County Approves Salamander’s Bid For 198-Room Hotel, With Conditions and Donations
FlaglerLive | February 3, 2015
Last Updated: 1:53 a.m.
The Flagler County Commission’s verdict, just before 2 a.m. Tuesday, includes some last-minute promises of land and dollars from Salamander, and a four-year deadline to build the $72 million project.
Salamander won conditional approval for a 198-room hotel at Hammock Beach, just above 16th Road. The Flagler County Commission early Tuesday morning–after a hearing that had begun Monday at 5:30 p.m., stretched to 2 a.m. today and included a tie vote that appeared to kill the project–eventually voted 3-1 in favor.
The vote followed an extraordinary, improvised negotiating session over donations of land, dollars and even property boundaries that Salamander offered the county to get over the 2-2 hurdle and win an outright approval for the project.
Commissioners Barbara Revels and Frank Meeker had been originally opposed. Meeker then joined Commissioner George Hanns and Nate McLaughlin in favor, following a motion by McLaughlin to accept the application. Commissioner Charlie Ericksen was absent: he’d been hospitalized earlier in the day.
Salamander bought its way out of the jam: A $500,000 contribution by Salamander to enable some environmental land offsets (Meeker had initially asked for $700,000), along with an additional acre that would be added to the public park at 16th road, swayed the commissioner to switch his vote. The acre to be added to the park runs east-west in a long rectangle along the south border of 16th Road. (An earlier version of this story had incorrectly noted that the acre was located elsewhere.)
The vote may end what has been the most contentious and divisive issue to seize the Hammock since the water wars with Palm Coast of a decade ago (though back then the Hammock presented a united front against potential annexation). Salamander’s proposal drew on passionate support from various segments of the county, but also faced just as passionate opposition. A key difference: the support, while more numerically impressive, was more diffuse over the county, drawing on business, tourism and political concerns that didn’t always have direct grounding in the Hammock proper (though Salamander made sure to draft a solid contingent of supporters there as well). The opposition gravitated solidly and almost exclusively around the Hammock, a powerful constituency that no commissioner can ignore at election time.
Prefacing her original vote opposing the proposal, Revels described herself as a 60-year resident of the county, a distinction not many people in the room could equal. She spoke of riding cars on the beach and doing all sorts of things at a time when “we had a paradise,” when residents could “do anything” freely. “It’s a huge loss to recognize,” she said. “You just don’t know what we had and what we gave up, so in that context, that’s what I think about.” And it’s in that context that she opposed the project.
Meeker focused on property owners’ rights—what promises were made to people buying into the Hammock, and what promises the commission would potentially be breaking by approving the Salamander project—and on Old Salt Park, which he says has been “assaulted” over the years. Those comments proved to be leverage for the dollars and land discussed later.
All along, Hanns had liked the project’s investment potential. “I can recall in the old days that there were many doomsday prophets at anything, any construction in the Hammock,” Hanns said, citing the so-called “Big House” in the Hammock. “Times change, and I applaud anyone who’s trying to do something positive for Flagler County.”
Salamander says the project will result in a $72 million investment, though it’s not clear when the project would have been built: Salamander had yet to gather the investors to make construction possible.
Almost 400 people–what would represent a considerable portion of the Hammock’s population–crowded into the Government Services Building Monday evening to hear the commission’s verdict on whether to allow construction of a 198-room hotel at Hammock Beach resort. Tuesday morning, Kevin Guthrie, the county’s Emergency Management director who coordinated the seating limitations Monday evening, reported the official count at 377 people.
As hours passed, the issue crystallized between proponents of a 7-acre project they see as an economic and tourism boon to the county that would “put Flagler on the map,” provide jobs and draw businesses, and opponents who see the project as incompatible with its surroundings, and an invitation to further development along the beaches, if the county were to lift a land-use restriction it imposed years ago. Numerous objections focused on environmental concerns, including the potential disorienting effect of the development on turtles. Other objections focused on the proposed hotel’s effect on the view for Hammock condo owners. But a running theme from the opponents was the assertion that to approve Salamander’s application would break a commission promise to the Hammock that there would be no further commercial developments after the tower built in 1998.
