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A Routine Staff Meeting Turns Town Hall on The Gardens Development, Revealing Coming Strategies

| July 17, 2019

technical review committee the gardens

‘In my five years,’ Assistant State Attorney Sean Moylan, second from left, said of this morning’s Technical Review Committee meeting, ‘we’ve never had a crowd like this at this meeting.'” Many more people than appear in this picture, taken just after The Gardens’ representatives had left, lined the wall to the right. (© FlaglerLive)

Technical Review Committee meetings are usually–actually, always–staff-level meetings whose participants go over the mechanics of land-use applications. The committee’s authority is limited to what it describes as “quality control,” ensuring that the applicant has everything in order before the item can be forwarded to the planning board, then the county commission, for actual decisions.

You wouldn’t know that from this morning’s meeting of the review committee. It took place in its usual, living-room sized conference room on the first floor of the Government Services Building in Bunnell. But it drew nearly 100 people squeezed in the room, more outside. It drew two sitting county commissioners, two sitting Flagler Beach city commissioners, a former Flagler Beach commissioner, and a former state attorney, who happens to be the lawyer representing opponents of one of the projects before the review committee: The Gardens, a planned 3,966-unit development on 825 acres straddling John Anderson Highway.

The turnout was not a surprise. The only other time The Gardens were open for public discussion at a community forum, one organized by the developer to explain the project and hear public concerns, over 300 people turned up at the Hilton Garden Inn, many complaining that the venue was too small and that any such meeting should be held at the Flagler Auditorium.

The last time a land-development issue needed the 1,000-seat auditorium to accommodate public meetings was a decade ago, when the Ginn Corporation was planning a 400-some development along John Anderson Highway. The housing collapse and Ginn’s bankruptcy stopped that project. It so happens that The Gardens is SunBelt Land Management’s successor to that very project: SunBelt bought the land and is hoping to modernize the plan along more contemporary housing needs that reflect demand for smaller homes, smaller lots, higher density (most of the housing units would be apartments, some in multi-story buildings), and amenities fit for younger families. But the size and location of the project is drawing the same intense opposition, especially from Flagler Beach residents, that the Ginn project did in its day.

The opponents turned out this morning as they did at the July 1 meeting at the Hilton, this time clad, many of them, in pitch-black shirts, signaling the funereal color of that movement and its evolution into an organized pressure group.  “It symbolizes our strength, power and unity in numbers,” Elizabeth Hathaway, a chief organizer of the group, said of the color. “It also symbolizes the sadness induced by this type of reckless over-development due to the negative impacts it would bring to the community, environment, water quality, infrastructure, and the overall quality of life.”

The technical review meeting item was barely an item: the developer, Ken Belshe, was at the table with his attorney, Cobb Cole’s Rob Merrell. The application wasn’t actually ready for the review committee’s sign-off. The committee was assigning a traffic study and an environmental study to third-party reviews. Merrell wanted to ensure that his client knew who those third parties were (Jacksonville’s ETM Inc., the civil engineers, for the traffic study, Carter Environmental for the environmental study. Both companies are under contract with the county for various reviews.) “So let’s make sure we keep those peer reviews and the analysis that comes from that in the right compartments, that’s all I would say for the record,” Merrell told the committee. “And as soon as you know who those folks are, we want to make sure they’re connected to our team.” That done, Belshe and Merrell left. 

They’d have probably benefited greatly had they stayed: for the next 70 minutes, the session turned into a town hall meeting that not-so incidentally revealed the precise strategy both the opponents and the county will follow in the coming weeks and months, revealing opposition not only from the Flagler Beach group, but significant “concerns,” as Adam Mengel put it, from the county administration. Mengel, the county’s planning director who leads review committee meetings, invited all in attendance to write their concerns, which will be made part of the record, and allowed all those in the audience to ask questions and make statements, including at one point a series of statements by Commissioner Joe Mullins, who–never shy on seizing a moment for its political potential–went as far as telling the crowd “I’m for whatever my community wants,” and even setting up a town hall meeting on the issue at Santa Maria del Mar for Aug. 6, and inviting another commissioner to host it.

