Matanzas Woods Battleground: Flagler and Palm Coast Clash Over I-95 Interchange Dollars
FlaglerLive | May 8, 2012
Matanzas has its origins in the Spanish word for slaughter, a word that had the currency of routine in this area of Florida half a millennium ago when the pious butchery of conquistadores invaders muddied the woods with Indian blood.
The Matanzas battleground these days is fortunately more prosaic: Palm Coast and Flagler County are battling over $4.2 million. The front is the proposed Matanzas Woods Parkway interchange with I-95, which is actually under design and, going by County Administrator Craig Coffey’s estimate, could be built within three to five years. The city wants that money, which has been collected from development. The county says it’s not the city’s money, and anyway $2.8 million has already been pledged, though it’s willing to cede the remaining $1.4 million, with conditions. Not good enough, the city says.
The two sides are squaring off, face to face, in a joint meeting on May 22, in hopes of resolving the matter. (They’re meeting at 9 a.m. at the Palm Coast Community Center. refreshments may be necessary.)
On Monday, the Flagler County Commission held its own meeting on the matter, but it didn’t budge. A cohesive commission went along with its administrator’s recommendations: keep going with design and construction of the I-95 interchange, keep the $2.8 million to that end, cede $1.4 million to Palm Coast, as long as Palm Coast agrees to county terms on how to use the money, and as long as Palm Coast agrees to take over all future responsibilities for Matanzas Woods Parkway, now a county road. The county’s only sweetener: if the county were to receive new state or federal dollars that make up the remaining $2.8 million, at that point it would cede that portion of the money to Palm Coast, too.
That’s a big, vague if. The city knows it. But it’s not as if the county has the $2.8 million to give at the moment. One of the city’s counter-recommendations is for the county to back off immediate development of the I-95 interchange, which the city fears will pour too much additional traffic into its northern end, [-particularly around Matanzas High School, and to delay that construction until the city itself has four-laned Old Kings Road and Forest Grove Drive so those roads can accommodate the added traffic. That could be a very long time: the city has no money to build those roads, and the county doesn’t want to wait indefinitely to build the interchange.
The bone of contention behind this disagreement is more dense than complex. It goes like this: Local governments collect so-called “impact fees” from builders and developers, which are essentially a one-time, flat tax tacked on to new homes and businesses. The revenue may only be spent to offset the impact of development by, for example, building roads, parks, schools. Flagler County has been collecting transportation impact fees since the 1980s, before Palm Coast was incorporated. It collected millions of dollars from areas now within the Palm Coast city limits, which still include county roads. (Matanzas Woods Parkway is one such road.) Revenue from the Palm Coast area was segregated into its own funds. Those funds are no longer accruing additional dollars. But they contain $4.2 million.
Palm Coast considers all that money its own to do with as it pleases. The county disagrees. The county points to an “interlocal agreement” (clunky lingo for an agreement between the two governments), signed in September 2000, that explicitly sets out that Palm Coast “shall collect all transportation impact fees for new construction within the city and shall remit such fees to the county.” The two governments were to coordinate “project priority.” The agreement included 13 roads eligible for improvements with impact fee money. Among them: Matanzas Woods Parkway, “including the crossing of I-95 to the intersection with Old Kings Road.”
The forest fires of 1985 and 1998, which destroyed a combined 200 homes and damaged nearly 400, added urgency to building an interchange at I-95 at the north end of the city, to ease evacuations, and also to ease congestion further south in normal times.
In 2004, Palm Coast signed off on a major regional development in the Matanzas area called Palm Coast Park, which just as explicitly called on the developer to pay $14 million in impact fees and, on top of that, $250,000 for an interchange study (clunker alert: the study is officially called an “Interchange Justification Report.”) The developer paid Palm Coast $7.2 million in 2006. It never paid Palm Coast or the county the $200,000 due for the study. The county went ahead with the study on its own, pledging $700,000 for the design of the interchange and $2.1 million for construction. The whole project will cost $8 million, not including right-of-way acquisition costs, which, the county says, have already been paid.
The county contends, based on Palm Coast’s own documents over the past five years, that the city had the Matanzas interchange as its second-highest road priority after the widening of Palm Coast Parkway anyway, and so the county is in compliance with city priorities. “The assertation (sic.) is that these other roads have to come first before the interchange,” Coffey said, referring to Old Kings Road and Forest Grove, “but that has not been the priorities we’ve been given from Palm Coast.”
Jon Netts, the Palm Coast mayor, has taken a hard line against the county’s approach, at one point referring to the county’s maneuvers with the impact fee money as “blackmail.” But the county counters with a lavish endorsement from Netts, in a November 2010 letter, of the county’s plan to build the interchange. Netts couldn’t have been more explicit: “As mayor of the City of Palm Coast, please accept this letter as our support for the proposed Matanzas Woods Parkway interchange with I-95,” Netts wrote. “The construction of this interchange will provide additional regional access to our growing community, while increasing available emergency evacuation routes to the population. Both state and federal DOT [Department of Transportation] and local officials have made this the county’s top infrastructure priority.”
Netts, in his letter, acknowledged that the economy and growth had slowed down, essentially taking away the argument that he was writing under a different climate of growth, and he went on to note, recognizing the housing crash that was by then in its third year: “Even with the current economic climate, growth is expected to continue in Flagler County,” particularly “within the vicinity of the proposed interchange location. These developments will put a significant additional burden on the regional roadway system, and more importantly on the existing interchange of Palm Coast Parkway and I-95. We support the proposed interchange to address existing demands for regional access in our community, and the long-term viability of our community.”
The letter was part of the lobbying of the federal government for money. It worked, along with other local government efforts, securing the very earmarks that voters (and politicians) love to bash with one hand while grasping for with the other.