One difference between proponents and opponents stood out sharply: proponents were relatively recent arrivals in the county. Opponents could speak of decades of personal history in the Hammock or the county: at least two of them have lived in the Hammock since the Truman administration.
The public hearing started at 5:30 p.m. and was not due to end for about five hours, with the commissioners’ vote at the tail end of the meeting. “Our rules require that we end our meeting at 11 p.m.,” Commissioner Nate McLaughlin said after the hearing reconvened after a brief recess at 8 p.m. “It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen here.” McLaughlin suggested amending the rules. Other commissioners seemed certain that the meeting would end by 11 p.m.
The commission chambers were quickly filled before 5:30 with 210 people, forcing the county’s emergency management personnel to ensure that capacity did not jeopardize fire marshal and other safety regulations. People were dispersed to a mezzanine on the second floor, which could accommodate 50 people watching either through glass windows or at a live TV screen, and to a third-floor conference room set up for some 100 people, also watching on a big screen.
For all the players, pro or con, it was a repeat performance: they’ve all made the same presentation several times before—to civic and advisory boards, including the county’s planning board—though this time the in-person audience is the largest they’ve had, and the largest any county issue has drawn in at least 10 years. The program followed the same pattern: presentation of the issue by the county’s planning director, Adam Mengle, who recommends approval of the application, followed by Salamander’s pitch, its opponents’ response, public comment—the lengthier part of the evening—and a rejoinder from Salamander’s officials before the commissioners discussed the matter and voted.
It was a reflection of the issue’s sensitivity—and divisiveness—that it took almost 40 minutes of discussions about the rules of the proceedings, by County Attorney Al Hadeed and Meeker, among others, before the hearing began in earnest. The commissioners had to disclose their conversations about the matter prior to the hearing, for example. Hanns said he had contact from people “that normally wouldn’t say hello who have been very cordial to me. I just want to make a note of that.” As the meeting wore on, its tone proved distinctly more cordial and less tense than previous meetings on the matter, formal or not, have been.
Salamander President Prem Devadas began his pitch by placing Hammock Beach in the context of Salamander’s three luxury Florida resorts, and four overall, plugging the resort’s recent ranking by Travel and Leisure magazine among the top resorts in the county. “Tremendous effort by our staff, it has so much to do with service,” Devadas said. “Unfortunately that cannot and is not changing the dynamic of the financials of Hammock Beach.”
In essence, the 14-year-old facility is losing its attractiveness from being older and in need of refurbishing—and for lacking the number of rooms it needs to attract the sort of conference business luxury hotels need to be viable. “They’re eating our lunch,” he said of competitors. “So the property is not being competitive today, and we need to find a way to be able to fund improvements,” Devadas said. Salamander’s $72 million investment in the property, with the 198-room hotel as the centerpiece of the development, would he said enable the hotel to be more competitive.
Devadas noted that the parking lot south of 16th Road that had angered many Hammock residents was scrapped. The hotel would take over the maintenance of 16th Road. The new hotel would be 74 feet tall, two feet shorter than the existing lodge. It would be pulled back 15 feet from the dunes.
Clay Henderson, the powerful Holland and Knight attorney, who sports a list of credentials as an environmentalist, spoke on behalf of Salamander to dispense with legal opposition to the project.
“A resort hotel has been located on this site since 1995,” Henderson said, countering the claim that the lodge is not a hotel. “It is consistent with the comprehensive plan.” Henderson said the application did not entail a rezoning, but a conversion of the old Development of Regional Impact plan, which has been sunset, into a planned unit development (or PUD, in developers’ parlance). “That’s why it’s not really a rezoning” but “an amendment” of the existing land use, he said.
He then noted that commissioners don’t face “a yes or no question. You have the ability to impose conditions on the order.” First, he said, the acreage can be split so that “the rest of the golf course is protected and it has enforceable covenants on it that you can enforce.” Second, Henderson said, the county can enjoin Salamander to “use it or lose it. Impose upon us the obligation to do this within a five-year period so that it is guaranteed that it does in fact happens and you get the economic benefits.” Third, he said, the agreement can be made binding on all subsequent owners. “That will go a long way to build the trust that we need on this project,” Henderson said. (The final agreement is to include several such conditions.)
