With little fanfare, without planned discussion, and with neither public notice to neighboring residents nor a public hearing other than at an advisory level, County Administrator Craig Coffey is asking the County Commission on Monday–the last meeting before a new commissioner is seated–to approve a significant change to the look and feel of Bing’s Landing.
The change, set to be implemented immediately after the vote, would result in some destruction of the park’s prime green grounds to make way for a 5,000-square-foot restaurant, reducing the park’s open spaces. The change would also open the way for a full beer, wine and liquor bar in the new restaurant, though its owners say they’re not proposing one.
The county bought the 7.5-acre park in 1989 with $1 million out of the county’s voter-approved Environmentally Sensitive Land funds.
The change will be to the benefit of Captain’s BBQ, the privately-owned restaurant operating at Bing’s Landing since 2012, and whose owners, Chris Herrera and Mike Goodman, are heavy financial donors to county commissioners’ election funds. The commission less than two weeks ago appointed Goodman to the county’s planning board–which earlier this week voted 4-1 to recommend the change (Goodman was not part of the vote).
Captain’s, which has occasionally altered its layout, is in a smaller building immediately south of its planned new site. “The existing building is falling apart,” Jay Livingston, Goodman’s and Herrera’s attorney, told the county’s planning board earlier this week. (Livingston is also a generous donor to commissioners’ campaign funds.)
The county leases the building to Captain’s, for $750 a month. Captain’s owners have readied plans to build a 5,000-foot restaurant to the north of the existing building, keeping the old one going until the new one is ready so they don’t lose business and more than a dozen employees aren’t out of work. Their attorney says impact to trees will be minimal, and they say they will pay the cost of construction, (“up to $1 million,” according to documents) though the county will be responsible for demolishing the older building, building additional parking and installing the new building’s septic system. The county provided none of those costs in its documents, thus hiding a significant subsidy for the project.
And though Captain’s rent is due to increase to $4,000 a month once the restaurant moves into the new building, the county will cut that rent to $1,000 a month, ostensibly in recognition for the investment Captain’s is placing in the new building.
In effect, while the county claims it is not subsidizing the private restaurant, it partly acknowledges doing so in the lease, and is further subsidizing a private business that pays no property taxes on either the building nor the parking lot that services it, nor service fees for any upkeep of the area surrounding the building. The county, as landlord, has used county crews to service the building as well, and will presumably do so once the new structure is built.
That’s the essence of the lease agreement Coffey is asking the commission to approve Monday–the same day commissioners will have been on a field visit to Princess Place Preserve, another green space acquired with taxpayers’ Sensitive Lands funds that has become a little less green because of a project Coffey and the commission pushed through a few years ago: a set of “eco” cottages that will be rented to tourists and, at times, academics.
The county planning board voted 4-1 Wednesday to approve the site plan for the new building, which is not coming before the county commission. The planning board meeting itself was noticed, but the site plan was not, nor were Hammock residents neighboring the park (or anywhere) informed of the pending plan, as several such residents who found out about by chance told the planning board.
For Monday’s meeting, Coffey has done what county and city executives often do when they hope to draw as little attention as possible to potentially controversial items: he’s slipped through the item on the consent portion of the commission’s agenda–that portion that lists numerous items and that the commission approves in build, with one vote, without discussion, unless a member of the public or a commissioner asks to pull a particular item off consent. Yet the item was never part of a county workshop nor of previous discussion at the commission level, and it was not advertised nor were Hammock residents notified of it, as is the norm with various land issues. Since the change is taking place in a public park, the government is giving the item ironically less public notice.
At Bing’s, the county claims the Captain’s BBQ building size is increasing only from 4,157 square feet currently to 5,200 square feet. In fact, the 4,157 square foot area the county refers to does not correspond with the area documented by the property appraiser, who has the building at a smaller footprint. County Planning Director Adam Mengle said that’s because Captain’s has such things as an outside cooker and other areas that “are not being tracked by the property appraiser,” who’s looking “strictly at what’s under roof.” (See a size comparison of the two buildings here.)
The county and Livingston submitted the plan to the Scenic A1A Pride advisory committee on Oct. 26 and won a 7-2 vote of approval “with the provision that there will be no net loss of green space,” Dennis Clark, the group’s chairman, wrote Mengle. “Also included in the motion was the provision that any parking changes be reviewed by Scenic A1A PRIDE before implementation. During the meeting, it was clear that Scenic A1A PRIDE opposed any increase in building size or increased parking requirements as compared to the existing business.” While previous plans showed more impact to trees, current plans have one live oak and one dead oak impacted, and five palms, which would be relocated.
