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Woodlands Residents Hear More Promises Than Certainties About Looming Development

| September 6, 2012

Blare Drive in the Woodlands, where a road from the assisted living complex would intersect, although the developer of the proposed project says he’ll try to redirect the road onto Colbert Lane, if state rules allow it. (© FlaglerLive)

The Woodlands, one of Palm Coast’s oldest and statelier neighborhoods, live up to their name. The small subdivision, roughly square-framed by Palm Coast Parkway, Old Kings Road, Colbert Lane and the expanses of Graham Swamp to the south, is thick with woods, light of traffic and rarely the subject of crime-splattered headlines. So residents were stunned to discover bright-orange postings along the tree-line on Blare Drive a few weeks ago, announcing hearings for land-use changes to pave the way for a developer to build a big retirement-home complex next door.

Grand Haven, the enormous gated community along Colbert Lane, owns lands adjacent to the Woodlands, south and east of Blare Drive. Jim Cullis, the Grand Haven developer, says residents of Grand Haven have been leaving their community and finding retirement homes elsewhere. They would like to move into assisted living facilities closer to their friends. This projected 216-unit community, which he calls Grand Living, would be it. But it would also result in a 25,000 square-foot commercial shopping sprawl and a half dozen multi-story buildings as high as 60 feet right at the edge of the Woodlands, turning tree-lines into something more similar to urban skylines.

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Woodlands residents were livid. They took their case to the Palm Coast Planning and Land Development Regulation Board, which first reviewed the Grand Living land-use changes, but with little success. The board approved recommending the proposed changes unanimously, and the recommendations were conveyed to the Palm Coast City Council, which heard the proposal Tuesday evening before a jammed audience at the Palm Coast Community Center, within almost walking distance of the Woodlands (if you’re in good shape).

It was mostly a reprise of the planning board scenario, but longer, because council members appeared more interested in posing questions and eliciting promises from Cullis, including on some of the more vexing matters to Woodlands residents: the height of the buildings, the preservation of conservation land, and the elimination of a planned entrance from the retirement community onto Blare Drive, which, to Woodlands residents, would be the equivalent of a permanent levee breach, flooding their neighborhood with traffic.

Yet in the end, the council unanimously approved all land changes in the first reading of a set of ordinances opening the way for the project, with some conditions that may or may not stick. They’ll go through the exercise again in two weeks.

Jason DeLorenzo. (© FlaglerLive)

“I wanted to touch on the community aspect of this,” Council member Jason DeLorenzo  said in a surprisingly personal explanation of his vote. “Aging in place is very important for a community, having the opportunity for your parents and grandparents to live continuously in the same community with their children and grandchildren.” He paused, clearly moved. “Excuse me, I have a family issue that’s approaching this. It’s very important for a community being able to keep the family unit together, it’s something that we’ve lost in this country.” He paused again. He would later explain in an interview that this very week he’s had to face the matter of a parent’s increasing frailties. “We’ve become fractured. People are forced to leave their communities.” His voice broke. “And they don’t have the opportunity to stay home. Again, I apologize. This is why I think this project is important for our community. Having the opportunity for your family to stay in your community builds a stronger community.”

But Grand Living had never faced the sort of opposition for opposition’s sake. Woodlands residents welcome the idea of a retirement community. They just wonder why it should be smacked in their midst, so close to the quiet world they’ve invested in, when Palm Coast is sprawling with vacant land at Town Center, for example. It’s a one-time shot, many of the nearly two dozen people who addressed the council said: either the neighborhood’s character is preserved, ort it’s lost for good.

