Countering strong opposition from would-be neighbors, the Flagler County Planning Board Tuesday evening voted unanimously to recommend approval of a pair of developments totaling 190 homes that would bookend north and south side of Lakeside By the Sea, part of the Matanzas Shores development on State Road A1A, at the northern edge of the county.
The development–called Los Lagos (The Lakes) or Las Casitas (The Little Houses)–is headed by John Kiddy of Jacksonville and the Atlee Development Group, behind a corporation called Duval Realty Trust. Approval was recommended by the county’s planning department. Adam Mengel, the county’s planning director, said the application is consistent with the county’s land development code.
Planning board members had plenty of empathy for opponents of the development. But at the end of a nearly-three hour hearing, they had no legal standing, they said, to oppose it. “If we have not found anything wrong with staff’s findings, what choice do we have?” Art Barr, a member of the planning board, said.
Board members said they’d had numerous concerns about the development initially. But the evening’s concessions by the developer and legal clarifications by the county attorney were enough to sway them in favor of the proposal, as did the revision of some of the application’s wording to formalize some of those concessions. “It comes down to property rights,” Mark Langello, one of the planning board members, said, suggesting that the opposition was driven in part by a not-in-my-backyard impulse.
The planning board’s approval is itself merely a recommendation to the Flagler County Commission, which must ratify the proposal before it can go ahead. No date has been set for the county commission’s hearing, which is expected to draw similarly organized opposition from Lakeside. But tonight’s vote only builds momentum for the development’s eventual approval.
The proposal drew fierce, at times angry opposition from what looked like the near-totality of the residents of Lakeside, a development totaling 126 homes: Close to 100 people turned up at tonight’s meeting, almost all of them opposed to the new development. Their opposition belied an agreement that had been signed between the Matanzas Shores Homeowners’ Association and the Lakeside Homeowners Association in May, seemingly green-lighting the development.
Several residents ridiculed the agreement, questioning its validity, calling it the work of a former president of the Matanzas association who had never disclosed that he had once been a consultant for the developer, accusing that former president of collusion with the developer, and pointing to the agreement as an example of the lack of transparency and shiftiness that has accompanied the crafting and negotiations around the project.
Residents also talked of the more recent concerns about flooding, which they say will be intensified by more construction to the point of making it “an existential threat” to Lakeside, in the words of one resident—Carol Scott, a member of the Scenic A1A board—or concerns about the size of the proposed homes: three-story, five-bedroom structures residents of Lakeside say will not fit architecturally or aesthetically with the Mediterranean look of their one-level homes.
“This project is flawed from start to finish,” Peter Duhart told the planning board. “The lack of transparency with the MSOA dealings with Duval, the questionable practices of our former board president who now happens to have resigned from the board, our overtaxed waterways, lakes and retention ponds, the density, the three-story proposed buildings, extremely close together, at a two-foot higher base elevation than Lakeside By the Sea’s existing dwellings, it’s simply a recipe for disaster. It is unconscionable that this planning board could hope to recommend to the county commissioners that this project go forward as described. There are too many unanswered questions.”
“If we have another Matthew and this development is built, are we safer, or are we less safe?” another resident asked. Several questioned the county planning department’s assertion that the development will not be “adverse” to their safety.
The conflict seemed to follow a familiar pattern: existing homeowners want a proposed development that would rise nearby stopped, citing feared consequences focusing on flooding, traffic, safety and the like. But there were a few different wrinkles to this opposition that made it more complex than a mere nattering of NIMBYs—not in my backyard. The Lakeside By the Sea homeowners can point to recent flooding following hurricanes Irma and Matthew as portents of what could happen in the future, in worse, if more permeable land to their north and south were built and paved over—even though the flooding largely stayed in streets and yards, as the development’s engineering intended: the homes are built at a 9-foot elevation above water level, though the new development’s homes would be at 11 feet. Transparency is often questioned in controversial development proposals, but not to the extent that it was tonight, with the sort of specific accusations against a former president of the very homeowners’ association involved in the controversy.
Yet those accusations were soon sidelined as irrelevant by the county attorney.
Sidney Ansbacher, Duval’s agent, had sought to temper some of the opposition before the public comment period by outing to rest several concerns: “We have no interest in rentals,” he said. “The six to seven bedroom concern, we would stipulate to a cap of five bedrooms.” He assured the congregation that there could be an agreement that would essentially rule out short-term rentals. And he said there would be a cap of three stories, net, on the height of the buildings (a concession that drew no reward). As a final salve, he promised that there’d be no construction traffic going through Lakeside.
Then 20 people spoke, all but one opposed to the proposal. The exception was not in favor of the development, but was making a statement for the record. When Ansbacher spoke again, as was his due in such proceedings, he said “the large majority of the comments dealt with ad hominem attacks” on the ex-president of the association and on the nature of the negotiations. Noticeably, he did not deny the accusations, but said they were “not germane” to the current hearing, nor should be they be a reason to table the matter, he said. Speaking as he did in a deceptively soft and even tone, he then made a veiled threat of legal action “in another venue” if the planning board tabled the matter before addressing some of the speakers’ concerns one by one, mostly by restating his earlier concessions and adding a few details.
“I understand that people are concerned in Florida with storms. I’ve lived through storm after storm. I picked up after Andrew for my family in South Dade. I get it. But the criteria of the code are the criteria of the code,” Ansbacher concluded. “Beyond that I just want to point out something is going to be built there, and what was last permitted was 435 units. We’re down to 190. And I think that the record reflects numerous concessions, and while we regret the internecine battling among the associations, we believe this project stands on its own as meeting the applicable criteria.”
Al Hadeed, the county attorney sitting in as the planning board’s attorney this evening, told the board “that you not consider these agreements,” Hadeed said, “that you not make them relevant in any way to your decision.” The reason: the agreement is between two private entities that are not in the scope of the board’s considerations. That, in essence, gave the board the sort of legal cover necessary to vote in favor of the development, as did other steps that Hadeed said the developer fulfilled appropriately. Mark Langello a member of the planning board, spoke of Hadeed’s sidelining the controversy over the associations’ contested agreement as key to his decision. He was also swayed by the assurance that the houses would not be used for short-term rentals.