The Flagler County Commission today voted 3-1 to reject adoption of a controversial amendment to the Land Development Code that would have allowed marinas in such areas as the Intracoastal Waterway. The vote was the latest victory for the Hammock Community Association, which has been opposing a proposed boat-storage facility in the Hammock, next to Hammock Hardware. The developer considers that facility a marina. The association says would be too large and too noisy, clashing with the Scenic A1A corridor’s regulations.
The commission’s discussion today was the first reading of an ordinance that would have amended the Land Development Code to add marinas as a permissible use in the county. Theoretically, “this isn’t in particular to the boat marina over in the Hammock,” as County Commissioner Joe Mullins put it. But few people were under any such illusion, including Planning Director Adam Mengel and all those who filled the chamber today. “It’s hard to say that it’s not related,” Mengel said. “In every one of our public hearings it’s come up.”
The reason the addition was being proposed was directly related to the history of that one parcel, that one proposed development: that of Hammock Harbour, the proposed 240-boat dry-dock storage and restaurant planned by Palm Coast developer Bob Million for over two years.
The project was originally approved by the county planning board and the commission, only to be scuttled in court, both at the trial and appellate levels. The courts did not rule on the merits of Million’s proposal. They found the way in which the county approved the project to be improper.
One of the ways to get around the obstacle was for the county to rewrite its land development ordinance. By adding the section on marinas, it would then presumably make Million’s proposal permissible on its face, assuming the code also specified that dry-boat storage facilities are marinas, as the current wording does.
The Hammock Community Association, which led the court battle against the dry-storage facility, has argued all along that the Million project is a warehouse, and that warehouses are not allowed in the A1A Scenic Corridor. Million in the early goings did refer to his facility as a warehouse but stopped doing sop, eventually opting for the term “marina.” The association saw that move as a mere maneuver, an end-run around “warehouse.” The association has since criticized the Land Development Code wording as a form of spot-zoning designed to allow the Million project to go forward.
The association isn’t opposed to marinas per se, but to wording that would leave the type of marinas allowed, and where they would be allowed, largely undefined. The association was proposing a list of 20 additions to the code language as a way to make marinas permissible, but within certain parameters. The association was also supportive of a provision the new wording would have maintained in some versions: every marina proposal could be considered, but only as a special exception to the code. Special exceptions require an added level of scrutiny by county regulators, the planning board and the county commission. That provision was only one of the issues in contention today.
Briefing the commission on the marina wording this morning, Mengel had the special exception included in some options, not included in another, giving commissioners an opting to try to discard it altogether. Mullins and Commissioners Greg Hansen and Dave Sullivan preferred the ordinance without the special exception requirement. They portrayed it as “clarity,” suggesting that they misunderstood the purpose of special exceptions, which have little to do with clarity and more to do with ensuring regulatory rigor and oversight. In essence the two commissioners were advocating for more freedom for developers and less county regulatory oversight. “This stuff needs to be cleaned up,” Mullins said. “I’ve got a problem with, just like our Constitution, people will look at it and if you can go into a room of 10, and nine out of the 10 are going to disagree on what it says. So I think the clearer and the more out there you can put it, it’s better for business, is better for growth, it’s better for future commissioners is better for the future community. Because all this does is put turmoil in.”
When Commission Chairman opened the floor to public comment, it looked like the ordinance amendment would sail through, as it almost had, with just one dissenting vote, on the planning board. Commissioners were likely not ready for the sheer distaste the amendment elicited from almost every individual who spoke–including Million.
The first person who addressed the commission–Jody Bollinger–schooled the three commissioners on special exceptions in their own code: “There are 12 special exceptions in C-2,” she said, referring to the zoning designation along that stretch of A1A. ” It’s not like it’s a new thing, ‘put a special exception in,’ there are already 12. One is commercial warehousing. All the C-2 properties in the Hammock are adjacent to residential. I don’t know how you can possibly think that the commercial warehouse structure, along with a forklift, along with a five to 10,000-gallon gasoline tank, should not be listed at least at the minimum as a special exception.”
Clearly, and from the start, the dry-storage boating facility was as much a focus of the public’s statements as was the ordinance amendment. And just as clearly, there was no opposition to dry-boat storage in principle–but opposition to a structure that would be built in the Hammock. Dennis Clark, among the leaders of the Hammock Community Association, walked up to the podium in an A1A t-shirt, “Flagler’s Pride.” He reminded the commission that the planning board said “at least six times” that marinas should be a special exception. And he left no doubt about the intention behind the marina wording: “This is an industrial operation being shoehorned into a so called marina definition so that one builder can construct and operate the monstrosity in Flagler County’s most unique, beautiful Hammock.”
