It’s been four years since the Flagler County Commission approved building three air-conditioned tourism “cottages” on pristine waterfront land at the Princess Place Preserve, what would be the first of possibly nine 1,000-square-foot structures at the preserve, and 10 more like them at the River-to-Sea Preserve to be built next year.
Today, three dozen people gathered around one of the buildings to dedicate the trio days before the’re made available to tourists for $125 to $150 a night, placing Flagler County government in the hotelier business: county labor built the structures with funding from federal, state and its own dollars, and the county will use revenue to pay for upkeep, and possibly generate revenue.
“The county manages over 10,000 acres and we’re trying to really look at all those acreages and see how can we make these cool places and unique places that are special to the public at large,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said. “It is unique for the county to do this. There are a few counties in this business, but they’re very few, and sometimes it’s done as a private vendor. We like to maintain control because we think we can maintain quality that way and really make sure it’s accessible.”
The cottages were built as a joint project with a division of the state Department of Environmental Protection called, with perplexing complexity, the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve–GTM for short.
The research division was established in 1999 to study marshes and their surroundings, as Michael Shirley, GTM’s director, explained it. The cottages are designed to house, at least for part of the year, the reserve’s many researchers and graduate students fulfilling its mission: the county is setting aside 420 nights a year from the combined three cottages and one other house at the preserve for use by the reserve’s researchers, at half-price. “If we don’t use them we have enough opportunity to get tourists here,” Shirley said. If the reserve’s researchers use all 420 nights, that leaves over 1,000 for tourists.
“The challenge we have is, how do we protect this area for the economy, for the environment and the species of plants and animals, and for human use? So our mission as we thought about it from a scientific perspective is to protect natural biodiversity,” Shirley said, explaining the purpose of the reserve and its researchers. Simply put, the more natural biodiversity with plant and animals, the more likely it’s to be sustained through hurricanes and “any injury from use,” Shirley said. “So our goal here is to basically protect natural biodiversity and in doing so we protect the ecological and environmental and economical reasons why we’d protect an estuary.”
That appeared to contradict the leveling of trees and the construction of cottages in the midst of the very environment the reserve is designed to protect. Shirley contended with the contradiction, saying that for researchers, accessibility to certain points in the region, to do the work, was difficult. The cottages will ease that difficulty. “This is a very remote area to get to,” he explained. “Most folks can’t negotiate the flats at Pellicer Creek, so they can’t drive a boat up here if they’re a graduate student or a professor, first time here, so we needed to have houses here, some on-site facilities.”
He acknowledged that the cottages almost didn’t happen: The reserve had to compete with 28 other reserves for the money, with the money eventually devoted to Princess Place representing fully a third of the money that was available in the grant pot. “The other thing is there was a big outcry from the community,” he said. “They love Princess Place and they were concerned about the environment. What made the difference in making these cabins, cottages, happen, was that fine-threaded negotiation between tourism and science. We know the science is absolutely essential to protect this area. The unfortunate reality is, sea level is rising, we’re seeing changes in marshes from mangroves, we’re seeing marsh die-offs in parts of the reserve. The solution is going to be coming from scientists to tell us what can we do. We need to monitor these areas.”
But the chief purpose of the cottages is clearly their draw to tourists.
“There are naysayers out there but most people say, that’s a great idea but how soon can I book it,” Coffey said. “Change is difficult for everyone, and some people welcome this kind of thing and some people will not. I will only point to again the state parks here in Georgia and Florida, where this kind of relationship has occurred, and DEP considers them at the vanguard of some of these things and they don’t see a problem in having them in their parks. I think we’ve taken the right steps to make it as energy-efficient as possible, to do the right things to protect the environment here, so I think the two are compatible. And I think for us it really opens up a whole other opportunity for folks that otherwise can’t enjoy the outdoors and go camping, they don’t have an RV. This would open up some tourism opportunities for them that they otherwise couldn’t enjoy.”
The cottages, designed by Flagler Beach architect Pozzuoli and built by the county’s facilities department under the supervision of Heidi Petito, could possibly make a convert of Thoreau, once concern for the green space and old trees leveled to make way for them–green space and old trees few people would have been able to see except from a boat–is set aside: sitting below gray-shingled roofs and palmetto-green walls, the construction is modest, the rooms charmingly furnished like chalets (one of them handicapped-accessible), but with ready wifi and satellite TV (no slumming it here), each house with its own screened-in porch looking out on nearby water and moss-thickened trees. The silence, when the politician’s speeches were done, was enticing, the isolation irresistible.
The price is surprisingly reasonable.
“What we’re trying to accomplish here is to offer an incredibly unique experience with the incredible resource that we have here,” says Matt Dunn, Flagler’s tourism director, “and also make sure we’re not losing potential visitors to our neighbors to the north and their opportunities, without having more affordable accommodations in the northern part of the county, we know that definitely happens. So possibly that came into their mind when they were doing that.”
According to a 2014 memorandum of understanding, the cottages were paid for through $345,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), $60,000 from GTM, and $120,000 in labor and equipment from Flagler.
In 2014, the county was expecting the three cottages to generate $42,000 in annual revenue, almost as much as the cost of maintenance, assuming occupancy rates of between 40 and 60 percent. This year’s numbers are different. The county’s budget shows expected rental fees of $79,480, and total operating expenses of $55,600. The 10 River-To-Sea cottages to be built later this year are expected to generate $209,000 a year in rental fees.
“This is coming at a really great time for the Reserve,” Shirley said. “The Reserve was designated in 1999 out of Marineland, in a county office location, it was the old campground store for the campground there, and we’ll be celebrating in 2019 our 20-year anniversary,” Shirley said. “These cottages will really ramp up our ability to get back to our roots, which is Flagler County. I’m excited about that.”
The 10 a.m. dedication this morning was emceed by County Commission Chairman Greg Hansen, preceding a ribbon-cutting. Afterward, Commissioner Nate McLaughlin, who is to sit through his last meeting this evening–he was defeated by Joe Mullins, who was at the dedication–did what he’s done most often, and most effectively, through his eight years on the commission: he snipped off a segment of red ribbon to add to his collection.