Note: Attorneys with Cobb Cole, the Daytona Beach law firm that represents the developers of The Gardens along John Anderson Highway, are hosting a neighborhood meeting to discussed the planned mixed-use development on Monday, July 1, at 6 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn, 55 Town Center Boulevard in Palm Coast. FlaglerLive invited Ken Belshe, a senior director with SunBelt Land Management, to present the developers’ perspective on the project. The same invitation was extended to representatives of a group that calls itself Preserve Flagler Beach and Bulow Creek, whose spokesperson said an OpEd will likely be forthcoming. The project is currently wending its way through regulatory steps in Flagler County and Flagler Beach.
By Ken Belshe
I am part of the development group proposing to build The Gardens community off John Anderson Highway. A lot is being said and rumored about the development and I’d like to tell you about it more directly, and from the perspective of someone who’s been in Flagler County 20 years and who knows the importance of balanced growth.
Back in 1999, our company laid down a hefty investment in what we saw as a very bright future for this growing community.
We turned that investment of raw land into Palm Coast Plantation on Colbert Lane. The time I spent as part of that development team still stands out as a highlight of my career. I still remember enjoying the opportunities of discovering this great county’s impressive, diverse culture while also getting to know really great people serving on local governments.
That was a time when there was only one Publix in the county, and it was small. It was a time before Town Center, before Target, City Hall, a movie theater and national retailers, before dozens of family-owned restaurants around town and so many companies offering great jobs for our residents. There was much on the horizon for the community’s future, but we had yet to reach our potential.
It was a different time for Flagler County, focused nearly entirely on the needs and lifestyle of retirees and snowbirds. Young families were far outnumbered. High school students graduated and moved away. Back then, there was hardly a reason for them to stick around. What would they do for a living? Where would they live?
There has been a lot of discussion in the last several months and even years about growth in Flagler County, and where we are headed. Local experts wonder how fast we can grow and whether the diversity of our community will keep up, providing jobs, culture, dining and recreation. It is apparent we need to be prepared to provide resources and execute plans for responsible growth in order to supply housing for people in all walks of life and retain our younger people inclined to move away from home.
Overall, I am personally encouraged by the more rational rate of growth taking place in Flagler County compared to the unbridled growth in the previous decade. We are now seeing end-user home buyers rather than those speculative buyers of our past. People now see Flagler County as a legitimate and viable place to raise a family as well as begin retirement.
As developers, we are preparing our own set of proposed plans for housing solutions in a growing community in need of more modern options. We discovered housing trends have changed not just here in Flagler County, but all around the nation. Millennials are growing into young professionals with needs and interests different from their parents’. With the evolution of things like Uber and Amazon, and in a world of multiple TV shows dedicated to people buying tiny houses, we have seen a drastic progression in the preferences homebuyers can settle into for the long-term. The things trending now – a smaller home and yard with less maintenance, a sense of community and involvement, and close proximity to area amenities – are a stark change from large estates built on three-acre lots.
We know, just like everyone who lives here, that Flagler County is a vibrant community filled with immense opportunity and an unparalleled natural landscape. The cities and the county have done an incredible job protecting our natural resources, expanding our parks and trails and outdoor recreational opportunities. We see our government and our elected officials invested in a way we never have before: they’re building strategic plans for responsible growth and development and setting a growth pace that is both smart and reasonable.
We have every intention of keeping this pace. We have taken our time, investing in properties that offer possibility and potential for producing unique housing options for our residents for decades to come, while others may have walked away. Even when every facet of Flagler County was devastated by the recession and land development practically came to a halt, we stayed the course.
We have known for decades that this area is a glimmering gem outshining others in the Southeast. We have no intention of damaging that gem or risking its value. We hold it carefully in our hands, polishing it and deliberately waiting to share our ideas about what to do with it.
The Gardens property was purchased long ago by the now-defunct Ginn Company. Their plan included estate-sized homes and a golf course, an impossible sell in today’s economic and cultural environment. We purchased this property from the lender, recognizing its possibility and potential. We know a new plan will require great attention to detail and planning and we intend to develop it slowly, over 25 to 30 years – in other words, over a generation or more – with input from our local governments and others and in accordance with multiple regulatory agencies at the state and federal levels whose jobs are to regulate land development and protect endangered species and wetlands. No developer in today’s regulatory environment can develop any property without strict oversight by these agencies, with severe penalties for violations.
The plan for the Gardens is to execute a responsible and ethical development program, keeping the pace set before us and maintaining our vision while balancing the need for profits for all stakeholders. Over the course of the next couple of decades, the current plans include developing a mixed-use community with 3,966 units – a combination of single family and multi-family housing. There will be well-lit, walkable streets, multi-use trails and sidewalks that will allow residents to drive, walk and bike around the neighborhood and associated amenities or to nearby commercial properties.
Our goal with The Gardens is to develop a modern community spread over 825 acres. By locating this number of homes on this property, we help provide for the future growth of Flagler County but reduce the amount of land that will be required if we were to continue with sprawling neighborhoods.
A recent finding from the Florida 2070 study, which was jointly conducted by 1000 Friends of Florida and the University of Florida’s GeoPlan Center, found that “even modest increases in development densities can result in a substantial saving of land.” Furthermore, this type of development plan, such as it is with The Gardens, can also result in lower costs to the public for roads, drinking water, stormwater management and sewage treatment.
As a result of smart-growth planning and intergovernmental partnerships, this community won’t destroy this area, but rather provide those unique housing opportunities of which Flagler County is in such desperate need. We are excited about the prospect of providing new, diverse and modern residential options for the baby boomer generation, as well as young families planting roots to remain active members of our community for decades to come.
We understand there is opposition to this development, and development of Flagler County in general, and we are willing to engage and listen to all stakeholders throughout this process.
Ken Belshe is a senior director with SunBelt Land Management.