Flagler Beach is not having any luck trying to get the old Ocean Palm Golf Club property going again. But for that, it may have only itself to blame, since the origin of the current problem is a creation of the city.
Last year Flagler Beach bought the 34 acres that formed most of the old nine-hole golf course, which has been inactive since 2008. But that left a nearly 3-acre parcel in the gut of the course still in the hands of a private entity called the Caribbean Condominium Limited Partnership, which hasn’t paid its taxes in two years. It owes $3,813.
The city wants to buy that acreage, too, because one of the two companies that’s showing interest in leasing and reopening the course says it needs those 3 acres for a driving range. Golf courses since 2008 have been a dismal business, closing by the hundreds across the country, losing money—as in Palm Coast—or hanging on by a blade of grass. Driving ranges can generate money.
Earlier this month, the Flagler Beach City Commission directed City Manager Bruce Campbell and City Attorney Drew Smith to talk with the partnership and make an offer for no more than $235,000.
On Thursday, Smith and Campbell did just that. The property owner rejected the offer outright. “
“The property owner’s response was we’re really not interested in selling the property right now,” Smith said. Instead, the owners will look to rezone the property, likely triggering a new fight with the city. “They didn’t come back with another number and they had really no interest at all in discussing selling that property.”
That’s a setback for the city’s plans for a golf course, but not necessarily a fatal one. One of the companies prospecting to run the course has said that it could do it without the enclave.
But that enclave did not carve itself out of the larger golf course by magic. It is partly the work of Flagler Beach itself, partly the result of a long-running conflict over land designations and land uses in their neighborhood. The rejection of the city’s offer Thursday was only the latest wrinkle in a very long battle, much of it in court.
For 40 years of of the golf course’s history starting in 1960, there was just one big parcel. No carve-out. The so-called condo parcel—the 2.9-acre enclave—was used as the driving range. When the golf course started losing money, it sought to change the zoning of the whole parcel so it could build homes or towers there. The city refused. Instead, city and golf course compromised in 1989. A 2.9-acre enclave would be carved out, allowing the golf course to build a high-density residential development on it-that is, a tower. But that development agreement was term-limited to 14 years. It would expire in 2003.
In 1999, Ocean Palm Estates, which owned the whole golf course and the carve-out, sold both to two separate entities, though the two entities were headed by the same man, Stephen Cejner. He planned to build an 84-unit condo on the smaller parcel, but only as part of a package deal that would then enable to keep the golf course going. Two plans went nowhere as the city found them too big. Two years later the smaller parcel was deeded to Caribbean Condo. More plans were submitted, but the development order expired and the city refused to extend it even as Caribbean Condo was proposing a 150-foot wide, 35-foot-high tower with 42 units. That plan faltered, too.
In 2008, Cejner tried going for smaller homes, but on both the condo parcel and the larger golf course and sought a land-use change. The city voted it down. Ocean Golf Palm sued and lost in circuit court, and in 2010 both Ocean Palm and the smaller parcel owner sued together, claiming the city’s refusal to change the land designation amounted to a taking. By then the larger course had gone into foreclosure.
The city won a three-day trial, and last May, it won again on appeal.
That, in summary, is the context of Thursday’s discussions, both at the city commission and between the ad ministration and the owners of the enclave. It’s also the context of the owners’ latest assertion that they will once again go for a rezoning, rather than think about selling. With that history in mind, city officials can be excused for thinking that the long tug of war has turned the struggle into more than a matter of land transactions.
“After 25 years of litigation, we might have some more in front of us,” Flagler Beach Commissioner Steve Settle said, though so far the city has a perfect record in that litigation, as courts have ruled it is entirely within its rights to deny a land use change or a rezoning.
Settle brought up the matter of the condo parcel Thursday because he wants to better analyze the appraisal that had placed the cost of the parcel where it did. Whether the appraisal is relevant anymore or not is unclear: Settle and the commission agreed to hold a workshop and draft a list of questions for their appraiser. With what in mind? That, too, is not clear.
“A lot of information is not here, “ Settle said, particularly if the matter turns into a rezoning struggle. “All I want to do is get an explanation for some of these assumptions,” Settle said of the appraiser’s report. “Where he came up with these conclusions of law.”
But Smith said the document has no binding weight, and Commissioner Joy McGrew pressed to look at the second business interested in running the golf course, without the condo parcel. “We do have a proposal that said we do not need those 2.9 acres to have a golf course,” McGrew said, “so we don’t need to let this be a slow-down on the process if that be the case.”
“We got the information we wanted. We wanted to know if it was for sale, and just as everybody has been hearing for the last several months, with nothing in writing, it is not for sale,” Commissioner Kim Carney said of the condo parcel.
“I don’t believe that,” McGrew responded. “I believe it was for sale but I do believe that no one expects to be robbed and there is a fair market value for that land, so we got an appraisal, that appraisal did not make the guy’s blood jump, so OK, we got an answer from him. That doesn’t mean we can’t stop or forward progress for the majority of the property and the function of that property. So let’s not let a workshop slow us down to where we become at a standstill once again and we sit for another year and let that property just go into doing nothing. We should still keep moving forward, we should still talk to anyone that’s interested about the golf course.”
Where the commission will head next regarding the golf course and the condo parcel, beyond those questions it will prepare for its appraiser, is anybody’s guess.