John A. Kern, owner of a 116-acre property on the shore of Lake Disston, is proposing to sell the parcel to Flagler County through the county’s environmentally sensitive land program for future protection. The parcel includes 4,000 feet of shoreline. But the Land Acquisition Committee that reviews such proposals and makes its recommendations to the county commission is cool to the idea, largely because the property excludes a 20-acre parcel that Kern several years ago had offered for the same price, but is no longer offering as part of the deal.
That 20 acres, which includes the centenarian Lake Disston Lodge and other structures, may be sold to a church and parceled off to other churches or non-profits, which concerns some members of the acquisition committee interested in preserving the land in its totality. Price, too, may become an issue. The 116-acre property’s just market value is $198,000, according to the Flagler County property appraiser. The asking price is $2.8 million, or 14 times the market value, though the last time the county dipped into the sensitive lands fund, it bought 900 acres of Bobby Ginn-owned Pellicer Flats wetlands for $3.25 million, while the property was assessed at one-seventh the price.
In 2002 and 2008 voters by overwhelming margins approved referendums raising their property taxes modestly to buy and perpetually preserve environmentally sensitive lands. As with many previous county purchases of what now totals close to 5,000 acres of environmentally sensitive lands in Flagler—such as the Princess Place Preserve, Bings Landing, Haw Creek Preserve and the River to Sea Preserve—the county combines local dollars with state preservation dollars and joins partnerships to increase its inventory.
But it hasn’t done so in about five years. The Pellicer Flats purchase wiped the fund clean, and Gov. Rick Scott’s administration did not fund the state’s preservation program for several years running. The poor economy didn’t help, either. The county’s environmentally sensitive lands tax revenue totaled $1.1 million last year, $1 million of which went to debt servicing. The fund, in essence, has less than a $500,000 reserve and little to spend, making even such proposals as the Kern property more academic than realistic for now.
But the land acquisition committee has been discussing it since Dennis Bayer, Kern’s attorney, presented the proposal to the committee at its November meeting. “The parcel fulfills the criteria established by the county for the acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands,” Bayer wrote the county administration in late November. “It contains a mix of ecological systems ranging from wetlands, oak hammock and pine. It hosts a variety of wildlife including swallow-tailed kites, wading birds, osprey, deer and other local species. The property would also provide for public access and low impact recreational activities. Approximately 4000 feet of shoreline will be protected. The property has easy access from existing roads and is close to other environmentally sensitive lands.”
The committee discussed the parcel again at its December meeting today, but with more questions and reserve than enthusiasm.
“Before, for $2.8 million, you could get everything, now they’ve excluded what had a lot of functionality,” but the price is the same, Ann Moore, one of the committee members, said. “I’m not quite sure what is intended for the piece that’s excluded, but I have some concerns about it.”
There was talk of organizing a tour of the property in January. But committee members were cool to that idea, too, if they were not inclined to pursue the proposal much further. (The committee had a quorum, but three board members were not present, although some of them last month had shown similar reservations.)
“For myself if the lodge part is not included then I don’t really feel like I need to go back out there,” Anne Wilson said.
Thea Mathen, a committee member who lives by the lake, saw it similarly. “I’d love to see the whole thing offered to us, Mathen said. “I would like to envision it just being a static trail kind of thing, kayak access to the lake, but again it would nice to see the historical lodge made part of the county, but it’s up to the seller.”
On paper, the property meets some of the criteria necessary for such an acquisition but not others. It does not meet the Florida Natural Areas Inventory criteria for designation as a “locally significant natural area,” for example, and its addition to the county’s sensitive lands inventory would not establish wildlife corridors. But it would maintain an existing habitat, would preserve it from future damage, and it would help restore damaged habitats, according to the background material submitted to the committee.
The committee will again take up the Kern proposal in January, deciding for good at that time if it has enough interest to pursue the proposal as is, of if it will drop it absent Kern making the whole 136 acres part of the deal. The county’s dearth of dollars it could spend on such a purchase was never brought up today.