Salamander is also pledging to donate thousands of dollars a year to an environmental protection fund, to be collected from a $2-a-day fee tacked on to room charges as a donation. Patrons may opt out. But Salamander officials say that more than 90 percent of patrons pay the fee.
The floor was then opened for public comment, with proponents of the project going first. The Flagler County Chamber of Commerce is behind Salamander’s project, and on Monday evening numerous business owners and chamber members, among them at least one past president (Lea Stokes), lent their voice to support the proposal. “It’s going to put Flagler County where we all want it to be,” Stokes said, calling the Salamander proposal “a no-brainer.”
To Howard Holley, who owns a local marketing company and was recently defeated by Meeker, the county commissioner, in the latest election for that seat, approving the project would show other prospective businesses a county commitment to smart growth. Tourist and business visitors, he said, will “ultimately become attracted to the uniqueness of Palm Coast and the Flagler Beaches, the same magnet that attracted all of us here.” He urged not only approval, but a unanimous vote.Proponents, who included Hammock residents, several Hammock Beach employees, local business owners, and outright advocates for Salamander who spoke of the company as a steward of the environment and a generous donor to various causes, were still addressing the commission by 9:30 p.m., with opponents yet to speak. The last several dozen speakers in favor of the project, Mark Langello, a Barrier Island resident and Bunnell business owner, cautioned commissioners about what would happen were they not to approve the redevelopment: the resort would continue to “fail,” he said, and possibly fail altogether.
At 9:45 p.m., Meeker called a brief break as opponents of the project started lining up, starting with Michael Chiumento, the Palm Coast attorney representing some 300 property owners at Hammock Beach (and members of the club), but on the first dissonant note from the commission: Chiumento asked for more than three minutes to make the case for the large number of people he represents. The commission gave him just five minutes, a surprising rebuff that, Chiumento said, would affect due process.
“What we’re going to talk about today is your integrity,” he said, referring not to the timing matter but to the history of the commission and its previous definition of the site in question: it was not designed for a hotel, but for a clubhouse. Chiumento derided the notion that when it was originally developed, the lodge was seen as a hotel, or a future hotel. “It was always supposed to be low development,” he said, describing the times decades ago when the Hammock community fought to have beach access as the larger development closed some 20 beach access points.
“It’s a bigger issue. It’s a bigger issue. It’s about your integrity, and the integrity of this board,” he said, asking for a denial of the application.
He was followed by Larry Torino, Flagler Beach’s city planner, who explained from a planner’s perspective what amounted to a rejection of the county planning staff’s interpretation of the application. But like as with Chiumento, Meeker attempted to constrain Torino’s presentation as he had not attempted to constrain any of the speakers from the other side, interrupting Torino as if to correct him: the segment was for public comment, prompting Torino to say that he was commenting, but as an expert witness. Meeker interjected again, only to prompt Hadeed, the county attorney, to suggest that as an expert witness Torino should be given some latitude to make his points. The rest of the commission agreed. But Torino’s momentum had briefly been broken.
“I will tell you unequivocally that I support this resort project. What I don’t support is that no attention has been given to the public entity” adjacent to it, Torino said. “I’m not satisfied from a professional standpoint that it’s been satisfied as a land plan. They can make it better.”
“You gave these plat restrictions, and you can take them back. But why would you?” Alma Nemrava, a Sea Colony resident and influential voice in the Hammock, said.
Naming one development after another that was platted with promise only to burden Flagler with vacancies, one opponent derided the claim that the Salamander proposal would produce an economic windfall for the county and called giving in to the claim “corporate charity.”
Twelve minutes before midnight, the opponents ended their case and the commission took a five-minute break before giving Salamander the right of reply and moving on to commissioners’ deliberations. By then, no fewer than 60 speakers (from both sides) had spoken to the commission. But the commission was far from done: its deliberative portion of the hearing, including two votes and the strange negotiating session, would last another two hours.