If there is opposition to a hotel rising again in the heart of Flagler Beach, in the same place where one stood for 50 years until 1972, not a peep of it was heard Tuesday evening ahead of the Flagler Beach Planning Board’s unanimous vote recommending that emerging project.
The board unanimously recommended approving a special exception and site plan for a 97-room higher-end hotel and 10 town houses in the 1.3-acre block at Central Avenue and State Road 100, adjacent to Veterans Park, the site that had been home to the farmers’ market for 30 years.
One person’s name was invoked repeatedly as the reason the project is trusted and free of the customary taint of opposition that attaches to major developments in iconic locations: Zoee Forehand, who owns the land with her husband and whose family has been associated with Flagler Beach’s welfare and identity for decades.
“If Zoee was not behind this project I would be a lot more skeptical,” John Lulgjuraj, the co-owner of Oceanside restaurant–and a member of the Tourist Development Council told the planning board. “I’m excited tonight that there isn’t so much negativity.”
He was underselling: there was none. The response from a dozen or so people who addressed the board was far more supportive than might have been expected, based on the public response at large–in social media’s more strident channels or in the nearly 100 comments Monday’s FlaglerLive article revealing the proposal–would suggest. “This is without question the passionate item of the evening,” Larry Torino, the city’s planner, said as he introduced the item to the board, perhaps anticipating the parade of opposition that never materialized.
Whether because of covid, because the meeting was made available live on YouTube, or because the opposition is hanging fire, the commission chamber at City Hall where the board met this evening totaled no more than 50 people, including several city commissioners. The city commission hears the hotel’s application on Dec. 10.
“This is the right person and the right team at the right time,” one speaker and local business owner said of Zoee Forehand. “There isn’t anyone else I would trust to ensure the integrity of this project is kept local.”
Forehand did not reveal who would manage the hotel: confidential conversations are ongoing, she said, suggesting that none has been secured yet. (A city official told FlaglerLive that the Hilton was one consideration.) When a planning board member pressed her on her future involvement, she half-demurred. “That’s still to be determined,” she said, but she’d “help mold it and make sure it goes forward.” But she said the hotel, when built, “is supposed to be communal,” rather than an exclusive place that caters to its guests while shunning neighbors.
“This is exactly what this city needs, not that Flagler Beach needs anything, but I really think this is the type of project that needs to happen in this town,” a commercial property owner and Flagler Beach resident said.
Amy Lukasik, the executive director of the county’s tourism office, applauded Forehand’s approach, noting her attention to detail to such a point that Forehand is insisting on a type of environmentally appropriate soap to be used in the hotel rooms. That’s the kind of attention needed to the project, Lukasik said, before making her broader point: “Tourism imports taxpayers,” she said, lending her support to the project.
There were some concerns with making Central Avenue one way, questions about the height of the structure (at 35 feet, the height meets city code, plus a 42-inch elevator feature). But neither members of the public nor members of the planning board delved too deeply into the project’s details, though some raised a few significant concerns. Roseanne Stocker, one of the board members, wanted to ensure that the hotel property would not infringe on the “public nature of our beach”–that the customary public use of that beach would be preserved as is, and that the eventual hotel management would not charge for parking on its grounds, as hotels often do. But there is, in fact, a proposal afoot to make a portion of the beach private.
“It really is a well-crafted and planned out plan,” Pozzuoli, the architect-board member, said. He was a bit skeptical about redesigning Veterans Park for water storage. “I love it, I think the elements are good, the one concern I have is the event room is on the smaller side,” he said, which would hold a wedding party of 80, while the original hotel had a larger ballroom. He wished for an event room double that size. He also suggested that the architecture might not match that of Flagler Beach exactly, and that a workshop might be needed to look at the drawings.
Several of those issues will be discussed and negotiated before the items move on to the city commission.
The project’s architect, Joseph Pasquale, its general contractor, Brian Walsh (who has a home in Flagler Beach and is a former classmate of Pasquale and Flagler Beach architect Joseph Pozzuoli, a member of the planning board) and Forehand had pre-empted some of the questions with their own presentations.
Forehand has owned Z-wave Surf Shop in Flagler Beach for 33 years, grew up in town, the daughter of parents who owned a real estate business, of a mother who started the Flagler Beach Chamber of Commerce and presided over it, as would Zoee, and who spoke of her protectiveness of Flagler Beach. “This fits into the fabric of our seaside town,” she said of the proposed hotel, evoking the memory of its antecedent, in whose ballroom high school proms and marriages used to be celebrated. The city commission in 1973 had approved plans for a five-story building there, Forehand said. It never happened.
So for 30 years, Forehand’s family managed the Farmers’ Market, “knowing one day we would potentially resurrect this iconic structure.” Then came hurricanes Matthew and Irma, upending the region’s tourism, its beaches, the Farmes’ Market. It was time to revive the idea of a hotel, an idea in the works over the past four years. “We didn’t come into this lightly, and we want to impress that on everyone,” Forehand said.
There’s also no question that for those who have lived in town or even in the county for a couple of decades, the revival of a hotel at the center of town is not news so much as deferred.
In early February 2003 the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council hosted a week-long “charrette,” or planning session, to reimagine the future of State Road A1A and Flagler Beach. The public was invited to take part for a day in a session held at Santa Maria del Mar church. “This is your show, your opportunity to tell us what it is that you want,” Mike Busha, the planning council’s director told the assembled residents. “You need to let us know what it is you want to protect and preserve.” The result was an 82-page document crafted with the input of some 150 people–the public and of a who’s who in local development, government and preservation, along with three design teams.
A central theme of the charrette “promotes unity and preserves the character of Flagler Beach and the A1A Corridor.” One of the proposals it put forth was a hotel next to Veterans Park, returning the property to its former uses. The Charrette was even more specific: “Two to three-story mixed-use buildings, or a two to three-story hotel should line the sides of the western remaining block where the old Flagler Beach hotel used to be.”
A hotel is permitted by special exception at that location if it’s recommended by the planning board and approved by the city commission. The town houses are “permitted by right,” and do not require special-exception approval. So this evening’s hearing was about whether a hotel “use” should be granted, and whether that site plan application would be recommended. “I never really understood why this should be a special exception,” Don Deal, chairman of the planning board, said, referring to the 2003 document and its direct references to a desired hotel.
Torino, the planning director, also referred to the charrette and the 2006 downtown master plan, which foresaw implementing just such a project in the years to come. “And the years to come, here it is, seventeen or 18 years later.”
“If this moves forward it will be the crown jewel of our downtown area,” Deal said, moments before the 7-0 vote that came at the end of a hearing that lasted just short of two and a half hours, including consideration of an unrelated item.