In that week between Christmas and New Year’s, when no one pays attention to governments that aren’t negotiating cliffhangers, two local governments met and all but sealed an agreement on the fate of the most stately—and most controversial—building in the county: the old Flagler County Courthouse.
Parrying and at times going in circles more befitting of conjugal mediations than government negotiations, the five members of the Flagler County Commission and their administrator, and four members of the Bunnell City Commission and their manager, took almost two hours to agree to the following terms: the 13,300 square feet of the old historic courthouse, built in 1926, will be deeded over at no cost to Bunnell, so the city can convert it into its city hall in time for its centennial this year.
The more modern, 36,400 square foot annex behind the old courthouse, built in 1982, will remain in the county’s ownership. It will be turned over to the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office as its new headquarters. In a split, three of the five commissioners preferred using the annex that way rather than build the sheriff a new headquarters in place of the old county jail, near the Bunnell water tower.
Bunnell will be responsible for preserving the value of the old courthouse. It will not own the grounds in front of it or behind it. Should it abandon the courthouse in the future, the building would revert back to the county. And should the county give up on the annex, Bunnell would have first rights to take possession of it, though the county could at that time put a price on the annex. (Bunnell City Manager Armando Martinez had wanted it for free.) Neither possibility is likely any time in the next many years.
Later this month, the two commissions will get the agreement’s paperwork and sign off. Bunnell secured a $2.5 million revolving loan from Intracoastal Bank, and will use $1.5 million of that to prepare the courthouse for occupancy. The county doesn’t have ready dollars to prepare the annex for the sheriff, but it can use revenue from a sales surtax it approved in November to do just that.
The two commissions on Dec. 27 took 105 minutes to figure out what they had already pretty much decided in July because their joint meeting was riven by doubt, second-guessing and jockeying over commission’s motives, revealing a limited but persistent level of distrust between the two sides. Commissioner George Hanns, who was distinctly more involved and forceful in the discussion that he’d been with most issues in recent years—and who proved to be the tie-breaking vote on the county’s designs on the annex—summed up the evening’s tension in one line: “Never had we had so much trouble giving something away,” Hanns said.
“I always like to tell people I like to put divorce agreements in my initial agreements,” County Manager Craig Coffey said. “It’s like a prenup, because it helps solve a fight later on. If I can prevent a fight 20 years from now while everybody is at the table, making the deal, I would like to do that.”
The meeting revealed two key differences from previous such meetings. The first clarified the annex’s uses by the sheriff. Until now, Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming’s “waffling”—in Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson’s description—about whether he’d take the annex or not kept the city and the county off balance, making solid planning on the building’s future uses difficult. Fleming was willing to move to the annex, but not if the Bunnell Police Department was going to be anywhere in the building, even its old portion.
Jim Manfre, who defeated Fleming and will be sworn in as the new sheriff next week, removed all such uncertainty. He was at the joint December meeting. He is willing to occupy the annex whether Bunnell’s police department is nearby or not. “There should be no problems if we coexist in that building in terms of witnesses coming in and out,” Manfre said. “Certainly if there are confidential witnesses, we would schedule those witnesses after hours, when the building is not occupied.”
The second difference was a proposal by Coffey. The county could build a new, 18,000-square foot sheriff’s office’s headquarters across the street from the Government Services Building for $5 million, roughly what it would take, according to Coffey, to prepare the annex for use by the sheriff. County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin and Commissioner Frank Meeker favored the idea. Commissioners Hanns, Barbara Revels and Charlie Ericksen didn’t, preferring to keep the sheriff at the annex as a way to revitalize that portion of Bunnell, which has been economically dormant for years.
Revels saw no point in building a headquarters half the size of the annex for the same price that it would cost to ready the full annex for the sheriff’s uses. She was also adamantly opposed to giving Bunnell too much sway over the old courthouse, let alone ceding the annex now and letting Bunnell use it, or lease it out. “I would find it as a tough pill to say, OK, let’s give the building to Bunnell, and then they lease it out for income,” Revels said. “I’m sorry, I can’t justify that.”