“We will have growth, but we need to define our growth, we need to say this is what we want coming in the area, and I think this town hall would be important,” Mullins said. “That’s really what these town halls are for, is to unify people.” He went further, willingly compromising the objectivity land-use applicants expect from commissioners who will hear their case and setting up a legal vulnerability the administration is likely not keen to deal with: “I say this too, I mean, guys I’ll say it point blank: I support what y’all support, but I need to be able to know why I’m going out there. I can get a lot more aggressive when I’m, when I understand why my voice is saying what it is and these town halls are important.”

The project falls in Commissioner Dave Sullivan’s district. Sullivan was there. He wanted to speak. Sean Moylan, the assistant county attorney, had to quickly intervene to ward off discussion by Sullivan, the two commissioners having by their presence and willingness to address an issue on their future agenda by now dangerously close to tripping over sunshine law violations: though publicly advertised, technical review committee meetings don’t fall under sunshine rules, and the two commissioners were not allowed to engage in back and forth on the issue outside advertised parameters. Sullivan restricted himself to telling the crowd he was here, he was listening. 

Mengel told the crowd that the third-party reviews are expected to be done in the next two to three weeks. “I’m hoping it’s going to be extensive because we’ve got some concerns,” Mengel said, “otherwise we wouldn’t be going for third-party reviewers.” The results of the reviews would then go back to The Gardens’ developer for a response before reappearing before the review committee, either in August or September. 

Mengel addressed Flagler Beach residents’ questions about the development’s dependence on Flagler Beach’s ability to provide water and sewer services. Residents say the city’s capacity to provide those services is non-existent. “All we need at this point is, yes we’re here, we’re a utility, we’re in town, we’re watching this, we’re able to provide services, and that initial letter that came out said, Flagler Beach is prepared to work with the developer on the phasing,” Mengel said to immediate groans from the crowd. “Hang on, don’t kill the messenger, I’m just telling you what the letter said. But I think that was clarified more in the most recent comment, so look closely to what’s in there from Flagler Beach, clarification on their ability to provide the services. We see that at the time of platting.” He said that Flagler County as the local government with jurisdiction “cannot provide a final plat approval unless and until those commitments are in place, that the capacity has to be there.”

Aside from that, however, the county’s review of the project so far concludes that “The project, as proposed, fails to meet relevant Objectives and Policies of the adopted Flagler County Comprehensive Plan.”

As the technical review meeting wore on, the discussion turned to explicit, potential legal strategies and ramifications.

Tanner, the former state attorney representing the opponents’ case, outlined his strategy: “The focus really isn’t the PUD,” he said, using the acronym for planned unit development. “It’s the long-range planning scheme where that land is currently. A lot of that land is ag[riculture]-timber, one dwelling per five acres. Until that changes, the PUD cannot, as configured now, because you can’t count 1,200 acres, can’t even come up with 400 units, and so if they hold the line on the zoning, so to speak, then basically, that low density would be preserved.”

“That is correct,” Mengel said, saying the amending the county’s comprehensive plan is the first step, Mengel said. “Then the PUD then cannot follow.”

So the battle would be focused on zoning, Tanner said, before Mengel corrected him: it would be focused on the so-called “future land use map,” which sets the density limit. “The land use change is needed. The caution I’ve got there,” Mengel said, “densities are not real crazy. The bad thing about it, when you’re looking at that map, 800 and 4,000, even though it’s high numbers, this ends up being what, five units and change I think per acre, I think that’s how it works out. That’s actually in keeping kind of in the middle ground of our stuff.” But, he said, there are issues with the flood zone, the transportation impacts and the “nature of the property” are future land-use map arguments.

