The Flagler County Commission in a 3-2 vote this evening approved altering its lease with Captain’s BBQ at Bing’s Landing, the county park in the Hammock, enabling Captain’s to build a new, exclusive, 5,000-square-foot, 31-foot-high restaurant in the focal center of the park.
The vote followed sustained, pleading and at times indignant opposition over a “rush to judgment,” but also equally sustained and enthusiastic support for the restaurant, its pair of owners and what was portrayed as the added value it brings to the park–as a destination restaurant and as a structure to be donated to the county.
The final tally was 19 speakers for, 22 opposed from a chamber that had not been that full since 2015, when a land-use issue involving the now-defunct Sea Ray Boats plant off Colbert Lane filled the chambers and required overflow to be moved to the chamber’s mezzanine. There was overflow again this evening, though unlike 2015, tempers were largely in check. There were a few outbursts from the audience immediately after the vote.
The commission was equally divided, with Commissioners Greg Hansen, Nate McLaughlin and Dave Sullivan voting to approve the lease and Donald O’Brien and Charlie Ericksen voting to delay approval pending further discussions. It is McLaughlin’s last consequential vote as a commissioner: he lost his re-election bid to Joe Mullins, who will be seated Tuesday. “I do not support loading an agenda or rushing things one day before I take office,” Mullins told commissioners at the beginning of the meeting, clearly to deaf ears. (In an email to local media after the vote, Mullins called the commission’s action a “stunt,” and said “this type of deception will be met with a strong fight in the future.”)
The plan will permanently alter the complexion of the 7.5-acre park, acquired in 1989 for $1 million with funds out of the county’s voter-approved Environmentally Sensitive Lands trust: The new building will replace the restaurant’s existing and decaying location currently tucked in a more dissimulated part of the park to the south.
Captain’s will build the new restaurant at its own expense and turn the 150-seat structure over to county ownership when it’s completed in late 2019 or 2020. It will assume maintenance and insurance costs through the end of lease, which was extended to 21 years, potentially to 26 years, but will pay no property taxes and no impact fees, and will benefit from a lease that locks in a $1,000-a-month rent for five years. (Unlike Flagler Beach’s lease with the Funky Pelican, the restaurant on the city’s pier, Flagler has no provision requiring Captain’s to pay a share of its revenue, beyond rent, to the county.) The lease also opens the way to a full bar, though Captain’s owners say they have no intention of going down that road, and may add four boat slips for restaurant patrons boating along the Intracoastal.
The county will demolish the older building at its own expense and reconfigure the park for more parking, a new septic system and more green space in place of the old building, though none of those costs have been submitted to the commission. The county also never submitted an estimated cost of repairing or rebuilding the restaurant in its current location. Nor has it produced any documentation showing that the current structure was unsafe.
Few, if any people speaking against the plan had an issue with Captain’s, a popular restaurant, or against the dynamism it has generated at and around Bing’s. But the process surrounding the last-minute unveiling of the lease rankled its opponents as much what they see as the project’s heavy-handed footprint. Yet proponents of the plan repeatedly claimed, falsely, that its opponents were aiming to “knock down” Captain’s just as it has become successful.
County Administrator Craig Coffey was in discussions with Captain’s lease holders since last spring on the project, but did not submit the new lease proposal to the commission until last Friday, and did not present the lease to the Scenic A1A Committee earlier this month, when the committee voted 7-2 to support the plan. Committee members now say most will have voted against the plan had they seen the lease.
Most of the nearly two dozen people who spoke against the lease approval tonight echoed Dennis Bayer, the Flagler Beach attorney who chaired the Environmentally Sensitive Lands committee in 1989 when the county bought Bing’s. Bayer said he had no issues with the restaurant, but the deal raised too many unanswered questions. “Is this a fair lease to the county?” he asked.
Chris Herrera and Mike Goodman, who’ve held the lease since 2012, have been framing the deal as a donation to the county, as as “giving back,” in Herrera’s words. One of the opponents of the deal ridiculed the suggestion, telling commissioners that given the county’s generous subsidies, “you are actually financing it because the rent you are charging is just not suitable.” (Goodman had welcomed people walking into the meeting before 5 p.m. by handing out Captain’s BBQ buttons.)
But the lease-holders, particularly Herrera, who’s well-known in the fishing community and whose environmental stewardship was a recurring point this evening, were credited by their supporters for running a strong, popular business willing to make a substantial donation to the county. Supporters said fixing the existing building “doesn’t make sense, that the restaurant brings in tourists who otherwise would never visit Bing’s or the county, that it generates sales tax as a successful business, and that “where it’s going to go to is the least usable part of the park currently,” as one supporter described the empty space where it would go. “As a taxpayer, I’d rather they build the building than I build it,” he said.
Coffey, the county administrator, opened what would prove to be a nearly three-hour segment of tonight’s meeting to impress on the commission that the building “is no longer salvageable without building from scratch,” at a cost he could not provide. (He said other locations were considered, including replacing an existing pavilion with the restaurant so as to avoid any disruptions to existing green space. “That’s our most popular pavilion in all of Flagler County because it has open fields next to it,” Coffey said, seemingly overlooking the irony that Captain’s would eventually block that open space. He said Captain’s will be responsible for providing 25 trees, yielding a net gain in trees at the park.
Commissioner Don O’Brien questioned how, when the restaurant boasted of $300,000 in improvements just a few years ago, structural problems could be so severe now as to require the whole building to be scrapped. “We weren’t addressing any structural problems, per se,” Coffey said.
Commissioners voted at 8:40 p.m., with much of their agenda still ahead.