traffic engineer, elucidated the mayor’s points.
Trafficking in Numbers
But the county administrator and Admiral Corp.’s lawyer, Ellen Avery-Smith, flatly rejected the basis of the city’s contention that developers were being let off.
The dispute centered, literally, on two sets of numbers for the very same traffic patterns. The city contends that traffic on the Intracoastal bridge is already past the level where it would “trigger” the developer’s responsibility to widen the bridge, and that traffic on Palm Harbor Parkway is 300 car trips away from an even worse traffic level than the bridge.
The eastbound traffic on the bridge, according to Palm Coast, was 11,000 vehicles when it was measured in May. But Dunes district, which runs the bridge, has exact counts of eastbound traffic because it collects tolls. The average daily count: 3,500, far below any worrisome level, let alone triggers for widening, there or along Palm Harbor Parkway.
The disparity was never explained. But another big disparity came to light about the traffic counts. County Administrator Craig Coffey, who did not like hearing Palm Coast officials claim that the county had not involved the city in the county’s process, or had ignored the city’s traffic counts, fired back with what amounted to calling the city’s record-keeping as deceptive as the claims it was making Monday evening.
Craig Coffey Flares UpHere’s Coffey’s full testimony on that score as he referred to traffic counts on the bridge: “We did go to the Palm Coast website when we first pursued this. We had toll counts of, in 97, six thousand, 2002, six thousand four hundred,’04, eight thousand seven hundred, ‘06, ninety-one hundred [that was the height of the construction and housing boom, when trucks and other commercial traffic reached an all-time high locally], and then ’08, at seventy-seven hundred. If you recall, the analysis that was presented to you had a current count of about seventy-five hundred average daily trips. However the 2011 count, and you could talk to the applicants, traffic engineer, when they pulled it off the website earlier, when we gave first notice of this, it was 4,000, and then it has since been changed to 11,000 between now and the time we gave first notice, so there’s a discrepancy there, and I’ll enter into the record both website items we produced. We don’t have it tagged through a website unfortunately. This time we’d have to research it through some type of open record or something.”
When Ellen Avery-Smith, the Admiral attorney, cross-examined Boggs, the Palm Coast traffic engineer, she pressed the discrepancy issue further: ““Can you please explain to the board why the 2011 bridge count has increased significantly, so significantly, from prior years?”
“Because the 4,000 count from Intracoastal waterway Hammock Dunes Bridge eastbound was entered in error,” Boggs replied, “and we corrected that error some time ago. It is 11,000.”
“So you’re testifying here today that the traffic count on the bridge is higher today, in a recession, after five years of recession, than it was at the height of the real estate boom,” Avery-Smith asked him. Boggs stuck by the number.
The issue was not resolved, and was rendered moot a few minutes into the fourth hour of the hearing when the commission voted on the matter. Holland summed it up.“We did ask our staff to move forward aggressively with this,” Holland said. “We have spent an enormous amount of tax dollars fighting this issue, historically, to ensure that promises were made originally were kept through the development agreement. I am satisfied with the testimony given tonight that the obligations have been met and I also am a little conflicted in regards to some of the items brought forth. I say this because I think in the future it’d be important, when the city of Palm Coast or any municipality or us hosts a workshop in regards to an issue that we need information on, I would just request that the city invite the county into that discussion at that time. I think it would curtail some of the discussions we’re hearing this evening and would make it a lot easier when we have these future discussions.”
Holland added: “The residents over there are owed for this commission to close this item now.”
Dunes residents, clad in blue shirts, applauded when the commission took its unanimous vote. And the Hammock Dunes DRI was history.