Over a dozen speakers echoed similar sentiments one after the other, one of them calling it “disingenuous” that the whole exercise was about the Hammock Harbour boat storage facility. “But for this property, we would not be here,” one Hammock resident said, calling the facility a warehouse.
Then came John Russell, who co-owns Hammock Hardware and whose store is among the rare institutions along A1A. He lifted a thick envelope containing a petition bearing 1,200 signatures, apparently authenticated with addresses. “My thought is, these people are concerned. Are we really doing the right thing when we look at this many people that took the time to say, No, this is not what we need,” he told the commission. “I would suggest, in my opinion, that you take the time to call some of these people and find out why they think this is wrong.” Russell’s wife, Margaret Russell, spoke of living at that property for 44 years (the Russell’s home is behind the store), owning Hammock Hardware for 41 years. “I don’t really think that at my age of 79 and John’s of 82 that we should have to listen to a reverse forklift lift boats day after day after day. I think you should have come over to our property and walk down our river and watched all the boats that go by on a Saturday or a Sunday. You should see how busy that is. They couldn’t put a boat in that river if they had to without damaging it.”
Others spoke about the uniqueness of the scenic overlay that gives the Hammock special protection for a purpose–“a fact that’s ignored by staff and the commissioners themselves,” a resident said, citing the irony of the county’s own tourism board recommending that the county encourage “ecotourism.” That’s the Hammock, she said–which the allowance of Hammock Harbour would undermine. One resident criticized the commission for having pre-determined the outcome: “It’s pretty clear to me that most of you, not all of you, decided to approve dry Boat Storage, two years, without all the facts or the evidence.” She added: “You can call a boat storage anything you want, you can call it a marina, you can call it a flying airplane, I don’t care. At the end of the day it’s a warehouse.”
The proposed Land Development Code amendment got only one approving voice–that of Greg Blose, the representative of a fledgling local chamber of commerce, who said marinas would bring jobs before citing a misleading number: that Flagler County created just three jobs last month. He was referring to the September unemployment report, which does not reflect job creation in the county, but job holders who live in the county. Put another way, there were 46,412 employed county residents, though they could be employed either in Flagler or in any surrounding counties–or, indeed, employed remote, in New York or San Francisco, but living here. The figure did in fact show that statistically insignificant increase over the previous month. But counties’ job reports are best looked at over several months, since they typically show odd variations when singled out. In the past 12 months, the county has seen an increase of a hefty 3,628 job-holders. In the past 10 years, the county has added 18,372 job-holders, or an average of 1,800 jobs a year: hardly a county in crisis. It isn’t clear how a proposed boat-storage facility with a handful of jobs would affect the figures more than September’s statistical insignificance.
Dennis Bayer, the land-use attorney who represents the association, also addressed the commission. “I’d like to dispel one issue that’s been raised by Mr. Million and then by the gentleman that just spoke for the chamber, our arguments are not emotional, they are fact based,” Bayer said, before providing a brief history of special exceptions, and hinting that the commission could still face litigation without special exceptions. He gave the commission an option for the boat-storage facility: limiting fork lifts to daylight hours and the building size to 30,000 square feet, like the Publix building in the Hammock. As it is, the proposal would result in a building larger than the Sheriff’s Operations Center currently under construction in Bunnell. He was not opposed to the proposed ordinance, but suggested it still needed a lot of work.
Million was last to speak, saying marinas “have been permitted for 40 years in Flagler County,” but agreed with many f the speakers that “this has been poorly handled. The reason that we’re here is because of the ambiguities in the code,” and in the administrative decision-making. After another swipe at public input (“these three-minute sound bytes the false information, the emotion”) he proposed another rewrite.
Hansen by then agreed. “This ordinance is not good. it’s not well written,” he said. “I move that we deny this ordinance.” His later added that a reevaluation of a differently written ordinance could be considered in the future.
“We would start from scratch so we would go back to the drawing board, metaphorically speaking back to the planning board,” Sean Moylan, the assistant county attorney, said. “We’d have to advertise this public hearing. It would just be a hit the reset.”
Hansen, Sullivan and Don O’Brien voted to reject the proposal. Mullins was in dissent. Commissioner Andy Dance abstained because Hammock Harbour had hired him as its landscape architect early in 2019, before he became a commissioner.
Clark in his email to the Hammock Community Association’s membership earlier this afternoon was more blunt. The subject line read: “Good news–Marinas are dead for now!”