As the Flagler County Commission this evening takes up development applications for The Gardens’ 335-home proposal for the two sides of John Anderson Highway, one of the lingering questions about The Gardens’ ability to move forward depended on its water and sewer infrastructure. The county can’t provide either.
But Flagler Beach can and will, even though the development is outside the city limits (it’s in unincorporated Flagler County). Flagler Beach’s capacity for providing water and sewer is no longer an issue. And the Flagler Beach City Commission will not vote on the matter.
Twice in the past year Flagler Beach’s city administration wrote The Gardens to assure developers that water and sewer service would be provided. Those letters are common between administrations and developers, since they are only stating facts and have little or nothing to do with policy. But The Gardens has been one of the more controversial developments on any government’s agenda, drawing significant opposition from a grass-roots group called Preserve Flagler Beach and Bulow Creek, one of whose members–Ken Bryan–was elected to the city commission.
Bryan over two meetings has been arguing that the city’s letters to the developer lacked commission input. When the city commission last met earlier this month, he again made that point and called on city staff to answer a series of questions raised by opponents of the development.
But in the end, the 75-minute segment only re-confirmed what the late City Manager Larry Newsom’s letters had told The Gardens: services will be available. The commission does not have a vote on that, and will not vote on it.
Jane Mealy, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission, made a point that has tended to be lost over the past few months: “If we don’t provide the water, guess who’s going to provide the water: Palm Coast. Which was the original reason we made the agreement back in 2006.”
“I just think there’s a lot of confusion with the residents. They think you have a vote coming,” Stephanie Luther, a Flagler Beach resident, told city commissioners. “That needs to be clarified, that you don’t.”
Still, questions have not stopped. A year ago the commission discussed additional wells and fee increases, generating a lot of concern among residents who did not want to see a connection between the cost of new wells and providing water to The Gardens.
In January, the city sent its first letter to The Gardens, asserting that the city could provide water and sewer capacity in its initial phase. Another letter went to the developer in July, reiterating that.
“From what I have been able to ascertain neither of these letters from the city manager seem to have been made available to the commissioners prior to going to the developer,” Bryan said, “although the July letter was cc’d to the Flagler County administrator, Fred Griffith, our city engineer, Drew Smith, our attorney, Richard McFadden, building official here for the city,” and others on the developer’s side. “Who was missing? The Flagler Beach city commissioners, the final decision-makers and approvers.”
Bryan had requested a workshop to go over all that,b ut City Manager Larry Newsom died in the interim.
“As a commissioner,” Bryan said, “I’d like to know what’s going on, especially what commitments as large as this have to do with the city. I’d like to be transparent to the people of Flagler Beach and let them know what we’re deciding on when it comes to major projects such as this.”
He added: “I’m not trying to point fingers. All I’m doing is trying to resolve some issues here and make sure we’re transparent so we know what’s happening as we move along. One of the last things I want to happen is for us to get–I hate this word, but screwed over by the developers. I want to make sure that we are transparent, I want to make sure that we’re getting what we’re delivering and it’s negotiated in a proper and fair manner.”
Bryan said he’d been meeting with Interim Manager Matt Doughney “as much as I possibly can” on The Gardens matter. Other commissioners, among them Jane Mealy, had conversations with Doughney as well.
Doughney said he had no disagreement with the need for any development’s commitments being vetted before the city commission. “Whether it’s The Gardens or any other development that want to come into the city, and not only the commission but the community has a vote, and they need to hear it, and they need to know exactly what is promised and what is not promised,” Doughney said. “As of right now when it comes to The Gardens, the only things that we’ve committed to that I’m aware of are water and sewer, that’s it. We haven;t committed to anything else.”
But as far as the county is concerned, the county’s approval of the development hinges on concurrencies being in place (put more simply: infrastructure) to ensure that the development is viable, and the only infrastructure it will depend on from Flagler Beach–the only issue in contention as far as the city’s involvement is concerned–is water and sewer. In essence, the city has signed off on that commitment, itself derived from an existing agreement with the county to serve the John Anderson Highway corridor.
Fred Griffth, the city engineer, reminded commissioners of the fact, and did so in his usual blunt manner. “One interesting part of that agreement basically states that we have to treat that development, charges, impact fees, connection fees, everything, the same as we would as if they were inside the city of Flagler Beach,” Griffith said. “We currently have that agreement with the county. Obviously any agreement can be broken but in my professional opinion, if you break the agreement, you’re basically telling the county, hey, we had this agreement with you but we don’t really want to serve that area, and you’re basically foregoing the rest.”
He went further: “335 units correlated to $2 million in water and sewer impact fees and connection fees. $2 million. This development is 335-unit development, which is what they’re proposing right now, correlates to about 60,000 gallons of water a day, plus or minus, OK? Currently, we’re treating about a little over 600,000 to 700,000 gallons of water a day. So basically this is another 10 percent, okay, over five years, because 335 houses are not going to be built tomorrow, okay, even if they put the infrastructure in in the next year and a half.” He then made it explicit: “Growth does help,” as it spreads out costs for the city.
The sewer plant has a capacity of 2 million gallons a day. It’s operating at a little over 600,000 gallons per day–and still dumping its reclaimed water in the Intracoastal. The city still has no plan on what to do with its reclaimed water, though it will be barred from continuing to dump the waste in the Intracoastal in several years. The city’s hope is to negotiate a deal with The Gardens to divert the reclaimed water onto The Gardens’s golf course. That had actually been one of The Gardens’s own offers–but that was when The Gardens was proposed as a development more than 10 times larger than the current plan. It’s now unclear whether or how The Gardens would take the reclaimed water. “That’s going to take some negotiation, on the reclaimed water side,” Griffith said.
“When do we get to say?” Mayor Linda Provencher asked, about the reclaimed water.
Griffith said reclaimed water is not part of any existing agreement. (He said The Gardens could potentially use “less than half” the city’s reclaimed water, leaving the city in need for other customers for that water anyway.)
The city has four wells in operation, with a fifth about to go operational in the next two to three months. Doughney said the new well is not to ensure capacity for future development, but to ensure “redundancy.”
But again, the city has no capacity issue at the moment, based on Griffith’s figures. The city is permitted by the St. Johns Water Management District to pull less than 1 million gallons per day, but still well above what it needs, and more than what it’s consuming.
Griffith said The Gardens will be located in an “optimal” location for the city to serve. But, he noted, further key agreements have not been signed. “I fully expect it to occur,” he said. But later, he said there was a utility agreement drafted that will need the commission’s approval. “I’m not going to sign any water and sewer permits without getting your blessing, on that as well as the utility agreement,” Griffith said, “and we’ve got a lot of work to do on the reclaimed water before we decide what we want to do.” But the commission will have little room not to sign those agreements, the other commitments being in place.