Palm Coast government’s controversial proposal to turn a Florida Power and Light easement in the heart of the F-Section into a 10-foot-wide foot and bike path that ends at Matanzas High School is back on the city council’s agenda after provoking an outcry of public opposition similar to the one it did when the path was partly built in 2008. Public opposition stopped the work then.
Matanzas High School students and members of the city’s senior staff presented the plan to complete the path at an “informational” meeting at the high school last week, organized by the city but with limited notice, only for the meeting to turn into what City Council member Heidi Shipley described as “a bloodbath.” Council member Steve Nobile described the staffers as being “slaughtered with negativity” as F Section residents one after the other described the city as sneakily resuming a plan that had been shelved in 2008. Most in the audience did not know that the previous day, the council had voted unanimously to build the path, unaware either of the history or the political sensitivity of the issue.
Nobile and Shipley were the only council members at the community meeting. They both requested that the issue be brought back onto a council agenda for discussion and a vote, along with options other than building the path—including, for example, the cost of building a temporary path along Old Kings Road, where most residents want it. The issue will be on the agenda at the next council meeting the morning of June 20.
“When there’s that much opposition we really need to make sure we’re doing something we can’t do another way, and we can’t get around,” Nobile told the council at the end of a workshop Tuesday. “When I was a kid my grandfather used to tell me, he said, you stink on ice, meaning I was a bad kid. This process for this stinks on ice. I don’t like it. I don’t like the fact that I only found out about this being a big controversy when I started getting phone calls. We knew this was going to be a big controversy. We had to anticipate that. An informational meeting? I’m not buying that. I’m thinking we should have sat down with them and said hey, you know what, we’re thinking of doing this again, what’s your position on it—for the council’s position, so we really understood what was going on.”
Nobile spoke after five residents of the F Section addressed the council, all of them opposed to the FPL path, most of them reminding the council of the 2008 opposition when, in one resident’s words, “This was decided by city council in 2008, it was already voted No,” with the path on Old Kings Road being the preferred route. “You all are here to represent constituents, not to tell us what’s best for us.”
Richard Mayo, one of the more searing critics of the city’s handling of the matter—he singled out City Manager Jim Landon, who had faced the public in 2008—said the residents had repeatedly asked for the path along Old Kings, only for Landon to try to “sneak” the path through the FPL easement, under high-power electric lines. Of the death of Kelvin Smith, the 16-year-old Matanzas High School student killed as he cycled up Old Kings Road the night of New Year’s Eve, Mayo said: “Having a sidewalk would have saved his life, and the fact that it was not done makes the city complicit for his death.”
“It was a bloodbath. It was sad that people were there thinking that we tried to pull one over on them.”
Others cited the path’s lack of safety and visibility.
The comments gave Landon a chance to address the issue. His explanation turned into a remarkable wriggle of a performance as he sloughed off credit for the FPL path project onto his staff without himself taking responsibility for the project’s political fallout, and all along coming out entirely blameless for any issue the council is now facing. To the contrary: in an even more stunning wriggle, he put the blame for that on the council by saying the council itself had approved the path in its strategic plan. In other words, he was telling his bosses that they hadn’t looked at their own fine print, though the typesetting was entirely his own (or at least his administration’s).
He described the path as having “an interesting history” that was planned before he took the job as city manager, though construction started soon after he got there. He acknowledged that the plan drew opposition from residents who wanted the path built on Old Kings Road. But building a path along Old Kings wouldn’t make sense if it has to be ripped out once the widening of the road was in the works, however distant that widening could be.
“So then it became a matter of priorities, because we also had a death on Seminole Woods and had the whole community come out about Seminole Woods,” Landon said. “We had a death on Sesame.” So the question was: should the city spend capital dollars on a path that would be torn up as opposed to one that would be built permanently. That’s how the idea of the FPL path was revived, while other, permanent paths were built, including many built around schools, including Matanzas High School (such as the Palm Harbor path). “It wasn’t that the path on Old Kings Road isn’t needed. It’s a matter of priorities,” Landon said. “Do you build the one you’re going to keep, or do you build the one you’re going to tear up while you’re designing something else. And that was the decision.”
Until that point, Landon was merely restating history and explaining the city’s decisions. Then he got disingenuous.
Landon said he himself was not pushing the path, nor was the staff. Rather, he pointed to some fine print in a document the council approved some months ago: “The strategic action plan that you updated back in, was it March time frame? It has a line there, says, construct the path on the FP&L easement. So you have us direction to move forward,” Lan don said, placing the decision squarely in the council’s lap. But as Nobile pointed out later, none of the council members knew what they were approving, because none of them had known of the 2008 controversy. Only Landon had, and very clearly so. He prides himself on his political savvy. It is very unlikely that he did not know that the path’s resumption would trigger a controversy similar to the one in 2008. It is normally a city manager’s job to prepare his council for what political fallout may result from an unpopular decision, particularly one he was so familiar with, at first hand. He did not prepare the council for that fallout.
“City council’s direction was very clear, and one on one it was very clear, from some of you,” Landon continued—again conflating the council’s sincere direction for more sidewalks and lights in the city with the more controversial plan to resume the FPL sidewalk.
Nobile didn’t buy the argument that the meeting at Matanzas was “informational,” when it occurred after the fact—and when the students themselves were no more prepared for the public onslaught then was Landon’s staff (Landon opted not to be there). “We didn’t give these people or this council the chance to hear everyone’s piece,” Nobile said. “It’s my fault because when we had the workshop on this and I saw road resurfacing, I kind of folded over, and then the next meeting looking at it going, wait a minute, this is the FPL path, what does this have to do with the price of peanuts in China.” (The FPL path had been included in council members’ agenda packet earlier this month as one of the coming year’s resurfacing projects, again out of the context of its controversial history.)
“I would like to see this pulled and have it on an agenda separate,” Nobile said. “It’s what it should have been. Because it’s controversial, it should have at least been on the agenda on its own so anyone reading the agenda could see it and then come to the meeting. They weren’t even given that opportunity.” Nobile also asked for all the options. “I don’t understand why we can’t put a temporary path up Old Kings Road,” he said. “Yes, we’re wasting money, but the waste comes from the fact that we didn’t take care of this eight or nine years ago” when Matanzas High School was opened in the middle of the past decade.
“To me,” Shipley said, seconding Nobile’s request, “it was a bloodbath. It was sad that people were there thinking that we tried to pull one over on them, and I know that’s what they felt. Going forward after that, I did walk that path, and I was scared walking the path, and stood in the path, screaming in the back, can anyone hear me? And nobody could hear me. Which means I don’t want the kids on that whether we do Old Kings or not, something has to be done for that path to make it so that it’s safer for the kids anyways. But I agree it should be pulled,” and to have a discussion and a solution “sooner than later.”