Clark himself was one of the two dissenters in the vote, and he has maintained his opposition since, speaking individually rather than as a representative of A1A. “This site plan is incomplete,” he’s written in a brief urging commissioners to delay a vote, “without the planned demolition and parking plan, the new septic system, stormwater management, archeology preservation plan, and total tree preservation plans. Any approval should be contingent on a full review of the entire plan and the total costs to the County. The septic system could be huge and impact many trees roots.”
A planning board member questioned Livingston about what will become of the old site.
“There was a discussion about using that area to expand parking,” Livingston said. “At the A1A meeting their recommendation states that they don’t want any net loss of green space. So the hope is, and the applicant supports this, that that area would become an enhanced part of the park. It’s a very nice location in terms of the view of the water, where it is at the back end of the existing parking area, so the goal would be to enhance that area of the park.”
But there’s nothing in writing from any side that certifies that there will be no net loss of green space: it’s merely a recommendation, though the county is looking at other areas for added parking: “We know there’s a need for additional parking,” Mengle said, “so that’s something we as the owners of the park are going to be taking care of, so we’ve got our staff, engineering staff is working on providing that additional parking.” But he didn’t say where that parking will go, though it doesn’t have other places to go but within the acreage of the park, thus almost inevitably netting some loss of green acreage.
Eight people addressed the planning board on the proposed site plan, seven of them opposed. The one voice in favor of the project was Bruce Page, president of Intracoastal Bank, who said he “might have a special interest.”
“I applaud the county for being innovative and coming up with a private public concept to bring amenities to the citizens of this county and our guests, the important tourists, which is a very important part of our economy,” Page said. Acknowledging that he was in the minority then and there, he said Captain’s “truly proven track record” compelled approval, as does the plan to ensure no break in the business’ operations.
Other views were decidedly opposed. “It may be a beautiful building but it takes away all that space that citizens can use,” Lynne Rosewater of the Hammock said. “You don’t build a park so people can come to a restaurant, restaurants can set up wherever they want. This is public land, and on public lands there’s a responsibility to take care of the citizens who have the right to use it, so I feel like that has been lost in this, because the planning board is saying, is this in the need of the citizens where we’re putting it, and I’m saying it’s adverse to the citizens. You’re taking away their space so the only way they can come there and use that and have that view now is to pay to sit in a restaurant. It’s a wonderful restaurant. I eat there a lot but that’s not the point, the point is it doesn’t belong on public land that is a park and use up enough of that land that all that green part of the park is gone.” She said the board was “eviscerating” the park’s green spaces, “and I hope you realize that because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Though the board asked relatively few questions, its responsibility was to address the site plan exclusively–not to decide whether the plan was to its liking or not. Livingston, who reiterated that Captain’s had no intention to have a bar, said it’s not unusual for restaurants to operate in public parks. “Restaurants at parks is something that you’ll find throughout the state of Florida and in most states of the country,” he said. “Just in Flagler County in terms of public land we have Bull Creek, which is a park, we have Hijacker’s, which is county property, Funky Pelican is at a municipal pier, and we have Captain’s BBQ at Bing’s Landing.”
“One thing that wasn’t brought up during Jay’s presentation is that it would be possible to rebuild on the current property,” Janet Sullivan of the Hammock said. “Yes, it would have an adverse impact to employees. Yes, it would have an adverse impact to revenue for the private business. But it’s possible, and if we move forward with this new building, we’re going to have an adverse impact to the park and to the residents who want to use the park. Somebody is going to be adversely impacted.” She noted that the county’s plan contradicts its own comprehensive plan, which calls for not “adversely impacting natural resources” in its publicly funded green spaces.
Moments before this article published, John Walsh, the Palm Coast Observer’s publisher, emailed commissioners, asking them to table the item scheduled for Monday. “The optics of this item are cloudy due to the fact that Captains BBQ owners, Mike Goodman, Chris Herrera along with the HBA donated $4500.00 to the election campaign of Greg Hansen and failed re-election campaign of Nate McLaughlin,” Walsh, an opponent of McLaughlin–and supporter of his replacement, Joe Mullins–wrote. “If this item is tabled until the new board members are installed it will remove the optics concerning McLaughlin. And it will give Hansen time to consider recusing himself from the vote.”
Goodman, however, donated $1,000 to Mullins in mid-October.
Clark, for his part, called the plan “pure destruction.”
The commission meets at 5 p.m. Monday in the first-floor board meeting room at the Government Services Building, 1769 E Moody Blvd., Bunnell.
Watch the County Planning Board Discuss Captain’s BBQ Site Plan: