It is a small skirmish in a larger battle: what is county government’s responsibility to residents who don’t have a reliable supply of water? What if that water supply has become unreliable because of a new development nearby–a development county government approved? What should a reliable water supply be, and who should pay the cost of installing it, prohibitive as it may be?
Those are the questions at the heart of a developing debate–and an occasional struggle–between residents of a small subdivision at the northeast end of Flagler County and their county government, a debate and a struggle that’s also divided the community itself, as residents are taking sides between those who want to connect to a municipal water system, at great cost to all, and those who want to stick with their wells, even though many wells are running dry or being fouled with non-potable water.
Willow Woods is a small subdivision of about three dozen lots that, to the pleasure and retreat of its residents, most people have never heard of. It is at once isolated and not, branching off of State Road A1A along the northern boundary of Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, its half dozen dirt roads forming something of a square beneath thick, old trees that create distinctly small, autonomous and rustic worlds for each property.
The houses themselves are a mixture of near-luxury and the occasionally shabby shack, their values ranging from over $700,000 for a property fronting the Intracoastal to a 1,000-square-foot house valued at a mere $138,000. A1A connects Willow Woods to the Hammock a bit south and to St. Johns to the north, so the geographic isolation is limited.
But Willow Woods is not connected to water mains. It depends on well water. And all was fine with that–fine if expensive for residents who have invested thousands of dollars to ensure themselves a clean and reliable supply of drinkable water.
Then came Las Casitas–Spanish for “The Little Houses.”
That’s half the new development now churning up land to the south and north of Lakeside By the Sea. The other half is Los Lagos (“The Lakes”). Together the two developments will add 190 little houses to the Matanzas Shores area, all of them elevated on 9 feet of ground, ostensibly to avoid flooding in an area increasingly prone to flood, and in proximity to rising seas.
The residents of Lakeside By the Sea raised vehement objections to the developments for fear that the elevated houses and mass of concrete and asphalt on either side of them will render them into more of a bathtub than they already are (though of course they did not object to their own development creating impermeable grounds, so the opposition had an element of nimbyism–not in my back yard).
The Flagler County Commission, then just starting its bullish approval of all things development on the barrier island, ignored the concerns and approved Las Casitas’s 97 homes on 25 acres and Los Lagos on 23 acres. Las Casitas is immediately north of Willow Woods. Left unspoken was the risk of flooding to Willow Woods properties. But that, in retrospect, now appears to be a minor matter.
The sudden drying up of Willow Woods’s wells is not so minor.
Part of the development of Las Casitas entails the “dewatering” of ponds. With that dewatering came the change to Willow Woods’s wells. Many no longer produce potable water. Some went dry. Some had to be dug deeper.
The developer got a permit from the Department of Environmental protection to dewater, so it’s legal. St. Johns Water Management District officials came out to speak with some residents. They told them there is no cause and effect between the development’s dewatering and the wells running dry. And strictly speaking, a causal link is difficult to make. The residents have a hard time believing it. The coincidence is too great, the proximity too obvious.
Meanwhile, the subdivision is facing an existential crisis: it needs water to survive, but the solutions aren’t simple.
On Sept. 23, the Flagler County administration sent a letter to the residents inviting them to a meeting to talk about options–one option in particular: in County Administrator’s words, “the possibility of participating in a project that would provide water utility service and a system of fire protection hydrants to your neighborhood.” Palm Coast water would be the utility.
The third paragraph had all the makings of a clever salesman’s pitch: “To implement this endeavor, the County would finance the project through a Non-Ad Valorem special assessment on each property over a specified period of years, so there is no upfront cost to you. The total assessment will cover the cost of design, permitting, and all construction and a breakdown will be provided at the meeting.”
“Special assessment” means “tax.” “Non-ad valorem” means that it would not be a tax tacked on to property taxes, though when it comes to such special levies, that’s meaningless: a tax is a tax. The fact that there is “no up front cost” is also meaningless: the annual cost is what matters to residents, and that cost, Cameron did not disclose.
