The vast acreage between Airport Auto on one side and Wawa on the other, along State Road 100, is being razed to make room for two independent developments: Storage King will be a 100,000 square foot self-storage facility owned by Storage King USA, a national firm. The facility will be on the parcel closest to Wawa, to the east. The other development is Town Center Commons, a 39,000 square foot office retail center represented by Daryl Grubbs of Neptune Beach and Kelly Corsmnier of Ponte Vedra Beach.
Wood piles are being burned on site, with authorization from the Florida Forest Service, as any pile larger than 8 feet in diameter requires. It’s another aspect of the torrid pace of development, residential and commercial, that’s been jackhammering Palm Coast for the past few years.
But on Monday and Tuesday, the burning produced enough smoke and ash to cause concern on the nearby campus of Flagler Palm Coast High School as track athletes on Monday trained through the smoke, and on Tuesday had to compete through it as FPC hosted nine schools in the district track and field championships, a qualifying round for next week’s regionals–also at FPC. Smoke marred the meet even though school officials had contacted local authorities on Monday to try to get a pause on the burning for the duration of the meet.
“All of us were kind of taken by surprise Monday because it smelled like we were inside a barbecue pit in here,” says David Halliday, FPC’s hall-of-famer track team coach. He was a bit more hopeful as Tuesday began, but burning resumed in late morning. “There was ash like falling over the track, falling on the ledge of the concession stand” while the meet was under way, he said. “Nobody had to go to the trainer , go to the hospital or whatever, but it certainly wasn’t ideal.” Halliday said the “optics” for the district weren’t good, either, since the district was hosting the event for schools from St. Johns and Duval counties.
Parents and students complained. Steven’s 15-year-old son was competing in the 1,600 and the 3,200 meter races, strenuous under any condition. (For his son’s privacy, Steven’s last name is being withheld.) Arriving at the school a little after 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, “I saw the smoke and I could smell it like, when we got out I thought there was a wildfire,” Steven said. “Then then when I got onto the track after I paid admission, I looked in the distance and I could see you know, smoke billowing up into the air.” The parcel where the burning was taking place is across the street from Bulldog Drive, just beyond Wawa. “It began to upset me, I started asking around, talking to people to see what’s going on with this fire. Does anybody know? ‘Oh, it’s a controlled burn,'” he was told.
“I was at the little concession stand where they’re serving food, and ash–ash was in the air where they were serving food. Ash was coming past me and I’m like, this is ridiculous,” he continued. “I had talked to several parents and they were upset because they heard that it was a control burn. I was just really livid that they would allow that.”
By they he did not mean the school: the school and the district had attempted to prevent the burn that afternoon and evening–and thought they’d succeeded. The meet began at noon on Tuesday and was scheduled to run until 9 p.m. There was also a baseball match on campus, between FPC and Deltona. Halliday reached a contact at the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, who then contacted Thomas Wooleyhan, the school district’s safety specialist, who called County Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord.
Lord spoke with Palm Coast’s Fire Marshall, Randy Holmes, who was to “reach out to forestry and reiterate the concerns / impacts that the burn has on the FPC campus for outdoors activities,” Lord wrote Wooleyhan before noon on Tuesday.
Lord also spoke with Anthony Petellat, the Forestry District Manager, who said he would contact the contractor on the site–Bunnell-based J.W. Site Development Inc. “Hopefully between Randy and I sharing concerns with Forestry there may be a change in behavior with the burn contractor,” Lord wrote. (Josh White, president of J.W., did not return a call or an email before this article initially published.)
The clearing operation has received four authorizations (or permits) to burn on site so far, Petellat, who is based in Bunnell, said. Tuesday’s complaint was the first he’d received about the project, he said. “FFS had the operation and restrictions in place evaluated and an additional restriction of no eastern winds was placed on the burner,” he said today.
Michael Roberts of the Forest Service had in fact before 2 p.m. informed Randy Holmes, a Palm Coast government official in the city’s development division: “I have updated the restrictions for this burner to include ‘No Eastern Component’ as well as the ACI. If the problem continues please let us know and we will look at further adjustments,” Homles wrote Roberts by email. That meant no burning operations if the winds were from the east, in addition to the condition already in place–burning only with an Air Curtain Incinerator, a portable furnace designed to contain a lot of the smoke and particulates produced by the fire. See it explained here:
“When FFS first evaluated the site we restricted burning to be only with an Air Curtain Incinerator,” Petellat wrote in an email today. “If you are not familiar with this equipment, it is a forced air operation that provides increased air to have the material burn hotter reducing the particulates in the air. This is true during hours of operation, but at the beginning of the day and the end of the day with the equipment not running smoke and ash will be more prevalent because the pit is being cleaned out, the operation is starting up for the day, or it is the end of the day with the unit shut off and consumption will continue for a short time.”
What remains unexplained is why school personnel and athletes on Monday and again on Tuesday for several hours, and through the meet, saw smoke and ash, and why the burning took place at all after Roberts’s added condition against burning with winds from the east.
“Maybe the message didn’t get to the right people working the site, but I do know forestry will go out and intermittently inspect when there’s a burn,” Lord, the emergency management chief, said today. “I’m going to assume that that entity doing the burning will be abiding by the forestry’s conditions.”
Petellat said it’s a balancing act between developers and the community. “We work with the operator of the burn following Florida statutes and we work with complainants to reduce or eliminate issues,” he said today. “With yesterday being the first issue reported to FFS, our first step was to impose a wind restriction. As for the length of the operation, it is unknown due to many factors that could delay it.”
As it is, FPC’s athletes did well. “Our kids performed well despite the conditions, but it certainly wasn’t ideal,” Halliday said. Everybody who needed to qualify for the regionals did. But now FPC and the district are looking to May 7, when the regional meet is hosted again at FPC, for qualification to the state championship.
“The one on May 7 is very important,” Halliday said. “If they’re still burning next week, if they could stop on Thursday or Friday, that would be beneficial for us. And the optics: Flagler schools is putting on this event.”
Smoke, in other words, is getting the eyes of visitors–athletes and parents–who may leave Palm Coast with an acrid taste in their mouths otherwise.