“If we allow history to be our guide in how to handle our present and future actions, we can avoid the many pitfalls and grievous errors of those who came before us who could only live with the regret of having ravaged our pristine Florida landscape,” said Elizabeth Hathaway, a Woodlands resident who, with her husband Matt, has been among the leaders of the opposition to the plans. She spoke the concluding words of a letter she’d also sent the council earlier. “Once something has been done, it can never be undone. This is a slippery slope for the City of Palm Coast and once we begin rezoning what was set aside as a protected conservation land (for a very valid reason), there will be no stopping anyone who wants to come in, with the right amount of money, to take it all. It is my deepest desire to see that our city leaders have the courage to step up and use their power for the good of the land and its people. We need to be good stewards of this land so that we will have something worth leaving to our next generation. If it doesn’t stop here there may be nothing left.”

Another resident raised questions about the developer’s and the city’s assurances that wetlands weren’t being substantially affected in the projected development. “Wetlands in Florida are protected,” she said. “If you look the other way and you ignore, it’s like buying indulgences from the Catholic church. You can sin and then you can buy your forgiveness. That’s what I’m seeing this as being, OK? And I’m not being facetious when I say this. I wasn’t born yesterday. I know that you can’t grow cypress trees on dry land, OK?”

The council was clearly interested in limiting the development’s impact, but also in working with Cullis, who is a local developer with a long history in Palm Coast—and strong social, economic and political ties. Jim Landon, the city manager, summed up the council’s demands at the end of the hearing.

Jim Landon. (© FlaglerLive)

“I heard there’s really four things that you would like the development agreement which is approved by this ordinance to include,” Landon said. “One of them is that if the commercial COM2 be reduced to COM1 standards.” That means diminishing the density of the commercial development zone. “The second one is that the conservation area have an agreement or a provision agreement that it would be transferred to the city of Palm Coast or another public agency.” Some of the development would eliminate conservation acreage, but in exchange for conveying a greater amount of acreage to conservation land.  “Number three is that there would not be a connection to Blare Drive and there would be two connections to Colbert Lane, and number four is that all efforts would be taken during the site plan to keep the height of the buildings as low as possible and still maintain the 216 units approved.”

That summed it up.

“The only way we’re going to preserve the amenities of the Woodlands is if we keep that conservation, if we keep the trees, whether they’re 50 or 60 or whatever height,” Mayor Jon Netts said, referring to the height of the buildings. “I would hate for 20 years from now for city council to sit and hear a presentation that that land needs to be re-designated. So how can we be assured that that’s not a future concern?”

“That land does not have a conservation easement put on it now,” Cullis said, “and we’re more than happy to put a conservation easement, and we’re more than happy to dedicate that land to any steward the city thinks is an appropriate entity for that.”

Netts wanted the city to own it, and he specified: “I don’t want ownership transferred to the city without the conservation designation on it. I don’t want to pave the way for somebody 20 years from now to say that would be a great place to put a—whatever.”

The mayor then put it starkly to Cullis: “Mr. Cullis I would like your assurance—we had a couple of people testify to your credibility and your trustworthiness,” Mayor Jon Netts said, “I would like your personal assurance that you will do everything possible, should this be approved, to reduce the height even further.”

“You have that, Mr. mayor,” Cullis said.

“We want it in blood,” Bill McGuire, the council member, joked.

“I feel a little bloodied, so that’s OK. Appropriate term,” Cullis rejoined.

Council member Bill Lewis, never much for joking, wanted stronger assurances: “I’ve sat here and I listened and I listened to the developer and I’m listening to us say many things over and over and over again,” Lewis said. “He keeps saying yes, I agree, yes, I agree. At some point you’re going to have to say OK, we take you at your word, but we’re going to put it in writing, but I think he agrees to that also.”

“Absolutely,” Cullis said.

“Mr. Cullis, you will probably be back some day,” Netts warned, “so don’t fool me.”

But it was left up to Bill Reischmann, the city’s attorney, to remind the assembly that much of what it was dealing then and there was not appropriate, in that it was not part of the ordinances being up for a vote, and that some of the restrictions the council members hope for may not be legally enforceable for various reasons.