But he and Michael Esposito, the county’s point man on the project, did so when 32 Willow Woods residents gathered at the county’s tourism offices at the airport on Oct. 2. They were taken aback: $1,700 a year for 20 years, or $34,000, for each property. The cost would be imposed on all Willow Woods properties, whether residents choose to connect to city water or not. That means those who have invested thousands of dollars to improve their well systems would still have to pay the additional levy.
“This letter is the first communication I got from the county after my well failed,” one resident told Cameron and Esposito at the meeting, who were joined by County Commissioner Greg Hansen and County Attorney Al Hadeed. “And my well failed and I think the surrounding wells failed due to a development that my property butts against. I had to make myself right by investing into my home system. The county was not there to help. And for this to be a response, 20 years of $150 a month, it’s insanity. This is is the hell that comes when a development impacts my property, my life and my family. I just think it’s insane. I think it’s also very bad business. I think we’re rushing here. I think if we all had a chance to come together, that we all could come to an agreement and if the cost were reduced significantly, it would be a different story, but it seems like we’re jamming this through.”
By the end of the meeting the county officials conceded that more discussion was necessary, though Hadeed had also offered the proposed timeline: the county commission would approve the creation of a special taxing district before the end of 2019 (though not the levy itself), and by September 2020, would vote on the imposition of that levy, which would then go into effect in 2021. So Hadeed said there was no rush. ‘This is the beginning of that consideration,” he said.
But the residents, many of whom had attended a meeting in the Hammock featuring Hansen the evening before, were nonplussed by the commissioner’s eagerness to move forward with the special district. He had given the impression at the Hammock meeting that it was close to a done deal. He walked back some of that language before the Willow Woods residents.
“I was a little overzealous on that because I really want to do this,” Hansen said.
Cries of “why” went up. “If there’s one home that doesn’t have water, I really want them to have it,” he said.
The county officials used the meeting to put a distance between them and the development, or the cause for the wells going dry: they insisted that they had nothing to do with it, nothing to do with permitting the dewatering, which was true, though they did not say that it was ultimately the county’s decision to approve the development (limited though the commission was regarding its options to deny it). The meeting got heated several times, with some residents accusing the attorney of going in circles and the attorney charging that some residents were speaking without the facts. And there was a bit of sniping between the residents themselves, some of whom favor going to the city water option now, regardless of the cost: the divide between those wealthier and not-so-wealthy properties in the small subdivision was sharpening.
There was no opposition to hooking up to Palm Coast’s water system. “For the record, we love city water,” one resident said. The objection is cost.
“I feel like this should change from whether or not we should bring city water to voting whether or not we should pay for it,” one property owner said. “We’re not against city water, but we’re against paying $34,000 for city water when it was not our fault. I’m fine with city water,” she continued, though she said she would choose not to hook up to it “because I have a reverse osmosis system. Now the other issue in play here is there are people who need it tonight, and this is a two-year process.” Her solution: expedite the process but don’t charge the residents for the water hook-up. The $34,000 cost was unacceptable, she said. “That’s not a good solution, so you as our leaders, as our elected officials, you need to come up with something that actually helps us.”
But Cameron reminded the assembly: “We can’t listen to just one group. We have to listen to everybody.”
The day after the meeting, and after an apparently intense day of discussions within the administration, Cameron issued the residents another letter saying the county would meet with water management officials and would raise the issues of well problems directly with the Las Casitas developer.
“Please understand that the County has not determined anything definitively and we will keep you involved by this and other updates. When we are far enough along, we will schedule another meeting,” Cameron wrote. “To be sure, we actively will be considering alternatives to address the situation, both short term and long term. In the meantime, it would be prudent for you to save any emails, documents, photographs, readings from your water service if any, and any other items related to this issue.”