The Flagler County Commission in a 4-1 vote today retreated from plans to give away a parcel of land and a boat ramp on the Intracoastal Waterway in the Hammock, and instead directed the administration to make the boat ramp safe but preserve its value as a community-access point to the water.
The commission assigned its administration the staff of devising “a safe solution for the water management at the end of Pamela Drive,” as well as “immediately” mitigate the boat ramp’s liability, which may entail the installation of a berm very soon.
The turnaround follows a last-minute intervention by a county commissioner less than a month ago, asking for more input from a community that had largely been excluded either from knowing about the plan or offering input. And it follows revelations, first reported here last Friday, that two sides of the debate–a property owner on one side, neighbors on the other–were unnecessarily at loggerheads since both sides preferred that the county maintain ownership of the ramp but that it also assume whatever responsibilities and burdens the county wanted to slough off onto property owners.
The boat ramp, at the end of Pamela Parkway in the Hammock–“Parkway is a distant, wishful misnomer: it’s a dirt road–is not a particularly significant asset in and of itself, being of interest largely to its neighboring property owners and residents, who have historically used the ramp as a community access point. But it isn’t the only such boat ramp in the county’s inventory: the county has about a dozen, so whatever it does with one would set a precedent with others. That seemed to have escaped the county administration’s thinking when it presented the initial proposal to commissioners, making the issue once again illustrative of a recurring dysfunction on the commission, where administrative or commission decisions, from restaurant construction at Bing’s Landing to land use decisions to ill-timed plans to board dynamics, have been reached more on an ad-hoc basis while making the commission look more bumbling than deliberative or analytical.
On Pamela Parkway, it was the county’s hurry to be rid of the boat ramp and the county’s near-total lack of transparency that ended up pitting Hammock residents against each other.
Commissioner Greg Hansen, back today from an illness that had kept him away from the early January meeting where the issue was brought forth, clarified his role. He said a citizen invited him to see the problem and ask whether its potential as a source of flooding could be fixed.
FlaglerLive interviewed the resident, who said Hansen and his wife visited him on Debra Drive a few lots away in 2018, after a storm had flooded roads, and that Hansen told the resident–who asked that his name not be disclosed out of fear of retaliation–that the county could fix the problem, only to then reveal that the county had no money to do so.
Hansen today said he spoke with administrative staff, which came up with the possibility of ceding the 7,600 square feet to the two adjoining property owners, for nothing, though the property owners would then have to build a sea wall. The county then proposed the idea to the two property owners–John Dougherty and Richard Marchewka. They agreed.
“Tim and I have been working on this for a year or so,” Hansen said, referring to Tim Telfer, who manages the county’s public lands, a rather bold assertion of a commissioner working directly with administrative staff–as elected officials are not supposed to do. They are required to consult with the administrator, who then handles the matter internally. That requirement is in place by law to keep elected officials from unduly directing administrative staff, to prevent some commissioners from somehow being more involved in official business than others, which can cause resentments and dissension, dividing boards, and to avoid the sort of misperceptions among the public that commissioners are involved in backroom deals.
Hansen said that had been going on for a year. “We finally thought we had an agreement in place,” Hansen said, though until then none of the matter had been discussed publicly, at a commission meeting. That took place only in early January, when the proposal was put before commissioners for their approval. It almost got it but for the intervention of Commissioner Andy Dance, who said the matter had not been vetted enough or given appropriate room for public input.
Only then did neighbors discover that the commission had almost voted the giveaway through.
“There was, I consider an overreaction by a citizen,” Hansen said, referring to Krista Grinstead without using her name. She had posted an angry and largely unsubstantiated “rant” (her own word) on Facebook that Hansen asked her to take down, which she did. She “started calling people names and suggesting that I was getting profit off of this, somehow, and that Mr. Dougherty was a very bad person for doing this,” Hansen continued. “I want to stress that neither Mr. Marchewka nor Mr. Dougherty had any idea about this program until we went to them and said: would you guys consider this.”
Hansen today conceded that there are “a lot of issues” with the matter, such as turning the parcel into private land, which could prevent people from using it, making it “certainly one of the arguments against this.” Hansen then made a motion to kill the administration’s proposal to cede the land, and rather “put it on the county’s budget” for next year and get the county to do what’s needed. He said it would cost $25,000 to $40,000. “We’ve had estimates of $20 to $25,000 to fix that.” Hansen’s approach, however, would foreclose the site being used as an access point.
But again today, as he had in January, Dance subtly–and later more explicitly–spoke of the need to think through a solution rather than jump on one.
“Before we float a motion,” he said, “let’s just understand that this is a piece of property begging for a design solution with the input from the surrounding neighborhood. It’s an access point to a public waterway, and these accesses are extremely valuable to the public. ” He then spoke of the Florida Inland Navigation District, which levies taxes on local county residents and supports public access to waterways through grants “just for sharing the costs of communities improving access to public waterways.” (The late Jon Netts, the former mayor of Palm Coast, served on the FIND board until his death last month, and channeled upwards of $2 million in grants to various Flagler projects.)
