“Wow,” Michael Chiumento III, the land use attorney, said this evening as he looked at the crowd of 200 in the Matanzas High School cafeteria. “25 years and I’ve never seen this.”
The crowd, restless well before the meeting started, had turned out to hear a presentation by developer Alex Ustilovsky and Chiumento about the proposed development that would convert much of the long-disused Matanzas golf course into nearly 300 homes, stormwater ponds and a strip of commercial development.
It did not go too smoothly, but nor did it get out of control. The crowd, made up of residents surrounding the golf course in north Palm Coast, wanted to hear the presentation, but was clearly predisposed to protest it as well, or at least aspects of it, such as its projected smaller lot sizes, smaller homes, its immediate proximity to existing homes, its effects on Belle Terre Elementary School, its proposed commercial swath.
“I don’t think people are opposed to the development. One of the big questions is the size of the lots,” a woman said, worried about how the smaller lot sizes and smaller homes would affect their own property values.
“You’re destroying people’s investments,” Brad West, another resident of the neighborhood, told the developer, standing between Chiumento and Ustilovsky in front of their maps and offering a long analysis of the proposal’s flaws, as homeowners see them. “I would like to see some better plans personally for the area along Lakeview,” he continued, addressing the high-density homes proposed along lakeview, also asking that the city continue to make efforts to convert multi-family parcels to single-family homes (those parcels don’t belong to Ustilovsky) and to diminish the impact of a proposed commercial strip along U.S. 1.
“It was constructive and specific things and I really appreciate what you said,” Ustilovsky told West, who got the only solid round of applause of the evening. But many other questions or comments were more prosecutorial than analytical or constructive, reflecting the residents’ anxiety about a development they feel may leave them with little say.
“All these people have valid comments and please don’t discount them,” a woman said.
“It just feels like greed,” another–a lawyer–said, before getting into a brief verbal parry with Chiumento.
The meeting was organized by the developer, but required by the city before the development application goes to city staff and the matter goes before city boards. West had spoken nearly an hour into the meeting, by which time tempers had cooled a bit and a more conversational debate had developed between crowd and developer. But the opposition had been loud until that point, particularly when Chiumento or Ustilovsky tried to rationalize their vested rights.
“It’s important to know that the property has development rights,” Chiumento said. The discussion is “not whether there’s going to be development, but how we’re going to do that to minimize the impact and to do it in harmony” with the surroundings. “It can be developed, it will be developed,” he said.
That didn’t sit well with some in the audience. “It’s like a waste of time if you’re telling us it can and will be developed,” a man spoke up, triggering approving grumbles. .
“Let him talk, let him talk,” a woman said over the rising din.
“He’s going to give us a bunch of doubletalk,” the man said.
It took a moment but the grumbling died down, the man who’d raised the objection walked out in a theatrical huff, and Chiumento resumed his presentation.
He summarized the tangled history of the 278-acre golf course over the past six or seven years as the prior owner battled with the city over multiple code enforcement violations and legal issues that accumulated $700,000 or more in fines. Ustilovsky bought the property and took it out of bankruptcy.
Chiumento showed a “bubble diagram” indicating the conversion of swaths of lands from golf course to single-family homes, stormwater ponds or open space, a strip of light commercial development along U.S. 1 (and another small pocket of commercial development that was quickly rejected by the crowd), and small pockets of town houses. One long strip of land in the heart of the neighborhood would contain some 95 new homes, backing up directly onto existing homes. The bulk of the proposed development is “clustered” in areas north of the neighborhood.
He was again stopped with questions and protesting grumbles. “Is it OK that we listen to the presentation first and then make commentary?” a woman said, to some effect.
The smaller lots were a recurring sore point. Neighborhood residents were deeply skeptical about those, as they would contrast with “the spaciousness” of the larger lots most people bought into, one woman said.
Ustilovsky is the same developer of the new American Village off Pritchard Drive in the P Section. He used that example to explain to residents concerned about smaller lots that, in his view, property values would not be affected.
“What we see over there in the P Section, Pritchard Drive,” he said, “people are looking for smaller houses. Every neighborhood is different, but reality is, a lot of people in palm Coast over 50, 60 years old, and a lot of them are looking for smaller lots, less maintenance, and smaller is better in a lot of situations.” He said homes in the P Section development are selling for around $300,000. “In this area, we understand it’s a little bit different neighborhood and a little bit different clientele,” he continued, but he said he was “definitely” looking to sell homes for $300,000 and up.
But the developer got little warmth.
“Last time I checked we still have rights, I mean this is still the United States of America, not Russia,” a man said, an obviously intended slight at Ustilovsky, though also a misfire: he’s Ukrainian (he’s been in Palm Coast seven or eight years).
“This is early, early in the process, city staff, technical staff has not made any comments,” Tyner said. “They have submitted and we will be providing comments,” but the intention tonight was to hear the community, he said. City officials obviously use such meetings to gauge public sentiment and calibrate their regulatory analysis to that sentiment–but only in so far as they can, within the developers’ rights. Still, the city is not without leverage.
The land is zoned for a so-called Master Planned Development. Any developer who wants to develop the area must submit an application seeking a development agreement from the city. The process is almost identical to a rezoning. The MPD application is now in the city’s hands. “We haven’t completed our first review of the MPD,” DeLorenzo said. Nor, obviously, has the matter been scheduled for its hearing before the planning board.
Colleen McFarlane–the woman who had urged louder participants to give the developer a chance to finish presenting 90 minutes earlier–seemed to sum up much of the sentiment in the room when she addressed Ustilovsky and Chiumento near the end of the meeting: “Most of us in Matanzas Woods feels like the city has neglected that neighborhood for a very long time,” she said, comparing it to “the hinterlands.” She said Matanzas Woods is not considered when the city looks to beautify neighborhoods and built a walking path along Lakeview only because of a tragedy (a 16-year-old Matanzas High School student was killed there one night by a passing car, while she was walking along the road with a friend.)
“They need to hear the people that live in that neighborhood,” McFarlane said, referring to the city, in this case. She said she lives in a 125-by-125 lot that’s “flooded all the time.” The number of houses that would be built “within that small area,” she said, would create a certain impact, and would attract rental properties that would not be taken care of. She asked for a neighborhood liaison as the proposal wends its way through its various steps.
At the end of the meeting Chiumento gave the mic over to residents, who then spoke freely, some of them at considerable lengths, and some urging a more constructive and cooperative dialogue with the developer, the sort of dialogue that could extract concessions. “Ultimately if they want to build some homes, you and I decide what we buy,” one said. By then the crowd had dwindled to less than a quarter its original size.