In Flagler Beach, the Flagler Fish Company, a restaurant, is looking to expand, and business owners are looking to place a three-story hotel next to SunTrust Bank, where a bookstore used to be. Neither business would have enough parking required by city code. For that reason, both businesses saw their applications for construction or expansion denied by the city’s planning board last fall. Both businesses saw the denial as discouraging economic development.
The planning board was applying the letter of the law. But those decisions have triggered a re-thinking of Flagler Beach’s restrictive parking ordinance, leading to a joint meeting this evening between the planning board, the city commission, and the economic task force. The three panels’ aim is to at least consider finding a way around the stricter constraints of the existing ordinance without damaging its purpose.
The city wants to preserve the character of a rustic downtown safe from overdevelopment. “I really don’t want to see a lot of development, I want to stay Flagler Beach,” says City Commissioner Joy McGrew. Commissioner Jane Mealy echoes her words.
At the same time, city officials want the city to be more economically vibrant, and they don’t want to discourage local businesses, especially successful businesses, from thriving and expanding. Mealy considers the Flagler Fish Company and the hotel proposals “different,” and she doesn’t want them denied the chance to develop.
The existing parking ordinance exempts current businesses in the downtown area from abiding by parking requirements that apply to businesses outside that zone. But new businesses or current businesses looking to expand are not exempt. That’s the case with Flagler Fish Company and the hotel.
As things stand, there are some 20 restaurants in that downtown area, with a total of 1,356 seats between them. If the parking ordinance applied to them, they’d have to provide one parking space for each three seats, or a combined total of 452 parking spaces between them. The existing number of spaces? 29.
That doesn’t mean the core downtown zone doesn’t have parking: there are 252 parking spaces along streets and along State Road A1A, in the core, downtown zone. That’s where people are parking. And to City Commissioner Joy McGrew, or business owner—and downtown resident—John Horan, “there is no parking problem.” Horan said most evenings many parking spaces are vacant, if anything. He’s accurate: aside from nights of special events, rare is the time when someone looking to park downtown to go to a restaurant or anywhere else cannot find a parking space within a short walk of the destination.
That only underscores the contradiction. Parking is available. But the downtown businesses attracting the sort of traffic that keeps downtown alive are being denied expansion because they don’t propose to provide the required number of parking spaces.
Discussion this evening centered on a proposal to resolve the dilemma. The proposal was put forth by Larry Torino, the city’s planning and building department’s head. It would allow a business such as Flagler Fish Company to expand even without having immediate parking available. In exchange, the restaurant would have to pay either a one-time parking impact fee or an annual parking credit. Both the fee and the credit would be calibrated to the value of a parking space in Flagler Beach. The business would essentially be paying for the right not to have a parking space in front of its property. The city would put the money in parking fund and use it exclusively for parking improvements.
The idea drew support from people around the table this evening, some of it guarded, some of it more enthusiastic. “Either one of them will work, but we do need to establish the value, we do need to move forward with it,” Don Deal said of the fees, whether as impact fees or as parking credits. Deal chairs the planning board.
“I don’t see why we’re hitting just new construction people, it has to be fair,” said Catherine Feind, a member of the city’s economic task force. “I just think that’s unfair to just hit them.”
Along those lines, Torino had suggested changing the wording of the ordinance and calling such expansions as Flagler Fish Company’s to be considered not a new business but an expanding business that could still qualify for the existing parking exemption. That was the proposal put forward by Chris Casper, co-owner with his wife Carolyn of the restaurant.
Another idea drew an equal mix of guarded and enthusiastic support: charging for parking in places such as A1A or near the beach. McGrew has long favored that idea. The city has hired a consultant to study it (the consultant was in the room). But as Commissioner Rick Belhumeur put it, “we’re not here tonight to try to create revenue.” Rather, he said, the intention is to allow businesses to grow. Extra revenue would be “a bonus.” But not the priority.
The idea that got the most support, at least in the short term, was to eliminate the parking requirement for Flagler Fish Company and the hotel in exchange for some sort of fee—if event that: Joseph Pozzuoli, who heads the economic development task force, suggested going ahead with the growth projects without charging a fee. The city should see it as an incentive to businesses.
In the end, Mealy said, the 25 spaces combined that are holding back Flagler Fish Company and the hotel from moving forward “are not a big deal,” and should compel the city to “loosen up the restrictions.” The city should also start reconfiguring its downtown parking spaces, potentially doubling parking availability from 80 to 160 by turning its parallel spaces into angled spaces, though that would cost money and undo what the city just did, and hasn’t finished paying for, through its redevelopment project.
The simpler approach won the evening: the city would soon reword its ordinance and redefine what “new construction” means. That will immediately eliminate the hold on the restaurant’s expansion. Commissioners also agreed in essence to lift all parking requirements on new or expanding downtown businesses.
That’s for the short term. But the short term solution triggers a long-term question.
“We need to have a vibrant downtown and we need to come up with some sort of solution, we can’t keep pushing this down the road,” Deal had said earlier. But in the long run, he said McGrew’s point comes to mind: “We are going to become a first-come, first-served community, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “We all hear on the radio, ‘Palm Coast Beaches.’ There is no Palm Coast beaches. We all know, Flagler Beach is it.”
The city commission and its attorney will work out the details of the reworded parking ordinance. The evening’s meeting appeared to result in a boon for business in the form of lifting the downtown parking restrictions—assuming the city commission seized the opportunity of an unusual, and unusually uncomplicated, consensus.
That consensus currently and pragmatically applies to just one business, but could apply to any business looking to expand or build. And the city commission has opened the door to a rethinking of its parking ordinance, with much less clear consequences for the long term.