It’s been 22 years that the Hunter’s Ridge mega-development on the southern flank of Flagler County has haunted taxpayer rolls and the county commission with its ghostly promises, unpaid bills and round after round of pleadings. On the part of the commission and its staff, it’s been almost 22 years of capitulations and indulgences: if ever a local government was played for a fool, this case showed it, and did so as recently as November 2010 when—despite the developer being three years in arrears on taxes—the county approved the latest in a series of concessions in the form of more intense development densities on the 5,000-acre site straddling the Flagler-Volusia county line.
In less than 20 minutes on Monday, it was all over. The Flagler County Commission voted 5-0 to freeze what’s left of Hunter’s Ridge for now—which means ending the majority of what had been planned as a 2,302 home development on the Flagler side of the line, plus 604,308 square feet of retail, office and industrial square footage.
The development isn’t dead. At best, it’s being placed in a carbon freeze, a bit like Han Solo in Star Wars, minus any known abilities today to bring it out of the carbonite. The commission, at any rate, has little faith it will again.
“I frankly question whether he’s really a developer or a just a wolf in sheep’s clothing or something like that,” County Commissioner Nate McLaughlin said of Alan Feker, the developer. “This developer has been less than responsive, cooperative and any other thing that he should have been in this situation. I don’t know what he’s doing there.” He added: “It’s beyond disappointing, it’s quite agitating, to be honest with you, to have this kind of activity going on when we’re acting in good faith.”
Flagler County staff conducted a review of the project and determined that the developer has failed to comply with significant obligations set forth in the development order and, further, that the non-compliance has occurred over an extended period of time,” County Administrator Craig Coffey wrote Sam Merrill, the development’s chief consultant, in late July, signaling the county’s intention to stop permitting any development beyond its first phase.
Among the unmet obligations: the developer was required, by last January, to convey almost 2,000 acres in conservation land to Flagler County and the St. Johns River Water Management District. He did not do so. “Based upon a review of the public records, there has been little to no action taken by the developer in over two years, toward obtaining the required permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District,” the document outlining the developers’ failures states. “This inactivity demonstrates the developer’s lack of a good faith effort to obtain permits or to finalize outstanding permitting issues.”
The developer was also required to transfer hunting, equestrian and silviculture rights to the county, and did not do so. It conducted unauthorized tree harvesting. It was required to provide certain easements and conduct road maintenance in certain areas, which it did not do. And it was required to grant the county land for a fire station, which it did not do to the county’s satisfaction.
“We have bent over backwards to avoid this step but staff feels action must now be taken to protect the county’s interest,” Coffey wrote in a note to commissioners. “This action if you support staff findings of non-compliance will effectively render the DRI frozen from further development until the items found in non-compliance are brought back into compliance.”
It is unlikely that the developer will bring the development into compliance, effectively ending Hunter’s Ridge as it was imagined, as a so-called “development of Regional impact,” since it was first introduced to the county administration on paper in 1988.
“I’ve been waiting 20 years for this,” County Commissioner George Hanns, who’s been on the commission for virtually the entire life of Hunter’s Ridge, said. “It’s overdue and it’s unfortunate but it’s something that we need to protect the taxpayers of this county.” Hanns had a chance to send a strong message to the developer two years ago, when the request to increase the size of the development came before the commission. Hanns was part of a 3-2 majority agreeing to the concession. So was Barbara Revels, who now chairs the commission. A third commissioner, Bob Abbot, since then defeated by Nate McLaughlin, provided the third vote. Commissioners Alan Peterson and Milissa Holland were opposed.
This evening, McLaughlin joined Revels, Hanns, Peterson and Holland in the vote stopping Hunter’s Ridge. Peterson was himself defeated in last week’s election, by Charlie Ericksen, a fellow-Republican. Holland is leaving the commission in November. She’s running for a Florida House seat. And Hanns is in a very tough battle against Herb Whitaker, who got 48 percent of the vote when he ran against him four years ago. So the make-up of the commission will be vastly different in a few months, with at least two new members, possibly three. Hunter’s Ridge may yet rise again.
Feker, president of the development, certainly thinks so. “We are in complete agreement with your assessment regarding our failure to fulfill these requirements and wish to publicly acknowledge this shortcoming and endorse proposed action on the part of the Board of County Commissioners regarding suspension of development rights,” he wrote the county administrator in a letter delivered today. “We understand these rights will not be reinstated until we have brought the project in compliance. We deeply regret putting the project into a non-compliance situation. But the dire circumstances resulting from the depressed real estate environment have left us with very limited financial capability to do these things we certainly would do otherwise. We will be continuing to work diligently to execute those actions that will bring us into compliance and look forward to working with the Flagler County staff to complete those efforts as soon as possible.”