Hanns was fearful of turning even the old courthouse over to Bunnell without some protections for the county. He cited the county’s experience of donating its old library to Palm Coast, when Palm Coast needed it for its city hall. “We didn’t realize that down the road they may decide to do something other than use it for a city hall. In fact, they sold the building for I believe $2.5 million,” Hanns said. “We should have had a reverter on that, and that’s why we’re a little reluctant, jumping in with the courthouse, in giving away the farm.”
Bunnell City Commissioners John Rogers and Elbert Tucker did not like the notion of having Bunnell look like it was a charity case (although Bunnell’s use of county property for three years is a matter of charity: For the past three years, Bunnell’s municipal offices have been the nomads of Flagler County, occupying 2,000 square feet, for free, in the county administration building, occupying Bunnell’s old city hall—for its police station—and a few storefronts in the Atlantis shopping center on U.S. 1.
“I would rather have the whole thing for the city of Bunnell,” Rogers said, referring to the old courthouse and the annex. “Commissioner Hanns, I know you said you’d be giving the farm away, but in reality I think the thing was built, the original courthouse was built on the back of the sweat of the farmers, so you’d just be giving it back. If the sheriff needed to come in for a little while, I’m sure, to occupy the new portion, that wouldn’t be a problem. I’m with Commissioner Tucker, whatever we need to do to work it out.”
Revels had mentioned the almost $600,000 county taxpayers had plunked in the courthouse, old and new, to keep it in shape since it was emptied in 2007. It also costs $70,000 a year just to keep the air conditioning system going, $30,000 a year for insurance, and about $2,000 a month for electricity, before occupation—costs Bunnell may not be able to bear on its own.
“Flagler County citizens on the west side have paid on that courthouse for a long time, including the renovations, so it’s not free to anybody.” Tucker said. “It’s been paid for many times over.”
“And why would you distinguish west side people versus—I’ve lived at the beach 50 years,” Revels said.
“The ocean people have also paid, but don’t think that Bunnell, the citizens of Bunnell, have not paid. It’s not free to us, because we have also paid for it.”
McLaughlin laid out a vision for the old courthouse that seemed to get little support, and that had Revels and Robinson, the Bunnell mayor, startled at mention of moving Holden House, the historic house across from the courthouse.
Martinez had a testy exchange with Revels when he insisted that Bunnell could afford the entire building, and suggested that it could manage it better than the county has: “Here we are not four but three years later with $1.5 million to put into a historic project that the county itself couldn’t come up with, yet the city of Bunnell came up with,” Martinez said.
But you haven’t answered how you would renovate the annex to make it Class A office space,” Revels said. “So you wouldn’t be able to do it. So how could you share it with the sheriff?”
“We’re not going to renovate it for the sheriff,” Armando shot back. “We would keep the building in no worse a condition than it is right now, and being kept right now by the county, so it ain’t going to go into a worse condition. We’d maintain it, but eventually I feel confident we’ll be able to come up with the funds as future growth comes aboard, and be able to move into it.”
By meeting’s end the annex was a moot point, since the county was holding on to it, but Martinez, sensitive about Bunnell’s image, had made his point.
McLaughlin sees the courthouse as “the most significant building in the county, by leaps and bounds,” but he said he’s “never been a big fan of putting the sheriff in the annex.” After pushing for a new building across from the Government Services complex—the idea the majority struck down—he said: “To me, the square where the old courthouse is, that parking lot and their old courthouse, there’s an area there, long-term visioning, that could be used as a historical kind of a landing spot, a historical square. We all know that eventually State Road 100 is going to have to be widened, and at some point Holden House is going to have to be up and moved. That’s going to be inevitable. I don’t know how far in the future. But the population of Flagler County is going to grow, and we’re going to have to move people around. There could be a potential spot for that to go there. We talked about getting a train stop. Why would somebody get off the train if we had a stop?” If the area was turned into a historical zone, that would be one reason, he said. (Don’t panic: the county has no plans to move Holden House anymore than the state has plans to widen SR100 at that spot.)
But Bunnell appears little interested in doing more than maintaining the façade of the old courthouse’s historic value. Inside, it’ll be a different story. The city is not much interested in a museum, either, if it would reduce the space available for city offices.
“After 35 years in business this is the longest time I’ve sat in a meeting to come to yes,” Ericksen said at the end of the meeting.
“Charlie, you’re just getting started,” Revels said.