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Salamander Losing Streak Continues as Planning Board Rejects 198-Room Hammock Hotel, 3-2

| December 9, 2014

Salamander's proposed redevelopment would entail building a twin-building hotel in place of a 20-room lodge at Hammock Beach Resort.

Salamander’s proposed redevelopment would entail building a twin-building hotel in place of a 20-room lodge at Hammock Beach Resort.

The Flagler County Planning Board voted 3-2 late Tuesday evening to recommend against a proposed 198-room beachfront hotel at Hammock Beach Resort, in place of a 20-room golf lodge. The vote, coming at the end of a nearly four and a half hour hearing, is the latest in a series of defeats for the developer, though the binding decision does not take place until the Flagler County Commission hears the proposal.

For the past several months, Salamander Hotels, the management company that runs Hammock Beach Resort, has been lobbying Hammock communities and hoping to sway county government to approve a proposal to build a massive, twin-building, 198-room hotel adjacent to 16th Road. The proposal revived bitter resistance from Hammock residents who less than three years ago successfully fought a proposed development there of twice that size, taking their fight to the Florida Cabinet.

Salamander strained to show that its proposal is vastly different, and that the management company has been more accommodating and inclusive of public concerns than Lubert Adler had been three years ago—even though Lupert Adler still owns the resort: Salamander is its junior partner.

Salamander’s proposal in its various mutations failed in two separate votes to get the support of the county’s Scenic A1A committee. It failed to get the support of the Hammock Conservation Coalition. It appeared before the county’s planning board in October. The board voted to reject the application—until Salamander’s officials pointed out that the proceedings had failed to give them a chance to rebut arguments at the end of the lengthy hearing. That resulted in a rehearing that took place tonight before a standing-room only crowd at the Government Services Building in Bunnell. Half the audience wore white shirts emblazoned with “YES” to the Hammock Beach proposal. The other half spoke its “NO.”

Planning Board meetings rarely draw a crowd. The board’s decisions are non-binding. They’re recommendations to the county commission, which makes the binding decision. But Planning Board decisions also reflect public sentiment, and in this case both such meetings have brought the intensely contentious issue to the fore as the proposal three years ago did not. The difference this time is that a considerable segment of the Hammock community is behind Salamander, starting with the club’s membership and including many individuals and business representatives who had opposed the 2011 proposal.

Two reasons prevail: First, Salamander is arguing that it needs to expand its hotel to better attract conventions and conferences, otherwise the resort could fail financially. Second, Salamander claims it will bring several hundred additional jobs. But Salamander has also been willing to compromise, sometimes with surprising nimbleness. For example, one of the reasons the 198-hotel proposal drew so much opposition was a 240-space parking lot, including 50 beneath the hotel and 180 near 16th Road. The lot would have obliterated many trees.

The latest proposal had cut that parking lot by half. But Tuesday evening, Prem Devadas, Salamander’s president, said he would scrap the parking lot altogether. “I’m going to propose that we simply eliminate that parking,” Devadas said. “If it is such an issue, and there’s such a sensitivity to this vegetation, we are certainly prepared to eliminate that, to leave it as is, and to remove—as you know, we are not removing any other trees in this plan, and really to stop talking about that as an issue.”

It was one of three changes he was proposing to appease the opposition. Another was to move the hotel 15 feet back from the beach. A third was proposing a $2-a-guest donation to an environmental fund for every night booked. Guests would have an option to opt out, but in another Salamander property, a similar “donation” draws 97 percent support from guests, Devadas said. In Flagler, that could net $100,000 a year.

But tonight Hammock residents repeatedly pointed out what one woman summed up in two sentences: “Hammock Beach resort is not the Hammock. The Hammock is all the people who live there.” In other words, Salamander was drawing its supporting voices for the project mainly from people within the Hammock development’s gates. Those gates stood as a stark divider, physically and symbolically, between proponents and opponents.

Attorney Michael Chiumento, who represents the Hammock Beach Homeowners Association, gently ridiculed the donation proposal as he urged the board to focus on the relevant rather than the speculative. He alone also pointed out what was not a minor development Tuesday. Until recently, Salamander’s application had been for a site development plan review in a planned unit development. Sometime in November, Chiumento noted, Salamander’s application morphed into a rezoning application, “a whole different monster that you all are tasked with.”

Yet the planning board took its meeting Tuesday evening as a continuation of its October meeting, when Salamander’s application was in that significant respect different.

