Flagler Beach Commissioner Ken Bryan blamed City Manager Larry Newsom for making the commission “look like total clowns” by signing a letter last week pledging water and sewer service to The Gardens development off John Anderson Highway without first clearing the pledge through the commission. Bryan wants the letter rescinded.
Bryan spoke at the tail end of a nearly seven-hour budget workshop of the Flagler Beach City Commission Thursday. Newsom was not present: he’d been hospitalized the day before, his latest of several health setbacks over the past year. Bryan’s blunt excoriation was a different kind of setback for Newsom, who just two weeks ago described himself as “groveling” before the commission to keep his job after weathering severe criticism by commissioners over his conduct with members of the public.
The Gardens issue has nothing to do with that subplot of Newsom’s five-year tenure. The Gardens is a vast development proposed for the two sides of John Anderson Highway in unincorporated Flagler County, in a zone that would be served by Flagler Beach’s utilities. The proposed development has gone through several incarnations, starting last year as a nearly 4,000-home-and-apartment project and getting scaled back to 453 at its last application submittal before the county’s Technical Review Committee, which it cleared. The proposal goes before the county planning board next week.
The county’s role is to ensure that the development abides by county land use rules and the county’s comprehensive plan. The county almost has no say over utilities, since it’s not providing them. At the same time, the development can’t be approved without certifying that utilities will not only be provided, but that there is adequate capacity to provide them based on existing infrastructure.
That, in essence, is what Newsom’s July 29 letter did. But it wasn’t news, exactly: it restated what the city is legally required to state with regards to potential development. “We have an obligation for that,” Commissioner Eric Cooley said. “Potentially is that letter just a restate of what we’re legally obligated to do by taking over that water district?”
“We are very much looking forward to working with you to see your development come to fruition in the near future,” Newsom wrote Ken Belshe of SunBelt Management. Belshe is leading the development. “To that end, we want to inform you that the City of Flagler Beach currently has adequate potable water and wastewater treatment capacity to serve this development. Also, we are looking forward to developing our Utility Agreement with you so as to also provide you with reclaimed water should it become available with our anticipated WWTP Improvements next calendar year.” WWTP is the acronym for wastewater treatment plant, itself a euphemism for sewer plant.
The letter goes on to outline treatment capacities and regulatory details, which led to another surprise for Bryan–but again, nothing new. “We are also continuing to develop additional well sites and have them currently identified in our 5-year Capital Improvement Plan,” Newsom wrote Belshe before detailing in numbers how the city would have capacity to serve The Gardens, with expected upgrades to its sewer plant in 2021, the year The Gardens plans construction.
“In summary, we do not anticipate any problems serving this proposed development with utility services at this time,” Newsom wrote, a line that reads as a green light to developers and regulators, or as a smoking gun to opponents of The Garden, who have vocally claimed that the city was undergoing expensive upgrades to its utility infrastructure at current residents’ expense to serve such projects as The Gardens.
City commissioners and Newsom a year ago in a public meeting went out of their way to tell a packed commission chamber that the city was doing nothing of the sort. (FlaglerLive’s headline at the time was: “Flagler Beach Strains To Assure Residents That Big Utility Fixes Have Nothing To Do With The Gardens Development“). Residents were concerned about the city’s planned expansion of those well fields Newsom mentioned in his letter to Belshe.
I think it becomes very clear to the members of the public here that Flagler Beach has a tough time finding well sites, and wells dry up and you’ve got to rehabilitate and put new wells in just to serve us,” Barbara Revels, a Flagler Beach resident and former county commissioner, told the commission that day. Revels is a board member of an organization called Preserve Flagler Beach and Bulow Creek, founded to oppose The Gardens. Bryan was a board member of the organization before his election. Revels continued: “And we need to be very careful that we have that water to serve us, and not take on new development, not offer to other developers that are not in the city limits, that we’ve got an abundance of water and that we will provide them with capacity that we don’t have.”
“Nowhere have we indicated that we’re going to do that,” Commissioner Jane Mealy told Revels. “I know that you keep thinking we are, but we’re not.”
That was the September 2019 meeting.
To Bryan on Thursday, Newsom’s letter says otherwise. “At that particular time a question was asked, is this going to be providing water for the developers of The Gardens, and it was very emphatically stated at that time that no, this is not for the development of The Gardens,” Bryan said, “it’s only for redundancy and only for the current customers of Flagler Beach. I’m finding out that that’s not true, because this particular letter states clearly in here that the plan for those wells for the next three to five years is to provide water not only for the developer but also for the redundancy.” Bryan said the September 2019 meeting that packed the commission chamber was over concern about rate hikes over the next few years. “So what we’ve done is basically to some degree misled the public as to what these particular wells were for,” he said.
The Gardens application going before the planning board next week is for 355 homes, Bryan said, but he described it as only the first phase. He is not opposed to the city utility’s expansion since utility rates can help pay for what’s needed in the city, such as a new sewer plant. “The biggest problem that I have is the fact that we as a body have not been brought into the loop to fully understand as to what is being proposed and what we are being obligated to that we’re going to have to vote on,” Bryan said. “I have a severe problem with that, because now the people in Flagler Beach feel as though we’re hamstringing them and we’re not keeping them informed as to what’s happening. I was hoping like heck that this whole letter and this obligation didn’t show up on Facebook and other social media that made us look like total clowns in not knowing what’s going on. In my opinion this is a clear case of the tail wagging the dog.”
Bryan asked “that a letter goes from our city attorney,” Drew Smith, “who was aware of this, to the developer, basically rescinding this letter, saying this is not an official letter because it had not been cleared through this particular board.”
Mealy Thursday, recalling her involvement in the redrawing of water and sewer service districts, said when that took place, “it wasn’t specific” to what was then the Ginn project (The Gardens took over the Ginn project). As such, the district made the city responsible for development there, as long as the city had capacity.
“We’ve told the folks in Flagler Beach that we’re going to provide them with water, and I haven’t seen any water studies. We have not been informed by our city manager what the heck is going ion, what kinds of obligations have been made, and I understand that there’s been previous commitments made, but as a body, how can we just sit by and not ask questions as to what’s going on here.” He added: “A year ago we were [told] that these wells were done for redundancy. In this letter it states specifically that they were dug to provide water for the developer.”
“Is that what it says?” Mealy asked.
“If that is what it says, that’s not how it was presented,” Cooley said. He later added: “If the letter indicates otherwise, we have a gap.”
It’s not explicitly what the letter says: the letter states that wells are in development, but it does not link the wells to The Gardens so much as it links the city’s utility infrastructure overall to assurances of capacity. The context of Newsom’s reference to the wells is the infrastructure. But Bryan’s extrapolation was not unreasonable, either, since Newsom was just as clearly signaling that the city’s assurances would also depend on its new wells.
“I think the Gardens project is probably good for the city,” Bryan said toward the end of the discussion, focusing his criticism on Newsom. “Here again, I don’t like to be caught off guard, and as a body that’s making decisions that we’re going to sign documents on, we should know what’s going on. That’s the only thing I’m saying. I think it’s great that we’re going to have more customers, but I’d like to know to what extent we’re going to have customers and to what extent and what kinds of liability or issues it may have on the current customers that we have. I guarantee you’re going to get some calls right now from some of the Flagler Beach residents asking what kind of impact is this going to have on my future water bill, because we were told last year that for the next three to five years, which is what it says here for the next three to five years, their water rates are going to be increased, and I can understand that. But we were also told that the wells were being dug just for redundancy, and not for the developer.”
No decision was taken regarding either the letter Newsom wrote or Bryan’s wish to have it rescinded.