Flagler Beach city officials strained Thursday evening to assure a packed chamber that numerous water and sewer projects the commission was approving for the coming year have nothing to do with expanding capacity or making it possible for The Gardens, a major development proposed for John Anderson Highway, to link to the city’s improved system.
Residents were skeptical at first, but appeared appeased after commissioners, the city manager and the city engineer explained that the improvements were planned long before The Gardens showed up.
“All these projects have been in our plans for years,” City Manager Larry Newsom said. “None of the items on the agenda increase capacity, they’re mainly issues that have been ignored from past administrations.”
Thursday evening the city commission approved five bids and contracts totaling $1.4 million, all of them related to those long-delayed improvements to the city’s water and sewer system.
A $444,000 award to McMahan Construction, to be paid for in part with a $375,000 state grant, will replace the sewer plant’s emergency generator (at a cost of $187,000) and make improvements to the plant’s electrical system and rooms, among other things. SGS Contracting Services got a $473,700 bid to improve the city’s water plant. Mead & Hunt got a $48,700 contract to design a new well (Well 14), allowing the city to “rest” its existing wells from time to time, according to Fred Griffith, the city engineer. The city will “piggyback” on another city’s contract for $100,000 in sewer rehabilitation, and awarded a $305,700 bid to Danus Utilities to rebuild the Leslie Street pump station and replace several sections of sewer along South Daytona Avenue.
Despite the steep costs, the financial gurgles for water and sewer improvements don’t usually draw public attention. But the city commission’s chambers were filled to capacity. Many residents worried that the projects were designed to accommodate the proposed Gardens development, the 825-acre project that, if approved, would over the next few decades build out to nearly 4,000 homes and apartment units.
The project is in unincorporated Flagler. It’s still deep in the approval process through county government’s regulatory channels. But it would have to depend on Flagler Beach’s water and sewer connections. Many city residents object to the project’s size and location and what they fear would be its impact on the environment (though the developer says the project would lead to vast improvements to the city’s sewer system and less polluting impacts on the Intracoastal).
As it stands, the city’s water and sewer system doesn’t have capacity for such a development, at least not as projected at build-out. Residents who turned out to Thursday’s meeting were under the impression that the city was now building that capacity, particularly with the planned addition of two water wells.
“I’m not sure that that is a need that the city needs now or that that is additional wells you’re putting down so that you can serve additional development,” Barbara Revels, the former county commissioner and a Flagler Beach resident, told the commission. “I think most of the residents don’t want to spend money in their general fund to pay for additional wells if you can even find the well sites so that we can fund development down John Anderson Highway.”
Kim Carney, who chairs the city commission, said the new wells are simply part of the routine replacement process the city has been following since its existence. “They dry up. We don’t have a well for ever,” Carney said. “Our city by law has to find well sites. We have to get easements to every well site and we have to buy the land. In preparation for well production, we have to fund permitting, engineering and everything. It does not mean that we’re going to build 15 wells in Flagler Beach or for Flagler Beach, actually. None of them are in Flagler Beach.”
Carney said none of the money is drawn from residents’ and businesses’ property tax revenue that goes into the general fund. “All of our water wells and all of our water equipment is funded 100 percent through your base water rate fees and your usage fees,” she said. “There is no general fund money spent outside of the scope of that utility fund. It must stay within the utility fund.”
Over the years the city abandoned its first nine wells. It now operates wells 10 through 13, and plans to build Well 14 near the county airport, and has secured an easement for Well 15. “I’d love to be building wells 14 and 15 right now,” Griffith, the city engineer, said. “However we completed 13 last year and it almost takes a year to get it designed, get it permitted, get it drilled, do a test well, do all the testing, put in the pumps, put in the motors, put in the electrical, put in the piping.” Well 14 will be done in the coming budget year, Well 15 in the following budget year.
But Griffith’s explanations reinforced Revels’s point: “As he explains it I think it becomes very clear to the members of the public here that Flagler Beach has a tough time finding well sites, and wells dry up and you’ve got to rehabilitate and put new wells in just to serve us,” Revels said. “And we need to be very careful that we have that water to serve us, and not take on new development, not offer to other developers that are not in the city limits, that we’ve got an abundance of water and that we will provide them with capacity that we don’t have.”
“Nowhere have we indicated that we’re going to do that,” Commissioner Jane Mealy said. “I know that you keep thinking we are, but we’re not.”
Newsom, in an interview, disputed claims that the city had issued a letter signing off on The Gardens. “The development was running around saying City of Flagler Beach is OK with this development. That’s not what the letter said,” Newsom said. “At best we had capacity for Phase 1. At best. But it’s a first come, first serve when it comes to the utility area. Plus we have to sign off with DEP,” the Department of Environmental Protection, “on each and every plat that comes through, even if it comes through in that area or if it comes through in the city, and we’re only allowed to go about 80 percent capacity. But keep in mind, they wanted us to commit to a 25-year vested rights on our utilities. Now way I’m doing that. No way. At the end of the day it’s going to be the board’s decision. You see all this misinformation created, probably by Barbara, is telling everybody all the utilities are being approved to take care of the Gardens. That’s not true. It’s not true. Everything on this agenda was planned before the Gardens ever showed up.”