“I have no idea where there’s an application for a rezoning,” Chiumento said, pointing out the lack of surveys indicating what was being rezoned. “I’m here to tell you right now, procedurally, this item is flawed,” he said, reminding the board that for a quarter century, the golf course property in question has been deed-restricted, disallowing hotels. “Are you giving entitlements to the entire golf course property?” Devadas’s promises, he said, are “fantastic,” but, Chiumento asked, “where are they written?”

Addressing Chiumento’s points, Henderson called the Salamander application an amendment to the planned unit development, with a proposed ordinance that would amend the PUD. “The process is in place to be able to afford the change to the PUD,” he said. “We believe we have the right to do that.”

Two months ago Devadas had made his case before the same board in language he did not retract tonight. The resort “was losing exorbitant amounts of money” before Salamander took over, he said. “Within one year we turned a staggering multi-million dollar loss into a positive,” enabling raises for employees, among other benefits. But the buildings “have deteriorated greatly,”   affecting the resort’s ability to attract group business. Competitors have between 300 and 600 rooms. “We settled on the number of rooms that we needed to be able to sell to a group as being 325 rooms, and corresponding function space that we needed to support those groups.”

Salamander settled on developing 325 rooms “in order to win back market share and propel us into the future.” It already has one-bedroom units in the main building that function as hotel suites. They’re old, but Salamander has been working on a renovation of those 127 units. That left 198 new rooms, 450 square feet each, to be developed. That’s the 198-room number that’s now in the beachfront hotel complex under contention.

It comes down to this: does Salamander’s plan for a 325-room hotel conform with the so-called “Golf Course Plat” restriction—the “promise,” in many people’s view–on the books currently? The restrictions are spelled out. The parcels in question, the restrictions state, “shall include golf course land, lake, clubhouse, appropriate associated golf course facilities, open space, parks, dune preservation or such other appropriate recreational or governmental uses approved by the Board of County Commissioners.”

Salamander argues that the new lodge proposal is consistent with those restrictions. The reason: the Flagler County Commission in 2001 approved the building of the current, much smaller lodge on that land, thus setting a precedent for a hotel there, in apparent contravention with its own rules. The county administration now agrees with Salamander that using the land for a hotel is now permissible. It even goes so far as to say that developing up to 561 rooms might be permissible, even though the 2011 administrative law order denied such a proposed expansion, and was upheld by the Florida Cabinet.

Jeff Southmayd, who lives in Ocean Hammock and is a member of the club, detailed the contradiction when he spoke to the planning board two months ago. “Salamander apparently recognizes they can’t build a hotel there, and that may be the reason they call it the New Lodge, suggesting that the new Lodge is going to replace the old lodge equally,” Southmayd said. “But if that’s what’s intended that’s certainly not the case. In 2001, the county approved a 40,000 square foot clubhouse for the golf course. And that was allowed under the deed and plat restrictions because it specifically said, you can have a clubhouse. What Salamander is proposing to do is build a 171,000 square foot building with, as Prem mentioned, 198 hotel rooms that will be 450 square feet each. That means the hotel rooms will total 89,100 square feet, or will be 53 percent of the building. Mr. Chairman, if the building is 53 percent rooms, it’s a hotel. And in fact, a 198 room hotel I believe would be the biggest hotel in Flagler County. And that’s what they’re proposing to build in the middle of my golf course.”  Southmayd tonight reiterated his opposition.

Salamander’s supporters were equally adamant. “You have to look at the facts,” one supporter said. “And the facts are pretty straight-forward. They did the survey, 87 percent of the people that voted supported this. The facts are that the investments that they’ve made, that Salamander has made around the country in projects like this have gone tremendously well. The facts are that this will create a lot of revenue for not only Hammock Beach but for Flagler County. The facts are that this will help with employment. The facts are that this will help with merchants and restaurants and different people that benefit from conventions and conferences and people that come in to Hammock Beach.”

Tuesday evening’s hearing replicated in large part the October hearing, though this time Devadas had brought in a legal heavyweight as Salamander’s attorney: Clay Henderson of Holland and Knight, a reputed environmentalist who nevertheless represents developers. After Adam Mengele, the county’s chief planner, recommended that the board approve the proposal and Devadas and Henderson spoke briefly, the board opened the floor to public comment. About two hours of comments followed featuring some two dozen people, opponents somewhat outnumbering proponents.

To Henderson, Salamander’s attorney, the board’s responsibility was narrower than the public comments’ scope. “Your expert witness which is your staff has said that this is compatible” with the county’s comprehensive plan, Henderson told the board. “You’ve heard no evidence to the contrary, and on that basis alone you have to recommend approval.”

