Last Updated: 10:03 p.m.
Six weeks after a county government meeting drew the largest crowd in nearly a decade to see the county commission in action, an even larger crowd turned out this evening in anticipation of a decision on Sea Ray’s request to build a large parking south of its existing property near Flagler Beach. Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said some 450 people had filled various areas of the building at the beginning of the meeting.
And almost four hours after the hearing on Sea Ray began–at 10:03 p.m.–the commission voted 5-0 to give the boat manufacturer what it was asking for: approval of a land-change application that will next go to the state’s Division of Community Affairs for review and very likely approval, opening the way for Sea Ray to build a large parking lot immediately south of its plant just west of Colbert Lane.
The vote was a victory for the company, which has been a mainstay of the local economy since 1984 but has also been at the occasionally conflicting boundary between the county’s increasing residential mass and its pockets of industrialism. The unanimity of the vote was a victory for the county’s business establishment, which pressured the commission in this case as it did in the Salamander case in February, interpreting approval of each plan as setting a more welcoming sign to business–and rejection as risking losing the enterprise.
“I’m delighted to have Sea Ray here as an economic citizen,” Commissioner Nate McLaughlin. “It’s incredible to have Flagler County have such a strong partner in our community.”
Revels, a Flagler Beach resident and business owner, said she received a call from noted local environmentalist Jane Culpepper today. “Would you harm the place that you live, would you harm the place that you love?” Culpepper asked her, according to Revels. Revels said she truly believed she was not harming her environment.
The meeting started at 5 p.m. Sea Ray’s issue was not taken up until 6:30, by which time the crowd had thinned a bit, but only to 300, Guthrie said. A vote by the commission was expected, but not until quite a bit later tonight. The Salamander matter stretched to nearly 2 a.m. The Sea Ray mater is technically less complicated, but the large crowd suggested that much of the meeting would be turned over to public comment.
Those comments split unevenly along two lines of thought–unevenly, because Sea Ray supporters outnumbered opponents of the plan by a better than a 2-to-1 margin: on one hand, Sea Ray supporters focused on Sea Ray’s history as an employer (the second or third-largest private sector employer in the county, with upwards of 600 employees), and on the county’s image as a place welcoming to business. Some speakers said that rejecting Sea Ray’s request would lead to the company eventually leaving the area. Others said that as a business with a long-term presence and a good record as a neighbor and an environmentally compliant company, it deserved support: several speakers asked the commission for a unanimous vote in favor of the land-use change. That was before any of Sea Ray’s rank-and-file employees had spoken.
If anyone were placing bets, a unanimous vote in Sea Ray’s favor appeared more likely than not, with the few questions that Commissioners Barbara Revels and George Hanns asked of Sea Ray officials clearly tipping their hand in favor of Sea Ray (Revels chairs the county’s economic development advisory council, which passed a resolution in support of the application, with Revels abstaining but only in light of her role tonight, and Hanns was impressed by what he saw as Sea Ray’s pro-veteran employment ranks). The three other commissioners on the panel–Frank Meeker, Nate McLaughlin and Charlie Ericksen–have rarely voted against any initiatives framed as economic development.
On the other hand, many opponents of the plan prefaced their remarks by speaking their support of the company, its employees and its products. One man even led a cheer on behalf of Sea Ray’s employees. But the remarks would soon yield to concern about Sea Ray’s emissions, worries that a permit the company secured to double its pollutants’ emissions would lead to just that, and cautions that the parking lot plan was not so clear as reassure tham that it isn’t–as one speaker put it–a “smokescreen” for something else down the line. “Sea Ray and jobs are not mutually exclusive,” Rosdeanne Stocker, a leading opposition voice and a Lambert Avenue resident, said. A lawyer representing Lambert Avenue residents said the commission would act improperly if it were to approve the land-use request, not merely because of procedural matters but because the request contradicts the commission’s own comprehensive plan for the region, which calls for largely residential, not industrial, development.
Kim Craney, a Flagler Beach city commissioner, was especially critical of what she described as the county’s and the company’s refusal to accommodate a meeting with Flagler Beach officials.