Moylan explained further: “The FLUM amendment, the future land use map amendment comes first. That is a legislative act, and so they have a lot of discretion,” he said, referring to the county commission. “It’s a lot harder to overturn that in court. The zoning amendment is a quasi-judicial procedure based on competent, substantial evidence. There’s a little more power in the court to overturn that.”

“The FLUM decision would withstand legal attack much more substantially than the zoning, PUD issue,” Tanner said.

“Likely so,” Mengel said.

“So if the county stops at the FLUM, or actually maintains the status quo and doesn’t allow them this exception, then the county commission and your decision is much less likely to successful attack,” Tanner said.

“I agree on the face of that,” Mengel said. “I don’t want to be giving legal advice where I shouldn’t.”

Toward the end of the segment focused on The Gardens, several people spoke from the audience less to ask questions than to take stands. “We are not anti-development. We want to make that very clear. We are not anti-development. We are for development that is thoughtful and sensitive to the environment and the community’s wishes. It’s not a case of NIMBY,” Robin Poletta said, referring to not-in-my-backyard opposition. “Personally looking at the plan, the projected PUD, it’s beautifully done. And it’s thoughtfully done, and it does hit a lot of good points. This is just the lousiest location that they could pick to put that kind of high density on housing and commercial in such an environmentally sensitive area. If they were to go into the Palm Coast area or along Route 1 west of I-95, I would be there cheering them on. It’s just that this area that they’re proposing is just so inappropriate on so many different levels.”

Mengel reminded the audience that over the years huge tracts of environmentally sensitive lands have been built over, “bulldozed over.” Heads nodded in the audience. But Mengel had a point: “We call them home now,” he said.

“And we can’t get them back,” someone said in the audience.

“And we can’t get them back. And I get it. But just keep that in mind. And that’s not an excuse. We do things different. But remember, you’re living in yesterday’s environmentally sensitive lands.”

“We don’t have to repeat history,” Joy McGrew, a former Flagler Beach city commissioner, said. “We can make a difference by saying the almighty dollar doesn’t outweigh what you just said. All of the precious things that all of us came here for: if you allow the dollar to outweigh, we’re going to lose even more, and we don’t have to.”

By then, only a handful of the original crowd had remained, and the session ended at the 75-minute mark, letting the Technical Review Committee return to its more routine matters.

The Gardens Development’s Documentation Before the Technical Review Committee, July 2019:

11 Responses for “A Routine Staff Meeting Turns Town Hall on The Gardens Development, Revealing Coming Strategies”

  1. Keep Flagler Beautiful says:

    This protest is not going to go away. Flagler taxpayers and residents want logical, carefully planned growth that will benefit the area, but only if it does not jeopardize our natural resources, the environment and native species, while at the same time not negatively impacting our utilities, roads and emergency services. We are all acutely aware of what this sort of development does to property values, as well. The land was purchased with clear and specific wording about what could be built on it, and that restriction should be retained. No one should buy a piece of land thinking it’s going to be a cakewalk to obtain an outrageous zoning variance of the type that’s being requested. They’ve chosen the wrong part of Flagler for this type of development. We don’t want it.

  2. Paula says:

    As stated in this piece, “Joe Mullins, who–never shy on seizing a moment for its political potential–went as far as telling the crowd ‘I’m for whatever my community wants…”

    Really? Then why did Commissioner Mullins vote for the PUD version of Beachwalk” TWICE over the objections of the parade of residents who stood up to speak against the density and design of this development? And, with his votes, ignore the county’s own guidelines for building in the Hammock?

    Residents want new building/communities to be in sync with the County’s own guidelines. The Commissioner will need his actions to match his words about being for “whatever my community wants.”

  3. Long Time Resident says:

    Were any of these people protesting this plan, here before Palm Coast was built? Very few, I imagine.
    What if we had all protested that? I say let progress continue and all these people should get a life.

