Almost a year to the day when the Flagler County Commission voted to build a new sheriff’s district office on Palm Coast Parkway, next to the public library, the commission today aborted that plan, moving the building back to Bunnell. Commissioners voted 5-0 to build what will be a Sheriff’s Operations Center on land south of the Government Services Building, co-locating the sheriff’s building with a planned library branch there.
The sheriff’s operations center would be located on Commerce Parkway, not far from First Baptist Church. The long-term plan for the parkway is to be a bypass around Bunnell, linking State Road 100 and U.S. 1.
A Bunnell district office (or operations center) had been planned for the sheriff there anyway, but several years down the line. It’s less clear when the sheriff would have his own district office in Palm Coast, without having to rent space, though discussion today again raised the possibility that that district office would be in the old Wachovia Bank building off Old Kings Road, which has been under chronic reconstruction.
Bunnell Vice Mayor John Rogers was jubilant when told of the switch. Bunnell officials had been vocally unhappy at the planned move to Palm Coast, and at one point raised the prospect of suing the county on constitutional grounds, saying the move would hurt the city and went counter to requirements that a sheriff’s headquarters be located in the county seat. That’s now a moot point.
“That’s some good news. Going through what we have been through the last several weeks with this pandemic, this is good news,” Rogers said in an interview. “That’s just the right thing to do. That is a win-win for the citizens of Bunnell and Flagler County. I’m excited to hear that, that’s some good news.”
The switch back to Bunnell is not entirely a surprise. FlaglerLive first reported that possibility in early March
The county hopes to sell much of acreage around the public library in Palm Coast, which sits on 17 acres of county-owned land, most of it wooded. Revenue from the sale would help pay for the sheriff’s operations center. That’s assuming the coming recession doesn’t depress the real estate market.
The new alternative “has many more plusses than it does minuses,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said. “Not only does it allow us to sell the property over in Palm Coast and get some money for it, but it would allow us to use the old bank building as a sheriff’s substation in Palm Coast.”
The switch does not substantially alter the timing of the project: the county has been carrying out most of the pre-construction steps, with engineering and architectural bids, so constructing the building itself would proceed roughly at the same time that it would have had it gone in Palm Coast. “We are proceeding with the design process on schedule,” County Administrator Jerry Cameron said.
Sheriff Rick Staly this morning spoke his approval of the plan. “I fully support–if you will recall over a year ago now, the location that you’re talking about was my Number One choice, because it’s a logical location. It’s near the courthouse, it’s near the EOC, it’s near my communications center, it’s near fleet, it’s near fuel. So all the things that we need to operate are there. And then in addition, you have the bank building that has been gutted, and then stopped. And you’ve already done the design work on the interior and to finish that. In my opinion, if you try to sell it now, you will not get what you have invested in it because of its condition.”
The sheriff in fact last year had lent his support to three locations equally, the Bunnell location among them, leaning at the time toward the Palm Coast location because it was nearer the center of policing’s service area. He said the best deal for taxpayers is to co-locate the Sheriff’s Operations Center on Commerce Drive, finish the bank building in a timely way to enable the sheriff to get out of the current lease on rented space off Old Kings Road (that least has a year and a half or so to go).
“My main concern is that we don’t lose momentum,” Commissioner Donald O’Brien said.
Jim Ulsamer, who chairs the Library Board of Trustees and who, with Library Director Holly Albanese, has kept up the pressure on the commission to make good on building the branch library, raised a few concerns about the draft layouts for the co-located buildings, which would place the sheriff’s building toward the front and the library behind it.
“A library is a place where large numbers of citizens want to go, while a police station is often visited for other reasons. Do you want your traffic facing municipal structure to be a library or a police station? I know what my preference would be,” Ulsamer wrote the commissioners in an email, which Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan read at the meeting today. “Perhaps the final design can give both structures adequate space and proper visibility and access. This idea sprung up with no opportunity to examine in any detail and at a time when everyone is focused on COVID-19. And, maybe it is not under the purview of the library trustees, but a little extra input never hurts.”
Sullivan said he had talked to Ulsamer about the email. “He’s not against the concept, and we have a long way to go as far as the final design on having both units located in the same location,” Sullivan said, though that may not necessarily be reassuring to library officials, who would rather not see the sheriff’s building’s plan overshadow the library’s.
The commission held its meeting virtually, through Zoom, with each commissioner, the county administrator, the county administrator and others–including Staly and county directors–joining the meeting at different points. Cameron said preliminary plans done in-house indicate both buildings can be accommodated at the Commerce Parkway location.
“I’m excited for the county and I’m excited for the city of Bunnell,” Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson said. “We are the county seat, we always wanted it to stay in Bunnell, but we yielded to the county’s process” Robinson noted the benefit of Commerce Parkway as a government hub and a future major artery through town. “That really is a great area to have something like that.”
The decision was likely to bring some disappointment to Palm Coast officials, who had been eager for the original plan on the parkway.
“The decision as to where County Constitutional Officers offices are located is within the County Commissions jurisdictional authority and their role,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said in a text shortly after the county’s decision. “If any County offices are to be located or are located within the boundaries of the City of Palm Coast we will support, assist and be as helpful as possible, wherever and however we can. I have not been involved with where the Sheriff’s headquarters will ultimately be located but I am sure that the Commissions decision this morning was made based on input and guidance from the stakeholders directly involved and to the benefit of our residents, who ultimately are the ones paying for it.”