Dance asked whether there’d been a hydraulic study that would determine “whether a sea wall would even be effective.” There has not–again, an example of the county’s improvised approach.
“So before we rush to finding a solution that we don’t even know is going to be the right solution,” Dance said, referring to recent press accounts on the community’s perspective, “I don’t want to see us rush to something before we get community input.” He cited the community’s common ground for a solution that would combine county ownership with community desires for such things as kayak access and aesthetically pleasing but useful landscaping, and again pushed the FIND approach, a seawall study and a community.
“You know, we live in Florida, that’s what people move to Florida for, is to be able to have access to these waterways,” Dance said. “I would rather see us embrace these rather than cut them off.” He said he was not downplaying Dougherty’s concerns about flooding, but that there was a consensus-based, “designed solution” out there.
Seconds later, Joe Mullins–the only commissioner to vote against Hansen’s motion–retorted: “Of course a seawall is going to work, that’s why, when you’re looking around, they’re all over, so we know a seawall is going to work,” he said, though Dance had said that the long length of the 20-acre property just to the south of Pamela Parkway, owned by the school board, is not seawalled, and could be an entry point for water even if one were built at the end of Pamela.
But Mullins kept repeating his opposition to anything that would not cede the land to the two property owners. The ramp, he said, “doesn’t look like something the county would own,” then said the school board “have enough money” to put up a seawall on their property. It was unclear why Mullins thought one public agency should spend tax dollars to put up a wall but not another, or how he knew how much money the school district has.
He later, weirdly, assailed the Hammock Community Association, which has taken a stance in favor of preserving public access to resources like the Intracoastal in general. “I’m confused on why Hammock Association is over there,” he said, “most of the people over there that live there that I’ve run into and I’ve talked to said they lived there, that they don’t want to be part of an association, they don’t want to be part of that group, they don’t want to have the rules and regulations on them.” The association is a voluntary, membership-driven community group that don’t impose rules or regulations. Mullins appears to have confused the HCA with a homeowners’ association. (Mullins may have still been smarting over the county losing a land-use court case to the association and the lawyer who addressed the commission today.) Yet moments later, he said the boat ramp should be owned by just such an association, and inquired whether there was one in the neighborhood.
“I’d love to see a boat ramp stay there, but I don’t see how the county can own it and it not disrupt the lives of many of the people that are there,” he said, though the county has owned it since 1964.
County Administrator Jerry Cameron today disputed the designation of the boat ramp as a boat ramp, claiming that “if it were a boat ramp, it would be maintained similar to the other boat ramps that we have,” even though he said just moments later that “we have over a dozen of these similar types of right of ways that end in the Intracoastal.” Citing the woman’s death, he said “we do need to do something for safety.”
Several individuals addressed the commission, all but one supporting keeping the ramp accessible in one form or another, among them the Grinsteads, one of whom said it makes a considerable difference who owns the ramp since private ownership would easily result in exclusion of the public.
Two attorneys also spoke: Dennis Bayer, the attorney representing the Hammock Community Association and two residents, and Vincent Sullivan, representing Dougherty. Bayer suggested a workshop to work through various ideas. But he also underscored the importance of not giving away public access points to the water. Sullivan said his client will remove the county’s liability without removing public access. “He’s attempting to be a good steward for this community and help this county,” Sullivan said.
Commissioner Dave Sullivan said there’s no room for parking, and Bing’s Landing is a mile away for boat launches, though residents say that closing down smaller boat ramps along the Intracoastal will cause a jam at Bing’s Landing. He said the boat ramp was in disrepair, and unsafe. The principal danger, however, is the lack of signs, lights, warnings or barriers that delimit Pamela Parkway from the ramp and the Intracoastal. Six years ago a 77-year-old woman drove past the place where Pamela joins with another road, and instead of making that turn continued on Pamela Parkway itself, into the Intracoastal, and drowned. Despite the fatality, the county did nothing to improve safety there since.
Public comments over, Dance returned to the importance of “taking the time” to study a matter before moving forward rashly. “I fear putting a seawall in there would create unforeseen issues that could be more problematic than the flooding from the Intracoastal,” he said. “You just don’t knee-jerk reaction and put something up without doing proper due diligence and study. We’ve got more issues than just water coming in on storm surges from the Intracoastal. You’ve got heavy rainfall, and where does that stormwater go. If it’s all heading down that wall to the Intracoastal and we put up a tall seawall, that stormwater’s got to go somewhere else. And we don’t have an area to put a stormwater pond to catch that water before it goes out. So there’s a lot of issues that need to be looked at here.” He added: “It doesn’t have to be a community wide boat ramp with parking. It’s an access point. I think the neighborhood needs to come up with a solution of what they want to see there instead of the commissioners trying to come up with what they want to see there, and that will be a long-term solution that everybody will be able to rally for and jointly maintain it to help the county, if they’re part of the solution.”
His last words were again a caution against “jumping to solutions without doing the proper study.”