The Hilton Garden Inn hasn’t seen a community meeting of this size since it opened 10 years ago. Well over 300 people crammed into the hotel’s conference room this evening to hear a presentation by the developers of The Gardens, the planned 3,966-unit, 825-acre project that would straddle John Anderson Highway.
The meeting was initially chaotic, rowdy, at times tense enough to draw two, then briefly three sheriff’s deputy to the front of the room. Technical glitches drew puns and ridicule, a fire official asked for the crowd to thin down to the 260 maximum, to no effect, members of the public suggested the meeting be moved or postponed to a more accommodating venue.
Through it all several opponents spoke, asked questions, made statements and asserted that none of the plan has yet been officially approved through county channels. Several officials associated with the project reassured the crowd that the project is intended to respect environmental concerns and constraints and address infrastructure needs while working within new trends to accommodate higher-density but less sprawly developments that address millennial tastes and pocketbooks.
Ken Belshe, the developer, and four associates under contract, three of them engineers, sat along a pair of tables at the front of the room, doing their best to remain poker-faced as the evening’s moderator, Rob Merrell, an attorney with Cobb Cole (the Daytona Beach law firm representing the developer) mixed attempts at humor with attempts at discipline, neither approach particularly convincing.
“We weren’t expecting this many people, as you can tell,” Merrell said to an explosion of cheers at the beginning of the meeting. “Somebody is having a conversation with the fire folks to make sure we’re not in trouble in here.”
Boos rippled over the crowd. “I’m very glad you did that, because we have four sheriffs in the back, the next boo is going out to the parking lot,” Merrell said. The crowd booed much louder, jeered, dared. “If you guys don’t want us here, we can leave,” Merrell said, to yells of “go home,” but also to others rebuking the boos: “Why don’t you listen, people,” someone said. “You don’t speak for me. Why don’t you listen?”
“If we can be civil and courteous we’re all going to get something out of this, otherwise we’re not,” Merrell said. Later, when he told the crowd that speaking their mind was one thing, but speaking of “kicking the developers’ rear” was another, a resident who then spoke first said: “I think we should kick their rear.” More cheers.
Colleen Conklin, for two decades a school board member and a Flagler Beach resident for longer, cautioned the developers: “I almost feel bad, because I don’t know if as a developer, the homework that needed to be done to understand this community” was done, she said, before asking specific questions about the development’s projected size. She noted that the schools within its sphere (Old Kings Elementary, Buddy Taylor Middle School, Flagler Palm Coast High School) are all at capacity. “Where would all the students attend?” Addressing the expected population of the development, she said: “The impact is dramatically different not slightly, dramatically different.” She then turned to the crowd from the podium at the head of the room. “One thing I will say to everyone in this room: Stay. In. Volved,” she said, punctuating her syllables with a hammer finger.
Eric Cooley, the Flagler Beach City Commissioner, said it was “unnerving” that the developers never spoke with city commissioners. “So far we haven’t seen you all at the table, and I would really like to see you all at the table.” (Belshe has met with Larry Newsom, the Flagler Beach city manager, several times, also meeting with Commissioner Rick Belhumeur and a city utility engineer. He’s not met with the school board, but said he met with the school board attorney and David Freeman, the facilities director.)
By then tempers and jeers had cooled to more occasional outbursts of support for whoever spoke against the project, brief outbursts of derision for those who spoke in favor, but not to the point of stopping the momentum of the meeting or derailing its intention. Merrell provided an introduction to the project, its location and size, its justification. He spoke as slides flashed conceptual renderings of the property, one of them showing the 800 acres in the context of the 3,000 acres the land management company owns, another showing the 800 acres in more detail, construction and what would be red roofs lined around a couple dozen ponds, connected by public roads within the project, with shopping, offices, restaurants toward State Road 100.
Multi-family housing and commercial properties would be on one side of John Anderson Highway, single family homes would be on the other. “There’s green everywhere, the green everywhere is land being preserved,” Merrell said. “This is the type of thing that the market wants right now, that people want,” he said to another round of howls.
“The people are coming here anyway,” Belshe said later. “It’s the same whether they live out west or whether they live here.” By west he meant other parts of the county.
