Flagler County government has filed suit to condemn and demolish the long-derelict, yellowed motel that’s vexed law enforcement, residents and county code enforcement officials for years near Dixie Commons along South Old Dixie Highway, not far from the interchange with I-95. The property owners have stopped responding to the county’s attempts to resolve the problem amicably, refusing to acknowledge so much as a letter that was to be handed to them in person last month.
The suit was filed in circuit court on March 3 and amended last week. “We’ve asked for permanent and injunctive relief, demolition of the building,” County Attorney Al Hadeed said Monday, “we have issued a certificate that it is an unsafe structure per the Florida Building Code, and we are proceeding to abate the nuisance either voluntarily, immediately with the owners, or to get a court order that will allow us to do it in their stead, and secure our costs in doing so by a lien on the property.”
“That’s the first time we’ve had to use the state’s public nuisance statute” to address such a situation in Flagler County, Hadeed said. But the move was compelled by the “seriousness” of the matter. The county has a tentative meeting set with potential buyers of the property who claim they would take care of the issues. “Other than that, we are still proceeding irrespective of that interest, we’re still proceeding to get a court order,” Hadeed said.
It was once known as the Country Hearth Inn, one of those nondescript two-story motels and restaurants that punctuate America’s roadside landscape like gas stations and fast-food joints. Built in 1973, its license last expired in 2009. It’s been abandoned to swallows, scavengers, vandals and adventurous investors since, a pair of whom decided to buy it in 2017 for $300,000. The property appraiser currently assesses the property for the same value.
The property, at 2251 South Old Dixie Highway at the south end of Flagler County, is owned by Ajmal and Zubair Zulali of San Diego. Its appearance has not improved since they took over. The Zulalis haven’t paid their property taxes for two years. They owe $9,900.
The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office alerted the County Commission to the building’s derelictions last year after the property had been “the focus of criminal activity, suicide, nearby resident complaints,” according to Sheriff Rick Staly.
The Zulalis met with county officials “on multiple occasions over several years,” according to County Administrator Jerry Cameron in a January 15 letter to the Zulalis, leaving the county with the impression that the Zulalis would repair and bring the property into compliance. They were granted an extension to their building permit. Aside from installing a fence, they did little to make good on their promise. The permit expired. The property remains in an abysmal state.
In the county’s description, the property is a mass of refuse, overgrown vegetation and debris, with an unsecured and partially filled swimming pool whose stagnant waters have become coagulants of unearthly greens. “The property and the abandoned motel is unsafe, unsanitary, constitutes a fire hazard, is dangerous to human life and is a hazard to the safety and health of the community,” the county argues in its court pleading. The fire alarm system has been vandalized, the sewer system is not working, there’s no electric service, the roof is partially collapsed, segments of second-floor railings have fallen, all air cooling or heating systems have been removed or been stolen. The building, its rooms’ remaining furniture, bedding and wall art scattered and shattered, looks as it might in the aftermath of an earthquake or an explosion.
Last year the county documented the property’s dereliction with a drone video (played for the commission oddly to the tune of “Lady Day Lady,” a piece by the French composer who goes by the name “Bertysolo”):
The state Health Department on Feb. 8 filed a final order declaring the property a sanitary nuisance and a threat to public health, ordering the Zulalis to fix the problems or pay $1,000 a day fines. The fines could run as high as $45,000. The owners on Feb. 25 were issued a code enforcement notice declaring the property unsafe. Cameron warned them that an injunction would be filed against them if they didn’t act. They didn’t.
Since the Sheriff’s Office brought its case to the county, “the owners have only installed a partial fence which is inadequate to stop persons from entering the property,” Staly wrote Cameron on Jan. 21. The abandoned pool remains a safety and health hazard. As you know decaying properties like this often become attractive to criminal activity and other quality of life issues for nearby homes and businesses. Because this property is located in a remote corner of Flagler County near the Volusia County line it can attract criminal activity from both counties with little law enforcement oversight.”
Cameron again wrote the Zulalis on Feb. 8, reiterating the same concerns and warnings. By then Ajmal Zulali appeared to actively refuse to acknowledge the county’s moves: when a process server attempted to hand Cameron’s letter to Zulali in person on Feb. 13–the third time the server attempted service–Zulali refused to acknowledge the document, according to court papers, though he confirmed his identity.
A hearing date before Judge Perkins has not yet been set. The case is one of several the county is litigating simultaneously, along with its ongoing defense against a breach-of-contract suit by the owners of Captain’s BBQ at Bings Landing, a recently filed action against the inspector of the Sears building the county bought then had to sell after discovering water intrusion, and pending legal action on the acquisition of easements to carry out a dune renourishment project in Flagler Beach.