Flagler County Commissioner Joe Mullins made a lot of people in the Hammock angry on Sept. 17 when he cast the deciding vote to approve a high-intensity, 50-home development at Jungle Hut Road and State Road A1A.
Many of those residents gathered at the Hammock Community Center Monday evening, their anger still audible. Mullins himself sat in front of their semi-circle, voluntarily facing them: he’d called the town hall meeting, which drew some 50 people, among them two school board members and County Commissioner Greg Hansen.
The commission approved the 50-home subdivision as a so-called planned unit development, which enables developers to diverge from certain rules as long as the development offers something innovative, including in its planning and design, and as long as it includes a mixed-use component between commercial and residential structures. The Beachwalk development, residents argued, dispenses with the mixed-use component and offers nothing innovative, though they concede that it provides for wider buffers than a regular development would have led to.
“I can give a better result by the options that I am presenting by giving more green space, more buffer, and use some septics for a small increase in density, and that’s how the PUD was applied here,” Mullins told the crowd. “So you can have whatever codes you want to, the way it was written is that someone can come along and present a PUD and it can overtake most of that code you’re seeing.”
Mullins sat at a small table in close proximity to the residents, several papers arrayed before him, a woman in his employ transmitting the proceedings live on Facebook. “I like a challenge,” he said at one point in the meeting, referring to the difficulties of getting land trusts to buy properties for conservation. But he clearly likes the challenge of facing down–or at least challenging–his opponents in close proximity. And the Hammock crowd, for all its skepticism and even its palpable cynicism, appreciated his presence even if it did not expect a change. “I don’t expect anything from him,” Ann Wilson, who’s been involved in conservation efforts and boards on the barrier island longer than most, said. “I just wanted to see what the other people wanted to say and see these new faces, because there’s a lot of new people in the Hammock.”
There was a bit of tension at the beginning of the meeting, punctuated especially by a brief outburst from a burly man who stood up minutes into the meeting and, raising his voice at Mullins, said: “All we want to know is why the hell you voted the way you did. And the bottom line is, I was on your train, all about that train.”
But the resident walked out even as he was asking his question. The outburst gave Joy Ellis, who heads the Hammock Community Association and was moderating the town hall, a chance to set a few ground rules. “I’m probably more upset than all of you on Beachwalk,” she said, calling the vote a “travesty.” But, she said, “I want to get the commissioner’s ideas,” and she urged the assembly to likewise “and decide if they’re worthwhile or not.”
Mullins himself did not intend to justify his vote but to explain to residents a three-pronged approach he’s proposing on handling development in the future: Create an overlay district for the Hammock, make development contingent on more stringent infrastructure and conservation rules, and be more aggressive in seeking out private and government money to buy up land for conservation.
Many in the audience reminded Mullins that the ideas aren’t new: there is an overlay district, there is a comprehensive plan for the Hammock, there used to be impact fees tying development to infrastructure (the county commission did away with them in 2012, except for park impact fees), and pushing for conservation money is a long-sought strategy, but it’s also a long shot. For all that, Mullins said the strategies need to be refreshed and recast for today’s Hammock, but not just for the Hammock.
“You’re here to enjoy your life not to come in there and fight every development and have one of us say well, this is what we’re going to do,” Mullins told the gathering well into the meeting. “That is not why you’re here. You;’re here to enjoy this area. And it needs to be set up to where you don’t have to fear everybody driving down the road, looking up, going–I see a beautiful high rise here, or whatever.”
“I’m trying to give you a very strong subtle thing that you can put in here,” he continued. “this affects all the county, it doesn’t just affect the hammock.”
“I don’t think you’ve even read the comprehensive plan for the barrier island, and I think you should,” a resident told Mullins, “because a lot of the stuff that people are discussing today are things that we’ve already thought we had in the plan. Now, there’s a couple of ideas, which is great. But you can’t offer us any insurances whatsoever, and I think we need to know that. Give it your best shot, but we’ve been lied to, or we’ve been misinformed.”
Mullins had some support, too. “He’s right, the comprehensive plan needs to be updated and hasn’t been updated for quite a while,” John Bettencourt said. “Obviously people want the focus here but you’ve got to update the whole county. It’s growing beyond 100,000 and you’ve got the Town Center where density is welcomed, and you’ve got the other two districts, then you’ve got the two beachside districts that are looking for a conservation measures, and that’s it. That’s the way I look at it. So a refresh of the whole plan for everybody is welcomed, but obviously there’s a focus here before all these projects that are going in front of the commissioners, on business as usual, the way it is now. You’ve heard the consternation.”
It was not entirely clear how Mullins proposes to accomplish the goals he’s setting out beyond a pledge to “turn around and bring staff in and start working on this,” though a commissioner can’t do that on his own: the commission must agree to direct the county administrator to carry out any initiative. He repeated that development codes must be tightened, be more clearly written. “This vision isn’t any good if it’s not set in black and white,” he said.
“It is set in black and white,” Wilson shot back, as did several people in the room. “We’ve worked on it since 2002 when we got our designation as a Scenic Highway, and so we’ve done our vision, we’ve done our plan, we did the overlay district.”
“It’s time to update it,” Mullins said, “because I can guarantee you most people sitting here probably violate that vision that was done 20 or 30 years ago, in some way or some form.”
Mullins wants to see the end of septic tanks on the barrier island, and have that prohibition–at least regarding future developments–codified. But residents worry that an eventual sewer line, possibly connected to Palm Coast’s utility, would only lead to explosive development.
The plank he focused on most was finding conservation money to buy up private land, and requiring developers to make development conditional on some form of set-aside ratio between development and conservation. He mentioned the North Florida Land Trust and other groups. ““I want to see certain areas out here just like Princess Place,” he said of the county preserve secured through a property surtax for land preservation still on the books. But residents said they’d heard all that before, too.
“It’s admirable of you to offer a way in which we could acquire land,” Carol Scott told Mullins. “Well, I’m not particularly interested in taking my grandchildren’s endowment and purchase that land.” She said her family has donated to land trusts before, but it’s “very difficult to obtain funding to do this sort of thing, I’m not trying to be negative, but that’s the bottom line.”
Hansen remained almost entirely silent through the town hall but for two clarifications. “I’m still pissed about the vote,” Hansen said after the town hall. “We had the chance to stop this, and I tried. I made the best argument I could make and I lost. We had the chance. For him to sit up there and say they need to strengthen the rules, all he had to do is vote no and we’d have stopped it. The tools are in place. The tools are in place to manage development. We have to use them. That was the point I was trying to make. I don’t think this was a valid PUD. It just wasn’t, doesn’t fit the definition of a PUD.”
Hansen wasn’t pleased with Mullins calling a town hall in Hansen’s own district. But he didn’t object to the ideas behind Mullins’s approach.
“I understand what he’s trying to say,” Hansen said. “But accomplishing all that, you can’t get private citizens to pony up money to buy land. No. That’s never going to happen. We’ve already gone to these land trusts three years ago. We went to them. They’ve got us on the radar. This is nothing new. We’ve already done all this, and we’re trying to get them interested. So maybe it’s good that he’s reenergizing, maybe he’ll go up and poke the bear a little bit. Maybe they’ll speed us up. So it’s good. It’s good. Take his energy, he’s got a lot of energy. Let him go. Let him poke the bear. Maybe he can get somebody to actually do something.”