For the past year, Palm Coast has been threatening to condemn portions of two automotive-business properties along Bulldog Drive that belong to Gus Ajram, preventing him from doing much of anything with the properties. The city last summer paid off two of Ajram’s tenants to leave the properties. And for years before that, the city denied Ajram an occupational license that would have allowed him to open a dealership there, because Palm Coast wanted Bulldog Drive to be a grand, beautified four-lane entrance to Town Center. It didn’t want automotive businesses along the way.
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The city could have bought Ajrma’s properties, as it did every other property along Bulldog Drive, but it didn’t want to pay Ajram’s $1.125 million. The city’s highest offer was $935,000, which Ajram might have accepted if his legal fees, which have mounted, were added to the sum. The city refused. Yet when the city’s own fees incurred to battle Ajram, to design Bulldog Drive around his property and to pay off his tenants are included, the sum is equal or greater than the difference between what Palm Coast was offering and what Ajram was asking for.
After all that, Palm Coast is now saying: never mind.
In an astounding turn-around that nullifies years of claims by the city that Bulldog Drive had to be four-laned, properties along Bulldog Drive acquired at taxpayers’ expense, as they were—or condemned at taxpayers’ expense—and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent either in legal fees or in design fees for the planned four-laning, the city is literally re-routing the project. It is also conceding that there is neither enough money nor enough traffic to warrant the four-laning.
Further, there isn’t enough money to buy Ajram’s property even if the two sides agreed to less than $1 million as a settlement.
The money would have to come out of the Town Center Community Redevelopment Agency budget. It’s tax dollars, but its separate from the city’s general fund. The dollars are generated from within the Town Center CRA. Because of the crash, the CRA is generating nowhere near what it was projected to generate by this time.
Bulldog Drive was a $5.15 million project over two years—2012 and 2013. The amount budgeted for 2012: $1.5 million. Another $750,000 is budgeted for another project in the CRA, for a total budget of $2.25 million in 2012. The CRA also has steep debt servicing–$641,000 in 2012 alone, and operating expenses of $100,000, for a total expected spending in 2012 of close to $3 million. The CRA’s projected revenue in 2012: $3 million, including more than half in carry-over from the previous year. Nowhere in Palm Coast’s budget, prepared this summer, was a line-item for land acquisition.
Those are the figures the council is approving in today’s final budget hearing. None of the revamped Bulldog Drive project was discussed during budget discussions a few weeks ago. City Manager Jim Landon did not explain how and whether those figures would change when he proposed the revamp of the Bulldog Drive project at a city council workshop this morning.
Landon recommended that the city council drop its condemnation authorization, which the city approved exactly a year ago but never acted on—essentially turning the threat of condemnation into a freeze on Ajram’s ability to profit from his property, at his expense. The city will “beautify” Bulldog Lane, but only as a two-lane entrance for now, leaving to uncertain future date the possibility of four-laning. Part of the two-laning includes re-locating Flagler Palm Coast High School’s bus parking from the area fronting Bulldog Drive, on the east side of campus, to the area on the west side of the campus, near the tennis courts. (See the illustration to the right.)
“The two-lanes, we avoid his property at this time,” Landon says of Ajram’s land. “If in the future we need the right of way, we’ll have to start all over again, but that future is years out, obviously.” Landon.
The threat still looms over Ajram and his property, diminishing his or his potential for long-term tenants to operate with the assurance that they can stay there without another series of roadblocks. (Those roadblocks may continue anyway: the city is requiring Ajram to install a fire hydrant at his expense, even though the hydrant will also benefit the school across the road.) The council was receptive to Landon’s proposal, and would formalize the new plan by repealing the year-old condemnation resolution at its next meeting.
Condemnation would have been extremely expensive. The city was required to follow several steps including formal negotiations or mediation to avoid going to court before a jury. The city never started the process, forcing Ajram’s attorney earlier this month to threaten the council, in turn: either act on condemnation or repeal the measure and let him go about his business. Ajram was threatening so-called reverse-condemnation proceedings, which would have forced the city to go through with condemnation. That appeared to force Landon’s hand—and retreat today, though it’s not at all clear that Ajram will have free use of his property: the city still holds numerous tools in its zoning and planning arsenal to make life difficult for him.
City Council member Bill Lewis asked Landon about the letter from Ajram’s attorney at today’s meeting. Landon said the letter shouldn’t be discussed, terming it “legal maneuvering.”
For Ajram, the past year’s maneuvers on the city’s part are merely the latest of serial roadblocks. He has owned the properties since 1996. He’s been looking to open a car dealership there since. The city spent most of the years since denying him the license. It doesn’t want automotive businesses there because it would clash with the city’s vision of another grand entrance to Town Center. The city then attempted to move Ajram out, but not at his price. He offered to move his property a few feet, on city-owned land, to enable the city’s plans on Bulldog Drive. The city refused.
The city started buying the many parcels along Bulldog Drive for up to four times the property appraiser’s just market value, as was the case with the property to the north of Ajram’s (the city paid $800,000 for that one). But Palm Coast claimed Ajram’s two parcels weren’t worth what he was asking for.
An element of underhandedness has long attached to the city’s dealings with Ajram, who’s claimed for a long time that bigotry has played a role in his treatment: though a naturalized citizen, he’s of Lebanese birth and speaks the immigrant’s slightly broken English with a heavy accent. The underhandedness was most apparent last summer. Ajram had two tenants in his two buildings on Bulldog Drive—GW Black Inc. and I&R Enterprises. They were renters. Yet the city went to them and offered them a pay-off to leave the property: $39,150 to one, and $20,200 to the other, or $59,350. The city, going behind Ajram’s back, offered the money to the renters to move elsewhere. The renters first stopped paying rent to Ajram, who initiated eviction proceedings, then moved. The buildings were vacant for most of the subsequent year before Bulldog Automotive moved in. Ajram himself has been operating from a location on U.S. 1 in Bunnell, pending the resolution of the matter on Bulldog Drive.