  4. Jane Gentile-Youd says:

    As was the motto and advice back in the 19th century “: Go WEST you builders, go WEST”.

    You are unwanted inconvenient, and unnecessary, officious intermeddles on our quality of life in addition to trying to undermine our health, safety and welfare.( not to mention how many new schools your 6,000 people will need).

    Get the picture? Good – now just pick up your plans and pawns and go WEST – past US 1..
    Maybe I am missing something. Do we need jobs for those of us here or more people to compete for the jobs that don’t exist? Flagler County needs to decide which way to go – more jobs or more density….

    Adam Mengel should know the answer…. right Adam?

  5. Dennis McDonald says:

    I was recently reminded that if you look at the map of the NE Florida Coast the only green spot is FLAGLER.

    Mr Belshe says he is not going way. Why because he has had success with the City Of Palm Coast City Council’s “guidance” off Harbor View Rd and Heron Dr. We will not be subscribing to the Holland playbook of constant UP Zoning and Housing Density INCREASES all at our detriment.

    The only fortunate part of this placement of ten pounds of Sh*! in a five pound bag is that FLUM/PUD is under the control of the County where those THREE votes that are needed to reject The Gardens are up for 2020 Election ! They are Sullivan, OBrien Ericksen. Ericksen can be CREDITED as the guy who voted NO most often and has been the Commissioner who has done the LEAST AMOUNT OF HARM to Flagler County ! He was the only NO VOTE 4 to 1 on the old hospital.

    NEVER LET McLaughlin back in office or we will have another ABANDONED million $$ structure and a replay of Bings/Captains !

  6. Concerned Citizen says:

    The masses have been heard and do not want another chunk of land stripped and barren. Much like Marina Del Mar is turning out. If the developers have their way and enough bribe money is thrown around it will get built though.

    @ Dennis McDonald

    Easy and cowardly to attack your critics when not in office. Make sure your legal busniess is resolved and you are representing us 100% ethically before throwing shade on someone else.

  7. Rick Belhumeur says:

    This is labeled as an Ammendment to an existing PUD. I don’t consider multiplying the existing by almost 9 with 12 story buildings an “AMMENDMENT”
    If they wanted to build what’s already approved, they could start almost immediately. This proposed development would change the whole character of the area way beyond what’s already approved. The owner(s) of the property knew the history of this property before they purchased it. We can’t let them abuse us!

  8. Common Sense Resident says:

    By living in many cities and small towns during my life, I feel that Palm Coast has a small town attitude with the desire to be a city. The two are not related as far as finance, ecology and development is concerned.
    If we do not grow Palm Coast slowly with an eye on the “Big Picture” for the future, we will certainly be setting ourselves up for failure. We need to ensure that we vote for and hire experienced Officials to the posts within the community, in order to advance a positive outlook for the City of Palm Coast. My future and your future depends on this strategy. This is not a game, it is a true process. Please don’t use the theory of “my bat is bigger than yours”. Have owned two successful companies and know when a business (Palm Coast gov) is in need of redirection. I love Palm Coast and want to see it prosper. Anything I can do to help, just ask. My past experience is at your disposal.
    Common Sense Resident

  9. Bethechange says:

    This is not about getting a life. It is about a board of elected officials holding any developer accountable to the integrity of a contract in which said developer entered willingly when the property was purchased. Caveat emptor: real estate 101.

  10. Bethechange says:

    Mr McDonald, Flagler is the only GREEN county along the entire state’s coastal counties, when you look at a population density map. That is from Nassau county, down thru and around the Straits and up the entire Gulfcoast to the Panhandle. All RED! What we have is precious; the last! A parcel unchanged since Florida rose up out of the sea. Once gone, it is gone for good. A national treasure, not hyperbole.

  11. Dawn Smith says:

    All I hear about the Gardens development. Nothinging has been said or done about, evacuation routes. For emergencies. No mention of the water table, being drained.

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