“I’ve heard this evening I believe the developer indicate that they are confident they’re going to be able to design this property with two access onto Colbert Lane,” Reischmann said, “and yet I’ve heard other comments that there could be concerns about the [state Department of Transportation] standards as far as how close you can have intersections from each other. I do not want to get us into an exercise in futility if we’re going to have as one of the conditions of this development agreement, we’re not going to allow any points of access into the community, and then come back and find that we cannot design this with two access points into Colbert.”

Reischmann added: “We want to make sure that we don’t mislead people here tonight, so I just want to clarify that there could be limiting factors from a technical standpoint.”

“I’m happy,” Cullis assured, “to be subject to a development order requirement to have two accesses on Colbert Lane and none on Blare as long as we can do it and meet the DOT code, and as long as we can do it in the best interest of public health and safety.”

But that was just the sort of caveat that left Woodlands residents uneasy. “I am pleased to see their concern for the Blare Drive access and the height of the buildings, but feel these need to be followed up on and well documented. There was too many undocumented promises made,” Matt Hathaway said the day after the meeting. He was not too appreciative, either, of the developer’s either-or approach: Cullis and even city staff had said that if Grand Living wasn’t developed, the land could be turned over to far worse possibilities, such as tattoo parlors.

“I still strongly disagree with the city and builder’s analysis of assuming what could be there is worse than the proposed Grand Living facility,” Hathaway continued. “The notion of what could be there seems to be a far stretch and at no time has anyone addressed why no builder has attempted to build on the lot as is. It currently seems to have no economical viability, yet one of their main arguments to rezone is to prevent future commercial development on that specific lot.”

14 Responses for “Woodlands Residents Hear More Promises Than Certainties About Looming Development”

  1. tulip says:

    Somehow this project seems to be only for the builder, developer, landowner, and Grand haven’s advantage. Otherwise, why not put it somewhere else for EVERY senior to use, provided they can afford the outrageous rents. It also seems like the Council is for it, but going through the “appropriate” question and answer period.

  2. palmcoastpioneers says:

    Does anyone know if that parcel or part of that parcel is part of the Federal Consent Agreement C-2854 for Palm Coast, Inc. which requires ‘…significant areas of conservation…’ and ‘…significant areas of preservation..’ and ‘…significant areas of Recreation…’? Thank you.

  3. Linda H. says:

    It seemed to me that council questions had almost been prepared in advance by Mr. Cullis and planning commission staff. Palm Coast has become the poster child for a council and manager bowing to the wishes of a developer, changing the comprehensive plan at will, and short changing the residents here.

    We were assured that Town Center would be where this kind of mixed use living would take place. Town Center stands empty while more high density development continues to be proposed on this end of Palm Coast.

    I cite as examples the following developments, many which are unfinished and vacant: Woodlands town homes, Shangri La Condos, Lake Forest, Fairways Edge, Canopy Walk, Centex, Old Hammock, the Hammock at Palm Coast, Marina Cove, Harbor Club, European Village, Tidelands, Waterside at Palm Coast, Bella Vista. As I stated, many of these projects are in complete and now going into decline and disrepair.

    Why are we adding more? Who are we kidding here?

    This project does not have a buyer/operator. Why would you even think of approving a proposal under the current economic conditions here? We have miles of empty homes and office complexes.

    Why does Councilman DeLorenzo not recuse himself from approving these projects? We were assured he would so so when he was running for office. In case anyone as forgotten, he represents all the builders and suppliers in the area. If that’s not a conflict of interest, I’m not sure what is.

    Nobody at that council meeting wanted to deny Mr. Cullis the right to build his senior living facility as long as it was no more than two stories high. Anything higher than that belongs at Town Center.

    When are the needs of the citizens of this community going to take precedence over a builder? Never, and just look what it’s done to us here. Palm Coast has become the poster child for failed development.

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful to anybody’s rights, this just doesn’t make sense. How many more empty buildings do we need?

    Why can’t the residents of Grand Haven drive over to Town Center like the rest of us?

  4. Lonewolf says:

    Woodlands residents act like developers were going to cut down a national forest. The other option was to build a strip mall there…would the prefer that???

