In early December at a community meeting, Palm Coast developer Alex Ustilovsky presented his plan for a 300-home development, along with a commercial strip, in place of much of the disused Matanzas Woods Golf course snaking through the L Section at the north end of town.
The meeting drew some 200 people overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, which they say changes the complexion of the neighborhood, breaks a promise that residents would have the golf course’s “green belt” for a backyard, and potentially would hurt property values, because the proposed new homes would be built on smaller lots at a much higher density than existing development.
Ustilovsky, who’s just completing a big development in the P Section that drew comparatively little opposition, was required by Palm Coast rules to hold the neighborhood meeting ahead of his submission of a rezoning application–the rezoning that the Palm Coast City Council would necessarily have to approve if the development is to go forward. There’s been no such submission yet.
“Just to be crystal clear for the community, we have not received an application from Matanzas Woods,” City Manager Matt Morton said Tuesday. “I know there’s been a lot of comment and speculation. We don’t have anything yet, so we are waiting to respond as well, as a city.”
Morton, council members and City Attorney Bill Reischmann took pains at Tuesday’s workshop to explain to the public that the council’s silence on the matter is not a matter of indifference or contempt, as they fear some Matanzas Woods residents are interpreting it, as it is a matter of law: they are required to keep all their fact-finding and decision making to the eventual public hearings that would take place ahead of their decision.
“It’s been very frustrating for me and I’m guessing for everybody else on the council to not be able to respond,” Council member Bob Cuff said, “but as an attorney and someone who has made a large part of his career in real estate and land use matters, the reason for this law that ties our hands is to make sure, I think, that all people involved, all interests involved, have a fair hearing. But frankly, I think a lot of it had to do with the old backroom smoke-filled room practices of the years before the Sunshine law and public records law, when citizens would show up at a hearing and the fix would be in. And I think that is still part of the perception among many people.” He said that was not the case.
“Until we know what is being asked of us, there is really no way that we can fairly respond to you,” Cuff said, moments after the public-comment segment of the meeting had featured three Matanzas Woods residents’ comments critical of the council on the issue–comments that in good part assumed the fix was in, and the council was intent on ratifying the rezoning. “But we also can’t be meeting in private” with either side, Cuff said, which makes clarifying such assumptions impossible. “It bothers me to have citizens feel that we’re ignoring them or not doing our job, when fortunately that’s exactly what we’re trying to do and protect the process, so that everyone that has an interest gets a fair shot” at presenting evidence and arguments.
Matanzas Woods resident Lea Ann Huggins had started the comment segment by describing how she and fellow-neighbors have been going door to door, gathering signatures for a petition opposing the proposed development and prevent “the potential loss of our peaceful backyard, loss of additional equity in our home, once once when the course closed, and now again with the influx of 6,000 square foot lots.” Many people, she said, would have to move, and are “astounded” that the city did not buy the land with fines collected from the course when it was left untended. Huggins said city planners have told her and others that the petitions “aren’t worth much,” which sent yet another message of indifference to the residents. “We’re more than happy to be there for our neighbors, unlike this city,” she said.
Perry Mitrano, a London Drive resident who once was in the Bunnell city administration, recalled for council members a ride he took with then-City Manager Armando Martinez, more than a decade ago, through the empty land that was to become the Grand Reserve golf development. Martinez told him the 400 planned homes were to double Bunnell’s size. “We were all excited, that was great,” Mitrano said. “Of course we had the crash. When the crash was over, we quickly ran into a problem.” There was no construction, the land was taken over by a bank, and when development restarted, the development was doubled to 800 smaller homes, not 400, reducing the value of what few homes had been built there and “changing the dynamic of what a house costs.” He was cautioning that the same dynamic was in play around Matanzas Woods.
Another resident spoke of how he left Broward County after more than 30 years because of over-development–to move to Matanzas Woods. “Now I’m seeing here somebody that’s going to attempt to do the very same thing that happened there,” he said. “The plans to basically put a high concentration of homes and things like that in very small lots will not benefit this city. It will benefit one person, the contractor. That’s it.”
Reischmann, the attorney, explained again that legally the council was bound to stay above the fray until proposals are submitted and hearings held. “To a certain degree, the members of this council have their hands tied by the due process requirements that have been imposed upon them by the Florida courts,” Reischmann said. Therefore the council is required to “wait and not take into consideration some of the things that they heard this morning. These folks that spoke this morning need to come back if and when this comes to a public hearing and tell these folks what they said this morning, so that at that time everyone will be there and will have the opportunity to hear everything that’s relevant to that quasi judicial decision.”
“If and when, that’s the point,” Mayor Milissa Holland said, seemingly as frustrated as Cuff and others. “We’ve certainly read about it in the media as it was presented to them, but not to this government body. So if and when it does come before this council I appreciate, frankly, the passion and the commitment of the residents in this neighborhood for coming forward and voicing their concerns, and that is so important and certainly matters to this body. And I like the fact and respect the fact of going door to door. We are a community that does take these issues very seriously.”
The mayor was also critical about the tenor of some criticism. “It is frustrating to sit up here and have certain accusations thrown at you when we have yet to see a single proposal come before us about anything, because we can’t,” Holland said. “So I would just ask for the members of the public that still have remained–not those that just wanted to come and take pictures of us sitting here as she spoke–but rather just, please share this with your neighbors, please? I think that’s really important. When we do again hear this proposal, if we do, I’m not even sure where we are in the process, that we will take all into consideration, including the people in the surrounding neighborhoods that it impacts.”
But Reischmann seemed to make the mayor’s and the council member’s words a touch conditional, significantly downplaying what effects public comments can have once the formal process does begin. “We’re not making the rules here, we’re applying the rules,” Reischmann said. “So not all facts will be relevant. The facts that are relevant are those that are going to be determined by the standards in the Land Development Code, for whatever application, if we receive an application, that we receive. At this point we hear what you’re saying but we don’t know what’s relevant and what’s not relevant yet, because we haven’t received the request yet, so it would be totally inappropriate for anyone on this council to be trying to interpret what they hear, whether or not that applies or not. It’s just too soon.”
That’s the sort of language that often leads to decisions that favor developers, based on land-use rules and property rights arguments, to the dismay of residents, though in this case the council holds the ultimate card–whether to rezone or not. That’s the hook opponents of the development are hanging their hat on. “It is the city’s responsibility,” Brad West, an opponent of the development and a resident of the neighborhood wrote in the Observer, “to uphold the promises it made to protect property owners of Matanzas Woods and reject any rezoning plan that includes building behind properties that currently line former fairways.”