The board didn’t. The breakdown of the vote was Russ Reinke, Thad Crowe and Michael Duggins opposed, and Pam Richardson and Michael Boyd in Favor. Laureen Kornel had left at 10 p.m. In October, she had voted against the proposal.

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8 Responses for “Salamander Losing Streak Continues as Planning Board Rejects 198-Room Hammock Hotel, 3-2”

  1. confidential says:

    Congratulations to the Hammock residents for one more round won! We have enough resorts and golf courses competing with each other here. Meanwhile our wildlife keeps loosing sanctuary territory and paved over with concrete buildings and parking. Also our insufficient infrastructure gets further overloaded taking away from the current customers that see their rates increased and services diminished!
    In Palm Coast the Sanctuary, Tidelands, Bella Harbor, Conservatory, Hidden Lakes etc. were added to our old decaying sewers system built in the seventies by ITT and now we have all types of contamination on pouring rain storms because our old sewer lines and lift stations get flooded with rain water intrusion and the sewer contamination is around our homes. Then city increases our utility rates and goes and spends in a city hall over 6 million and now 2.5 million more…? Those millions should have been refunded to our utilities reserve depleted already of the over 12 millions used for the Town Center infrastructure.
    I totally agree that this county needs to stop these new capital projects approvals solely funded on existing old decaying infrastructure that seriously diminishes our current residents services. On top when local government approves this mammoth projects exempts the developers of paying infrastructure impact fees and dumps them instead on our backs. We haven’t seeing before in Palm Coast the sewers contamination with big hurricane storms like we have seeing in the last just heavy rain storm here. Simple, the addition of all those developments without proper sewer lines. lifts stations and treatment plants addition. Just a bunch of Palm Coast tank trucks and even other contracted tank trucks trying to prevent worse sewer fluids overflowing around us….when the waste of our infrastructure reserve tax dollars is going to stop? Good question for new Nobile and Shepley councilmen and how could you approve the city all addition?

  2. happening now says:

    Thank you confidential. Everything you wrote is so true, and you could have written more as life in Flagler County becomes more crowded and our nature gone. My basic utility expenses have gone beyond my limited budget to support all the infrastructure need for them. No one seems to care. Build it and they will come. Forget the rest.

  3. Yellowstone says:

    Take a moment and look at that artist rendering above. Where do you see the ‘old parking lot’ that is supposed to be there with the additional parking?

    My guess – this is another attempt by the affluent to restrict the beach to only those who can afford it. Look at Florida’s coast line, and tell me that what’s happened throughout the state – that’s not true.

    Years ago they were able to put a Toll Bridge to restrict those who could/would not pay to access OUR BEACH.

    Crystal ball gazing says, if they get it – there will be a gate at the current four way stop – with a toll!

    Good bye public beach!

    • Will says:

      Yellowstone, as I read it, there is no reduction in beach access planned nor are ANY gates in the works. It seems that Salamander is bending over backwards to keep open beach access and improve the small park open to the public, at their expense. They plan to upgrade the facilities and add picnic tables, among other things.

  4. Will says:

    I heard comments raised today about the propriety of last night’s meeting. The person talking said normally the people requesting action make their presentation, the public responds one way or the other, the board deliberates, and a decision is rendered. The person said that the response by people objecting to the action requested normally does not qualify for a long period of time as Mr. Chiumento’s half hour remarks did last night.

    Also, while the chair of the meeting told some in public comments to keep remarks to 3 minutes, he didn’t tell everyone about that, and seemed to allow people against the project much more time to speak than those in favor. Ten minutes + in a couple of cases – in the opinion of the person from whom I heard this.

    For the meeting to last almost five hours as reported here seems a little unusual, and maybe the chair let a few things go on too long.

  5. My thoughts says:

    More customers and taxes don’t necessarily help reduce costs. Who provides for the continuing, on going trash pick up, sewer disposal, water supply. road upkeep, and schools for employees’ kids? Go Hammock residents!

  6. No-Name says:

    I moved to Palm Coast just about 2 years ago 1 to be close to my dad that lives in the Hammock area and 2 because Palm Coast is such a beautiful place. We moved into Bella Harbor, lived there for just over a year with constant headaches due to the mold issues. Had to move out. I love Palm Coasts uniqueness and hope it doesn’t change. I believe that Hammock Beach Resort needs to clean up the issues of mold and worn out buildings before even thinking about adding anymore units to the existing resort. It is my opinion that if you don’t take care of what you have you shouldn’t be able to have more. Ive heard so many complaints about the pools being disgusting, the showers and rooms having mold, halls smelling musty; clean up what you have and then consider adding more. Read the reviews of this resort, not great.

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