In a meeting that featured a developer’s representatives lashing into the city administration’s planning staff, the Palm Coast planning board late Tuesday night tabled to next month a controversial plan to rezone 18 acres at the Harborside marina. The proposal would make room for a massive 80-foot, U-shaped apartment tower, town houses, and maybe a hotel, that would add 432 apartments and housing units next to Palm Coast Resort’s existing, 72-apartment tower.
City planners are recommending rejecting the proposal, calling it incompatible with Palm Coast’s comprehensive plan. In the city’s view, the proposal is too massive, too dense, and leaves too many questions unanswered to go forward as is. Representatives of the developer claimed many of the questions it did answer were not provided to the planning board by the administration, at least not in a timely manner.
“Everybody’s sort of drawing a line in the sand, which I don’t think it’s beneficial for anybody, not the community, not the neighbors,” Suzanne Nicholson, a planning board member, said. “Logistically, logically, what you’re proposing doesn’t really work particularly for this community.” She added: “We would like to see if we approve this, that it becomes the success of wild success for yourselves as well as for the community. I don’t think this project is there right now. I think it has the potential to be there. I just don’t think it’s there right now.”
The board’s unanimous decision was the culmination of a nearly three-hour hearing that pitted city planners against project representatives in unusually abrasive language, at least on the developers’ side. The board had appeared ready to vote against recommending the proposal, kicking it up to the Palm Coast City Council, where it will eventually be heard anyway. It opted for delay instead.
Based on Tuesday’s discussion, the differences between the developer and the city are nowhere near resolution. The differences are not about numbers, but about interpretation: the two sides are interpreting land use rules, including the comprehensive plan, very differently. They’re interpreting Palm Coast history differently. They’re interpreting the original intent of Harborside differently. The browbeating representatives of the developer repeatedly inflicted on the city administration is not likely to help.
A dozen members of the public who addressed the board Tuesday objected to the plan. One resident described the proposal as “a canyon effect” and said: “This property is a signature site for the city. This is not a signature project that they’re proposing.” Others objected to the density, to traffic and infrastructure impacts, to the possible absence of a hotel. “It’s irresponsible,” another long-time resident of Palm Coast Resort said. “How this plan ever even reached this stage is very concerning to me.” Others urged the planning board not to “deviate from the original plan.”
There was only one indirect note of support for the developers: “The Marina is a ghetto, in case you haven’t seen it,” a Palm Coast Resort resident of seven years told the board. “The parking garage is not well kept at all. I’d like to see the staff and the developer work a little bit more together to get something done.”
The floor was opened to the audience some two hours into the hearing, by which time the developers’ representatives had held the floor for much of the time: had their case not been made in the printed material provided the board members, as they claimed, they had certainly used ample time to make it, underline it and emphasize it during their appearance before the board, which well exceeded the norms afforded applicants.
“We were prevented from actually making our case and giving the planning board the opportunity to see our justification in advance of the meeting when they issued the agenda backup,” Jay Livingston, the attorney representing JDI Development, told the board. “That is what happened this evening.” It was an exaggeration. The planning board had a back-up of more than 100 pages, and one particular key document Livingston had prepared to answer the city’s objections, which he said had not been included, had been emailed to the board Tuesday just after noon.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this application has been handled by staff in my entire career,” Livingston said, citing for example a letter he wrote addressing issues the city raised. The letter was not submitted to the board members until Tuesday. He called it “one of the many misrepresentations that you’ve just been witnessed to.” He said that contrary to the city’s claims, the developer is willing to build architecturally compatible structures, and height issues meet the standards. “There seems to be some hostility to this project,” he said, using words like “alleged” to describe and undermine the veracity of the city’s positions.
The 17-acre Harborside is on the east and northeast side of Palm Harbor Parkway at the intersection with Clubhouse Drive. A Sheraton hotel rose on the property in the 1970s. The boat slips were added in 2000. When Centex Homes bought the land in 2005, it razed the hotel and built an eight-story, 72-unit apartment tower, a 525-space, five-level garage and an 84-slip marina. The tower and the garage are among the largest structures of their kind in the city.
The city’s Planned Unit Development in 2005 allowed for an additional 209-unit hotel-condominium with up to 47,000 square feet of additional spaces such as a ballroom, restaurant and conference space, an additional 169 resort condo units, an additional garage, and recreational amenities. Those were not built. Jim Jacoby’s JDI Palm Coast bought more than half the property in 2016. (Jacoby formerly owned the Marineland attraction.) JDI Development is now seeking to rezone the property from a planned unit development to a master-planned development, which is the only way it can proceed with additional units.
JDI wants to either build additional apartment units, or build those units and a hotel. In one scenario, as the city sees it, it would add either 432 or 402 units, or from 25.5 to 26.9 units per acre–double what was approved in 2005 and 2007. Architecturally, the 80-foot high structures would be double the height of neighboring properties, although there’s a dispute over the word “neighboring.” The city finds that much density and height inconsistent with Palm Coast’s comprehensive plan, particularly since the proposal is not pledging to develop the area in line with its iconic status.