At 8:36 Meeker called for a 10-minute break, with yet more public comment to come. The ratio of comments for and against had remained relatively consistent. As Sea Ray employees began speaking after the break, the ratio grew in the company’s favor, and included an unusual appearance before the commission from Helga van Eckert, the director of the county’s economic development director: Van Eckert has never insinuated herself into a policy matter before. She spoke unequivocally in support of the Sea Ray application. She was soon followed by a resident who asked commissioners if land use and the county’s comprehensive plan had become meaningless, depending on the applicant. Jane Mealy, the Flagler Beach city commissioner who led her government in opposition to the Sea Ray proposal, described herself as a former union leader and commended the employees’ testimonies. But, she said, “I represent 4,500 people, not 600.”
Dennis Bayer, the Flagler Beach attorney who represents Sea Ray, was last to speak. He stressed the company’s safety needs for the parking lot–and its environmentally sound record. Just a little after 9:30, the commission started deliberating.
Sea Ray was applying for a land-use change, which triggered swift and pronounced opposition from the Flagler Beach City Commission and some residents in that city. The Flagler County Planning and Zoning Board unanimously rejected the boat manufacturer’s application. The planning board’s vote is only advisory. The county commission’s is binding.
Opponents say the parking lot will hurt land values along Lambert Avenue, the street that runs north-south, on the east and south side of the company’s grounds. They also say the company’s pollutants can potentially hurt the town’s quality of life, and claim that the parking expansion heralds a reconfiguring of the grounds, with more production and therefore more pollution ahead.
Sea Ray has maintained that it is planning nothing of the sort, that its parking expansion is just that–a parking expansion, with reconfiguring limited to making its operation more efficient.
“We’re not here for a rezoning,” Adam Mengle, the county’s planning director, cautioned as he prepared to outline the land-use action before the commission. The technicality is this: if the county commission approves the land use change, it will be a change to the county’s comprehensive plan–the blueprint that sets out how the county envisions development in the long term. The change must be conveyed to the state for approval. That’s expected without hurdles. But that action will, in laymen’s terms, change the use of the land in question from low-density residential and conservation to high-intensity commercial.
Mengle went through the site’s history, topographically and demographically: his collection of historical images showed the plant and the land around it change characteristic as the plant grew with the economy. And he spoke of the time a decade ago when the county was focused on more homes than businesses, which led to a land-use change back then, from industrial to residential.
He then brought the commission up to the present. “We want to put a parking lot there, that’s the intent, been the intent all along,” Mengle said. Ending a few minutes later, Mengle, who reacted to “snickers” he said he was hearing behind his back (in this case, literally behind him as he spoke), concluded: “I am passionate about my work and the development of the county.” Sea Ray’s direct presentation was next.
Before opening the floor for the hearing, Frank meeker, chairman of the county commission, read a long statement that summed up his “expectations” (as he called it) from the crowd, warning against poor behavior and setting out the evening’s rules, and who will get to speak and how.
Sea Ray’s attorney said the company tonight received a notice from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, marking 10 years of being “in compliance” environmentally, though he said that’s not relevant to the application before the county commission. His point was that under the law “this is about a parking lot, this is potentially about an office” and about setting up six lots for a boat staging area. “This is in no way shape or form about industry.”
“We’re not asking for additional manufacturing,” Dan Goddard, Sea Ray vice president and Palm Coast plant manager said.
Historically, he said, Sea Ray was building four models, roughly six boats a week, with from 250 to 500 employees working two shifts, handling 5,000 unique parts to the boats. But over time, it’s evolved into a manufacturing plant making 17 different models, still at a rate of about 5 to six boats a week, with 20,000 parts and pieces and triple the number of moulds used. That growth has required reconfiguring the plant to ensure that it remains a safe working environment. He drew a picture of what started as an industrial park in 1984, when the company first started manufacturing boats there, and has turned into an industrial island, with residential homes cropping up around it since, many of them subsequent to its arrival. Goddard explicitly asked commissioners to “help” him secure the land change and maintain the company’s presence, which he said has been an economically powerful engine, generating $30 million a year in wages alone.
The earlier part of the meeting fell victim to a rather serious glitch: the county upgraded its web and audio system this week, the system it uses to webcast its meetings. Tonight, the system failed, which means no one outside the meeting room and the mezzanine above could see or hear the meeting. Scores of people had been moved to a third-floor room in anticipation of watching the proceedings on a screen there. They were disappointed, shuffled back downstairs, and many stood in the Government Services Building’s lobby, hoping to hear what they could from beyond the doors. An hour into the Sea Ray meeting, the problem was resolved.