    • Elizabeth says:

      If you research this you will understand that the land that could “possibly” be built on has been deemed as a bad piece of commercial property; thus no one has ever wanted to. This is all just a scare tactic. Even if someone did want to build something on it they would have to have the backing of a bank and that would also be a big problem because it is economically not a viable piece of property. The city acts as if just anyone can come in and do whatever, when we all know that any proposed building would have to, once again, go before the planning board and city council. Who are they kidding?
      As to your remark regarding the “national forest”; you’re missing the point. There is a domino effect when it comes to rezoning set aside conservation land. This sets a precedence to all developers. This comes down to greed. If they want something bad enough they can just take it with the right amount of money and city connections. City Council needs to know that we are no longer going to sit by idly as they continue to act irresponsibly. They are destroying the best features of our city and more of our residents need to take a stand! One person alone doesn’t stand a chance to make an impact, but united we can rule! Let’s take back our voice and make a stand!

    • Anonymous says:

      Obviously we are seen as “the little poeple” because we reside in the Woodlands… You are probably living in Grand Haven take it there why don’t you have it built in your backyard?

  5. Linda H. says:

    Lonewolf, the property is not zoned for a strip mall. In fact, current zoning does not have to be changed to accommodate an assisted living facility and all they would be allowed to build would be a grocery store of pharmacy, something of that nature. I can assure you that the citizens of Grand Haven would never allow a strip mall to be built at that site.

    Telling people this at council hearings forced them to make decisions based upon incorrect data.

    Why is Mr. Cullis not building this inside Grand Haven? Why, did you know they even have empty and unfinished condos there? That might be one reason.

    The comprehensive plan here is being changed at the whim of anyone who puts a proposal before the planning commission. That Commission is supposed to be protecting the taxpayers from bad development. This one is clearly not doing its job.

    I don’t blame the neighborhood of the Woodlands for being upset. As long as the rules are allowed to be bent, none of us is safe from bad development in our neighborhoods. We have a gambling parlor in mine, when it should be in the middle of a thriving commercial complex instead of in a neighborhood. That’s an example of poor planning. When we can use a store or dry cleaners, we get gambling.

    Development here looks more like South Jersey than it does quality planning that will attract buyers.

  6. rickg says:

    Coming from S. Florida I can recognize a developer’s rape of the environment when I see one. That area where my Mother-in-Law lived prior to her death was and still is a peaceful neighborhood that is not compatible with the development mentioned. Palm Coast continues to act just like Miami-Dade County. When it comes to destroying neighborhoods or conservation lands the developer always wins. If the voters of Palm Coast don’t act your city will soon be the West Kendall of Flagler County. Good luck

  7. Justice for All says:

    @ Lonewolf – The land is being taken out of Conservation in exchange for land elsewhere that would allow less than one unit per acre. One resident brought up the fact that the Property Appraiser classifies the land as “conservation”, which probably means there isn’t much tax being paid.

    This land is really low and it will take a lot of fill to bring it up, which is expensive. The land is also in a flood zone. To get around the regulations, the developer is going to put the parking on the “ground floor” with the residences above. Flood insurance will allow the first floor to flood if it is just parking and not a habitable structure. Now ask yourselves – DO YOU WANT YOUR PARENTS LIVING HERE? Who is going to move these people in a hurricane? Will they remain isolated in their apartments until the water goes down? How will their health care providers get to them? Think when people figure this out that the ones who can afford to live here will actually do so? And that’s how this thing will ultimately get converted to apartments and will no longer be a senior living community. You and I will pay more in flood insurance to subsidize this one.

  8. Matt says:

    Lonewolf… don’t fall for simple rezoning tactics…the argument that someone would have the slightest justification to build another empty strip mall in Palm Coast on a lot filled with water in a residential neighborhood is basically an insult to sane folks may technically be zoned for it, but it’s really a joke to argue that someone would.