JDI sees it differently. It argues that 378 units are currently permitted. Its proposed 432 units would increase that by 54. It disputes the city’s density calculation by redefining condo hotel units as residential units, and dismissing the focus on the ratio anyway: “I’m not sure the units per acre really matters what matters is the overall plan,” a JDI representative said. And it ridicules the claim of incompatibility, since the existing 78-unit tower and garage are already enormous structures that make adding to them compatible. “We’re compatible with what’s already there,” JDI representative Tarik Bateh said.
That’s accurate in the absolute, but Bateh’s claim neglects the effects of geographic realities. The massive tower would go up closer to Marina Cove and Waterside homes, whose views would then be blocked by the tower.
There are other issues. The city is concerned that there’s no assurance from the developer that the hotel would be built, or that the marina would be kept operating. Both of those features are considered essential to the site if the city is to allow the developer to diverge from normal development rules for the rest of the acreage. Put another way: the city doesn’t want the developer to use the promise of a hotel as bait, only to switch or “take advantage” of the property’s unique location (in Senior Planner Jose Papa’s words), and decide not to build the hotel after all, once it gets the apartments it wants. Bateh is very candid: a hotel and restaurant are not money-makers. Apartments are.
“The development agreement fails to provide a project that promotes and encourages a creatively planned project,” Papa said. “Nor does the development agreement recognize special geographical features, environmental conditions, economic issues or other unique circumstances that would warrant a deviation from the density-intensity standards.” He added: “It was to be a project that recognized the need to update the hotel facility and amenities, including conference and meeting space to attract business guests to the city as a way to provide economic benefits to city businesses.”
Livingston said the marina would remain, “and we intend for it to stay as long as as a marina can be sustained at the site which I would imagine would be in perpetuity because there aren’t that many marinas in the area or locations for a good Marina.”
If Livingston seemed unusually scrappy–he is generally unassuming and understated when he presents to local boards, as he often does–it was nothing compared to JDI’s representative, Tarik Bateh, who in turn condescended and ridiculed the city administration’s approach: “We’re 110 days in the process, but there’s no negotiation going on,” he said. “There’s just sort of a loose opinion from the staff as to kind of sort of what they think so we should continue guessing as to what they want.”
Bateh conceded that the hotel may not go up, being “by far the most financially challenged. We’re not sure that it works.” But he sought to rewrite Palm Coast history: “The notion that the PUD existing today required an iconic destination resort hotel, that’s false. It contemplated a condominium resort hotel. It didn’t require one.”
Planning board member Sandra Shank corrected him, reading directly from the 2007 city ordinance spelling out the requirements for the site: “The developer shall be entitled to redevelop the property and to a 209 unit icon resort condominium hotel,” Shank read, going into further detail before defining the issue as a matter of “density increase” incompatible with current rules. Bateh still disagreed with the interpretation.
That’s not how Ray Tyner, the city’s deputy development director, sees it: “When we’re talking about inconsistency with with a comp plan,” Tyner said, “it’s not one or two things.” (The developer representatives’ tone did not go unnoticed. While planning board members said nothing of it, essentially leaving the city staff to fend for itself, a resident objected: “I’m going to apologize for those developers because I think that they were disrespectful to you, which insults me as a citizen.”)
“Despite staff’s resumes,” Bateh said, “they’ve somehow issued a staff report rife with inconsistencies, incomplete material, misleading information and at times outright false information.” He said JDI submitted its application 110 days ago, only to receive a series of objections and surprises. Each time JDI presented “solutions,” only to hear silence from the city. “How are we supposed to react to that? We’re trying to move forward,” he said.
“What’s before us today is an application to amend and revise an existing PUD with existing entitlements to do a lot less than you might think,” Bateh said. “The application is really to add 54 residential units above and beyond what’s permitted today, 54 residential units more than what we’ve got today. That’s what we’re asking for.”
If it doesn’t work, then it can’t be built. But that shouldn’t keep the broader plan from going forward, he said, before belittling the city’s focus on having an “iconic hotel”: “I have yet to meet someone who’s asked us to build an iconic destination resort hotel. I’m not real sure who around you wants that,” Bateh said. “We intend to renovate the marina. We intend to build townhomes. We intend to build multifamily. We intend to build the restaurant.”
It was after the developers’ representatives that the public spoke, and that the board attempted to wrap its own mind around the issue. The hearing’s differing contentions–and tone–had done more to cloud it than to suggest a path forward.
“The staff presentation did a great job presenting the facts as to why the application is not compliant at this time,” Shank said at the end of the hearing, to applause. “It is not compliant.”
Tyner, the deputy development director, was not raising hopes: “There may be significant changes if we were going to agree on this product.”