Merrell said the project was in its earliest steps, with another similar public meeting planned and the various steps before county government still ahead (the technical review committee, the planning board, the county commission).
The development wasn’t without its supporters. “I appreciate that you want for this to be right for the next 20 years,” one resident said, echoing the developers’ sense that development is coming. Mary Murphy, a family nurse practitioner and a veteran, spoke of the joy of raising her 6 year old and 14 year old locally, and looked at the project as “a potential opportunity,” with many families moving in. “I’d just like to plant that seed, with growth and with new families, new possibilities for health care could exist, and that’s not a bad thing,” she said.
But those voices were in a small minority. The majority was driven by the intense opposition to the project marshalled by a group that calls itself Preserve Flagler Beach, several of whose members spoke. Robin Poletta, for instance, disputed that John Anderson is a highway. “It’s a two-lane country road,” she said. She described the road as “deficient” and asked what impact fees the developer will pay to improve roads that would eventually accommodate 9,000 people, what would be done to accommodate new students, and what the plans are for heavy rain events, or worse–the sort of events that have already left their recent mark with floods.
Pat Ferraro, who’s lived on John Anderson for 18 of the more than 30 years she’s lived in Flagler County, said she’s had a premium vantage point from which to see “changes and growth, some good and some bad,” including the emergence of Palm Coast. She said she appreciated some of the developers’ reassurances, but “it’s important that you understand the concerns of these people,” she said. “Palm Coast changed Flagler Beach significantly,” she said, citing the current population of 112,000, compared to the 10,000 before Palm Coast’s birth in the early 1970s.
As she spoke, she described–to more applause–the developers’ rendering of the project as a map drawn by people not familiar with the county. She spoke of environmental concerns, such as more effluents dumping into the Intracoastal and stormwater going into Bulow Creek. “We need more assurances,” she said. But she also spoke more pragmatically, directing suggestions to the developers on where to make road improvements and how better to accommodate construction trucks.
Matt Hathaway reminded the crowd that none of the regulatory steps have been taken, and urged them to stay involved, as did his wife, Elizabeth Hathaway.
“I truly understand that you’re all very passionate about this, I get that,” Belshe said, describing himself as equally passionate about his belief–and appreciating the “somewhat civil” tone. “I know I’m the bad guy, I know I have to shoulder that,” he said. But he also stressed that he’s lived in the county for years even if he doesn’t live locally now (he lives in St. Augustine, commutes to Flagler daily, has an office in Town Center), and that he’s invested locally. He said in his business, he has to look at 20 to 30-year horizons: baby boomers are downsizing and millennials aren’t interested in 5-acre lots.
“Density like this, I know that it’s very difficult to swallow,” Belshe continued, noting that he’d grown up on a farm in Oklahoma, where there was no such thing as density. “But when you start talking about a community like this, you have to consider what’s called sort of a critical mass, you have to have a certain amount of retail and shopping and dining and those kinds of things to get people to come and live in the community.” Those people are coming to Florida and Flagler. “The secret is out,” he said. “Unless you just want to close the gates and say–no more people–” Huge applause interrupted him, a chorus announcing the crowd’s inclination: no more growth.
“If that’s how you feel,” Belshe continued, “then I encourage you to contact your county commissioners and let’s shut down the office of economic development. We don’t need more jobs, we don’t need more businesses.” But, he said, if there’s some acceptance that growth is ahead, then it should be done smartly. “Trust me, density is not the enemy. Urban sprawl is the enemy.” He closed on a note about his young children and his environmentally conscious intentions, along with his intentions to address the development’s impact on schools “with new buses, for instance.”
As he spoke, School Board Chairman Janet McDonald stopped him and told him he was providing incorrect information about school impact fees, and provided him the phone number of the Flagler Auditorium, the 1,000-seat venue that could accommodate the next public meeting. Another woman told him he was missing the point: “We all need you to listen, it’s not about the density, it is about the location,” she said.
Merrell ended the meeting at the two-hour mark.
“I’m disappointed that there are elements in Flagler County that try to fight everything,” Belshe said after the meeting. “At some point Flagler County has to decide what it wants to be.” Asked what his approach would be after the tenor of this evening’s meeting, he said: “I have to evaluate that with all my stakeholders.”