It’s not often that a local government denies a developer’s request to rezone land, especially when an entire subdivision is at stake, and when the government’s own administration is behind the development. Earlier this week, the Flagler County Commission did just that, denying a Jacksonville developer’s request to rezone 12 acres at Jungle Hut Road and State Road A1A, where the developer wanted to build a 54-home subdivision.
The parcel is currently zoned residential-commercial. Ken Atlee of Atlee Development Group applied for the zoning change last August, looking for a “planned unit development” designation that would enable the more intense development–theoretically, up to 87 houses. Currently the minimum lot size is 75 feet wide. The new designation would have reduced it to 50 feet.
County Planning Director Adam Mengle, who recommended approval of the rezoning request, presented the matter to the County Commission Monday. Part of his presentation was to list other properties where density appeared to mirror that being requested–a comparison a commissioner termed “bogus,” immediately signaling distaste for the proposal.
“If you look at the plat of Sea Colony,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said, referring to the much larger Hammock development not far from the one Atlee was proposing, “and you look at this one, these homes are all just crammed together. You don’t see that at Sea Colony. You don’t. It’s a very well planned community. This doesn’t look like that. These are just jammed in there. I’m really concerned about that. It’s kind of bogus to give us these numbers that say there’s so many hundreds of these type lots out there. It means nothing. The numbers don’t mean anything unless you look at the plat itself and see how they’re organized, see how much free space is in there, how much green space is in there. This just doesn’t look right.”
“I was trying to wrap my head around how with the existing zoning you could fit 87 units in there,” Don O’Brien, chairman of the commission, said of the maximum potential for the development, assuming the rezoning was approved. Developers frequently present what appears to be a lower number of units, compared to the maximum allowed, to make their proposal seem more magnanimous.
Still, the rectangular development would have lined lots along an outer rim and lined another string of homes along the middle of the parcel, with a pond, considered an “amenity,” running the length of the inner lots.
Commissioner Dave Sullivan could think of only a few exceptions further north on A1A where developments were that intense. “But I’m not aware of anything like this in that area right now, so this would be a different looking development for the Hammock,” he said. “Are you changing the nature of the area with that development?”
Mengle found himself in the odd but not unusual position of speaking as if he were the developer’s advocate rather than the county’s, defending the development’s approach by citing an example.
The proposal was recommended for approval in a 5-2 vote at the county planning board, which–but for its isolated dissenters–tends to rubber-stamp development in line with county administration recommendations. The administration itself tried to rush the proposal through the commission–until Sean Moylan, the assistant county attorney, recommended against it in January. “The applicant has not satisfactorily addressed a number of issues that arose during [Technical Review Committee] review,” he wrote, including buffers and open-space requirements. “Additionally, scheduling this item for the action of the Board of County Commissioners only six days after the Planning Board does not provide adequate time to address issues that may arise.” (The planning board was to hear the item that very evening. Mengle was planning to place it on the commission’s agenda on Jan. 14.) “I do not believe that this item is ready to be heard and respectfully believe it should be postponed.”
That, too, was a rare instance of intramural disagreement, though Moylan wrote his memo on Jan. 8, the day former Administrator Craig Coffey announced his resignation: some staffers were already feeling more empowered to do things differently. The planning board voted to table the matter until its February meeting, where it voted to approve.
Opponents wondered, as did Dennis Clark, who chairs the Scenic A1A Committee, “why have a zoning district if it can be changed so easily purely for the benefit of the developer?” The existing zoning would not prevent a development, just a somewhat less intense development, with 34 homes in 75-foot wide lots. The developer was also making no promises to preserve trees, but rather only promising to “make every reasonable effort to preserve” live oaks of a certain diameter or higher.
Hansen wasn’t impressed by that approach, either. “The developer shuffles off the tree preservation to the people that are going to build the houses,” he said. “That seems like an absurd handoff to me, that they’re just throwing their hands up, saying we’re not going to preserve any trees, we’re going to cut them all down, then the homeowner is liable, he’s going to have to replant or do something to comply.”
“There’s not going to be a pushing off to the builder nor to the property owner,” Sid Ansbacher, the laconic attorney representing Atlee, told Hansen. Ansbacher previously appeared before the commission as counsel for the developer of another project that drew much controversy but was eventually approved, at Lakeside last January, a little north of the current proposal. “We also assume that the builder will be responsible for the one replacement tree per 3,000 [square] feet.” The lots were to be 5,500 square feet each (instead of the current 9,000).
After hearing a presentation on the Beachwalk development at an Oct. 26 meeting, Scenic A1A, the county advisory group that reviews all proposed developments in the Hammock, and whose recommendations are (or are supposed to be) taken seriously by county officials, was satisfied in part. But it was also concerned about key parts of the development, including the high density, which “removes the most valuable characteristics of living under the trees,” that “each increase in residential density creates more need for traffic lights and adds to emergency evacuation times,” and that the wildlife corridor would be narrowed.
The item drew much more public response before the county commission than the two speakers it drew on two occasions before the planning board. The respondents were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal.
Some commissioners discussed tabeling the request, toi give the applicant time to address concerns. “I would even move past tabeling and seriously consider denying the request,” O’Brien said. Commissioner Sullivan motioned to that end, Hansen seconded, and the commission denied the request in a 5-0 vote.