The Gardens development, one of the largest proposals to cross local governments’ regulatory desks in recent years, is in limbo.
Originally planned as a 3,966-home and apartment development phased over the next 20-some years and straddling John Anderson Highway, the project was to have been scaled back significantly, according to its developer’s latest outlook, but even that plan may be derailed by a county planning determination that it could not go forward absent rezoning.
The original plan has been opposed by residents in and around Flagler Beach, who organized a pressure group called Preserve Flagler Beach and Bulow Creek and have made their presence felt to Gardens and county officials in large numbers at two meetings so far, one of them organized by Gardens officials last summer. The group is holding a community meeting at Flagler Beach United Methodist Church Thursday evening “to update concerned citizens” and answer questions.
But the meeting is not likely to be more conclusive than what has been taking place between the developer and the county administration. The next steps rests on the shoulders of the planning director, who has already paused the project and is poised to reaffirm that pause later this week. The step after that is likely to be the developer’s appeal of the planning director’s decision to the Flagler County Commission.
One certainty that stands out at the moment: the project the developer wishes to bring forth at the moment is only a fraction the size of the original plan, returning it closer to the size once envisaged for that area when the land was owned by the now-defunct Ginn Corporation.
A little over two months after a county staff-level meeting turned into a raucous and adversarial town hall about the proposed development, Ken Belshe wrote the county a letter that appeared to significantly shift the project’s scope.
At least one organization that buys land for public use or preservation “has expressed interest in purchasing a portion of The Gardens property that lies west of John Anderson Highway and east of Bulow Creek,” Belshe, a senior director with Sun Belt Management, the developer of the property, wrote Adam Mengel, Flagler County’s planning director. “Our hope is that one or more of these organizations will come forward in a timely manner to make a serious offer to purchase.”
With that in mind, Sun belt was withdrawing both the applications it had submitted to modify a Planned Unit Development and Future Land Use Map Amendment regarding the 825-acre property, but not the “sketch plat” for 330 lots east of John Anderson. “The existing PUD currently allows for a total of 451 units of residential and 230,000 square feet of commercial. It is our intention to move forward with our first phase of development as expeditiously as possible under the existing PUD.”
But what happened next sent even that plan into a tailspin: Mengel reviewed the Aug. 30 sketch plat submittal and determined it to be “not in accordance with the entitlements granted in the original PUD.” That meant even the scaled back Gardens plan could not go forward absent an appeal of his decision to the commission, whose vote is uncertain.
Mengel in his letter cited a series of issues to justify his determination. For example, he wrote that the “substantially altered” proposal shifts all development east of John Anderson and creates direct roadway access onto John Anderson while omitting the development of amenities such as a golf course. The developer had proposed that golf course as a means of “providing for the disposal” of Flagler Beach’s treated wastewater discharge, which currently goes into the Intracoastal Waterway. Mengel also cited the county’s 2011 Comprehensive Plan, which, “among other things, prohibits increases in density within the Coastal Highway Hazard Area and Special Flood Hazard Area, both of which are applicable to the Gardens project.”
Mengel’s determination is not that the development can’t go forward, only that to do so it would have to seek a rezoning to a Planned Unit Development and a future land use amendment, steps that would be laborious and fraught with political uncertainty. The process would put Gardens officials through even more of a gauntlet of public opposition than they’ve experienced so far, and it might do so during the course of a year distorted by an election campaign with three of the county commission’s five seats up for grabs.
A determination of such consequence by the planning director may seem unusual, but the County Commission only this week, on Monday, upheld a similar determination Mengel made about Hammock Harbor, albeit regarding a 4-acre parcel and a boat-storage facility with a restaurant, not a large housing complex. The Hammock Community Association appealed Mengel’s determination (which, in that case, allowed the development to go forward), both to the Planning Board and the County Commission. The association lost both steps.
Responding to an interview request, a spokesperson for Belshe today said that “we really don’t have anything to report, so we don’t have any comment to offer at this time,” but to check in subsequently.
Gardens officials are keen on avoiding an appeal. Belshe and his attorney, Michael Chiumento, met with County Attorney Al Hadeed and Mengel on Oct. 8 to dispute Megel’s determination, according to Mengel, and see if there was a way to work through it. Mengel said Belshe and Chiumento felt some of the letter’s substance was inaccurate. Mengel disagrees. Chiumento has been contacting the county on “a fairly regular basis” to see what the next step would be. The hope was that “we would rescind our letter, and we’re not at that position,” Mengel said, leaving it on his shoulders to issue another document reaffirming the letter’s determination.
Mengel said he expects that to happen fairly soon. It’ll then be up to The Gardens officials to decide which way to proceed, their next alternative being the appeal.