A proposed redevelopment of the old Newcastle Marine boat manufacturing site in the Hammock is turning into that region’s latest battle between a developer and residents represented by the Hammock Community Association, the group that led the opposition to an expanded Captain’s BBQ at Bings Landing, the county park, with considerable success.
The proposal, called Hammock Harbor, so far has drawn little attention, though portions of the proposal have gone before the Scenic A1A committee and on Tuesday went before the county’s planning board. Both panels rejected two components of the development–but not the development itself.
The Hammock association is not opposed to the redevelopment itself. “I’m glad to see this property is finally being redeveloped. Great, look forward to it,” Dennis Bayer, the attorney representing the association, said. But, he said, “This was not an active boat operation like Sea Ray.” It would build one custom yacht at a time for four or five employees, none of the traffic that would be produced by Hammock Harbor. “If you look at the totality of this project, it’s almost like a mini-planned unit development, they’re going to mix a restaurant, shops, and boat storage, 240 boats on a 4-acre piece of property.”
There are two parallel stories developing: one is Hammock Harbor’s request for so-called “variances” to allow for a taller building and different setbacks. Those issues require formal review and approval by the planning board, and those were the variances the planning board rejected this week.
But rejected or not, the county’s planning division argues that it’s not up to the planning board–or the county commission–to decide whether the Hammock Harbor redevelopment itself may go forward. That’s entirely up to Hammock Harbor, once the county’s Technical Review Committee ratifies its site plan. The reason: the county commission in 2000 approved high-intensity commercial zoning for the property, making any development there that fits those criteria permissible, without further review.
It’s the determination of County Planning Director Adam Mengle that Hammock Harbor would be a less intense use of the property than its boat-manufacturing predecessor, making any further review moot.
The Hammock Community Association is disputing that determination. That’s the second story at play here, reflected to some extent in the Scenic A1A Committee’s opposition to the development on grounds beyond the two variances. And today, the community association, which has retained Flagler Beach attorney Dennis Bayer, filed a formal appeal of Mengle’s determination.
“The proposed new boat storage would be a nonconforming building that is almost three times the area of the existing building it replaces,” the appeal states in part. “Six new businesses were proposed on this site, completely changing the use from a yacht-building operation into a shopping center with extended hours of operation and the associated noise.” The appeal also underscores the more than doubled floor-area ratio proposed under the new development, which, to the association, also points to more intense use, and notes that the development would be near 25 homes and a hardware store.
The appeal must be heard by the planning board, and the planning board’s decision may be appealable to the county commission. So even if not successful, the association’s appeal is a way of bringing Hammock Harbor out of the woods and into the political arena, under more of a public glare, in an attempt to trigger a broader debate on the scope of the development, not just its variances.
The question before the planning board on Tuesday, however, was strictly limited to the two variances, as Mengle cautioned the board members, and they followed his recommendation: the variances are “self-imposed,” meaning that they have no other justification than to facilitate the development as the developer envisions it, as opposed to being necessitated by more exigent circumstances. The planning board rejected the variances in a 6-1 vote.
That doesn’t kill the project, it merely requires Hammock Harbor to go back to the drawing board and potentially find a way to make its development work to the satisfaction of the Technical Review Committee, without variances, and without again having to go before the planning board–assuming the Hammock Association’s appeal doesn’t force the issue of more vetting.
The 4.3-acre parcel is between North Oceanshore Boulevard (State Road A1A) and the Intracoastal, halfway between Malacompra Road and 16th Road. It started being used as a boat yard in 1989 before it became Newcastle Marine. Owner James F. Buckley of Hammock Harbor, bought the property in August 2018 for $835,000. The county’s planning board subsequently approved a special exception for storage of marine construction and mechanical dredging equipment on the property.
Buckley wanted to redevelop the property by leveling existing building and putting up a new boat-storage facility rimmed by four retail businesses and a restaurant, totaling 57,000 square feet, and 131 parking spaces.
That would have been with approved variances allowing Buckley to go beyond existing height and setback rules: the current rule is for buildings to top off at 40 feet, and to have a setback from A1A of 50 feet. He wants a 58-foot high building and a set-back reduced to 35 feet.
Without those two variances, the structures would have to be larger, totaling 62,000 square feet, and parking spaces would be reduced to 104.
The 58-foot building allows for a 25 percent smaller footprint while allowing for architectural features that would “‘mask’ the height and improve overall aesthetics,” according to Bob Million, the variance applicant representing Buckley.
He does not explain the paradox of a higher structure needing to be “masked,” as opposed to non-existent height that would not have to be masked at all, at least not in the written application, but Million clarified in comments to the planning board Tuesday: “If the variance is rejected, the use has been approved, the physical building at a lower scale meets the code requirements, but it’s a worse condition than approving the variance, so what we’re trying to do is make it more attractive, set it back farther from A1A.”
Million said the development would need capacity for about 240 boats to be viable, but Bayer said “economic viability” or the profit motive are not part of the planning board’s considerations when looking at variances.
Absent the variances, however, the development is “a permitted use seemingly within the C-2 zoning district through the board’s action in 2000,” Mengel said. Tuesday’s planning board hearing focused exclusively on the variances.
“Basically, if we go with the plan that does not require [variance] approval,” Million said, “the restaurant is 50 feet from the intracoastal, it’s a little bit closer to the property owners on the north, which I don’t really like. The variance, we can move the building closer to the center of the property.” He called it the “least intrusive” site plan.
The sensitivity of the project is reflected in behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Despite being discouraged from doing so by Mengle, Million had attempted to lobby several of the planning board members in weeks before the meeting. He’d written or called, asking to meet them, present the project and answer their questions, but was rebuffed by each.
“While you are not prevented from discussing this request with the applicant,” Mengel had written the board members, “you are discouraged from doing so since the discussion takes place outside of the “sunshine” of the noticed public meeting.”
“Similarly,” Mengel went on, “any discussion between Board members on this or any pending request outside of the public meeting is not only discouraged, but may be prejudicial.” Actually, it would be illegal under the sunshine law, and would expose the board members to prosecution.
Dennis Clark, who chairs the A1A committee and is a member of the community association–and who lives 1,200 feet from Hammock Harbor’s planned redevelopment–asked the planning board to table the project until it hears the association’s appeal on Set. 10. “Everything is wrong with this project. The entire premise for this application is based on a decision that its use is not more intense than the prior use,” Clark said, outlining some of the appeal’s substance and noting issues with the septic system, stormwater matters, emergency secondary access, an absent traffic analysis and other matters.