    The bottom line is we can complain on message boards and blogs all we want but nothing will change. To make your voice heard ATTEND THE NEXT CITY COUNCIL MEETING TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 18 AT 9AM IN THE COMMUNITY CENTER. They will vote again to move forward or not. Get as many people as you can to express concern. Come and bring friends and family. This is the beginning of the East side of Palm Coast that we all love becoming like the over build West side of Palm Coast Parkway filled with empty buildings and broken promises. COME OUT TO THE MEETING!!!

  9. Umm says:

    Doesn’t Palm Coast realize they’re screwing themselves with this one?! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…why build more unwanted buildings when they can just clear out and re-purpose European Village. It’s already predesigned with all of the store fronts, living quarters, and meeting/sitting areas they need and the best part is, they wouldn’t need to rezone anything. Secondly, if you thin the housing market is bad now, just wait and see how dramatically the home prices surrounding the building site will plummet. It will turn into another “R” section. No one in their right mind would want to live through all that construction, increased traffic, and 60’+ tall buildings.

  10. ryan says:

    Bare shopping centers, high crime, a New Jersey like unwelcome atmosphere, refusal to build where there are other structures similar to it, and trying to punish good citizens with garage sale fees and fees for everything else, which only hurts the lower income people, as they channel our tax dollars to slimy “redevelopment agencies”. I am a Liberal, but my integrity means more to me than political loyalty, and these arrogant asses in city council need to listen to the people, and when we say we don’t want something, listen the first time. Reality need to kick in and it seems that people forgot that exposure of corruption is the best cure for our representatives’ deafness, which causes them to suddenly be able to hear, and get things done.

  11. Concerned citizen of the Woodlands says:

    I attended two City Council meetings the one on 8/15/2012. And the last one recently on 9/4/2012. What a joke the whole thing seemed as a rehearsed act. Every council member sided with Cullis as if they already were paid for the kickbacks from Cullis” greedy cronies, This was already set and rehearsed prior to September 4… What a disgrace. I know that Grand Haven voted the project out and reject it from being in their backyards…Why don’t they care about us residents of the Woodlands. How can we get rid of the jokers running our town…They are on a power trip…Lets VOTE them all out…Time toTake back our country and our Palm Coast Town…..This is insane.

  12. Resident says:

    The reason this development is not going in Grand Haven is because those residents would never allow this. First word of something like this and it would really hit the fan. Why would such a thing be allowed in the segregated world of Grand Haven? What does it matter that the people that live outside the gate would want to preserve what has been for so long?

    Why don’t we just shove another CVS in someone elses backyard while we are at it!

    What demographic is this aimed for anyways? Your parents and grandparents living on their social security budgets? Are we going to fill these units with the average everyday retired just getting by kind of people? Who will be able to afford to live in this so called development? I haven’t heard anything about affordability or rents. How many empty office buildings and shopping strips are empty already??

    What is the difference if this sort of thing goes in Town Center like it was meant to, so what, you have to drive 3 miles more down the road. Why are they not looking at the alternative? There are numerous barren lots at Town Center that have been cleared of the trees and wild life already that just sit and continue to grow weeds. Just like the abandoned condos that sit between the golf course and intracoastal in Grand Haven for the last 5-6 years.

    Sounds like this is not a situation of keeping our loved ones closer in the community, but another case of developer/city greed. Who cares about the environmental impact, or the property values of the Woodlands homes as long as someone’s pockets are being lined.

    Has anyone seen the Wild Oaks development of Grand Haven? Beautiful big houses and great big overgrown with weeds lots everywhere. But now the residents of one of Palm Coast’s first neighborhoods will have to look at the sides and backs of buildings from their windows. Just ask the people that live at the beginning of the neighborhood how they like the glow of the fluorescent pharmacy lights in their backyards at night while they’re laying in bed.

    This wouldn’t be the first questionable city decision though.
    (big expensive metal work bridges over little streams a 3 year old could hop over) Really, I could’ve thought of 10 things to better spend money on.

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