A traffic nightmare may be developing on State Road 100 and on Seminole Woods Boulevard as several new commercial developments are crunching their way through the county’s regulatory steps. But the biggest development, a BJ’s Club and five satellite businesses, is moving along despite lacking a full analysis of traffic issues ahead.
“To me the biggest quality of life issue on this is the traffic and the impacts on 100,” County Commissioner Andy Dance said at the meeting on Monday, when the county approved a key step in the development. “I’m not set to approve this. I think personally I need input from the city since they’re annexing it.”
The development site is currently in the county’s jurisdiction. But it will be annexed into Palm Coast as soon as water and sewer lines are extended. Dance had been in contact with Palm Coast’s traffic engineer. “Although he did have been input in the methodology of the traffic study, he hasn’t received the traffic study and hasn’t offered input on the traffic study,” Dance said.
Michael Grunewald, Palm Coast’s traffic engineer, had written Dance before Monday’s meeting: ” I provided opinions on items that I would like to see as part of the traffic impact study. I do not recall what became of those comments. That was the last I was updated on the traffic impact study.” He had specific concerns about the proposal of a traffic signal at the intersection of SR100 and McCormick Drive, but as for the traffic study itself, since he had not seen it, he couldn’t address it.
Dance–who also chairs the countywide Traffic Safety Team, a cross-section of local governments and agencies–sought to postpone approval of the development application until October to give the city time to review the study and “look at the impacts in the surrounding area and do what the traffic engineers are supposed to do. We don’t have that specialty on our staff.” His fellow-commissioners were uninterested.
The Flagler County Commission cleared the way for the BJ’s Wholesale Club and five satellite businesses near the intersection of State Road 100 and Seminole Woods Boulevard. But it did so on a 4-1 vote.
Dance was not alone with concerns. Commissioner Dave Sullivan seconded the motion to approve the application, with a significant caveat: “That’s mostly because this is a good thing for the county,” he said. “But I’m telling you, unless we get an access over to Seminole Boulevard at some point, this thing with the traffic increasing in that intersection at Seminole Boulevard and 100 is already horrible. We’ve got to come up with a solution.” Regarding a cut-through from the BJ’s development to Seminole Woods Boulevard, he said: “Sooner or later, there’s going to have to be an axis that way. I’m telling you, or it’s going to lock on 100.”
And Adam Mengel, the county’s own planning director, had spent most of his presentation discussing traffic issues and outlining problems that have yet to be resolved, even though he has been relatively supportive of the development project. He spoke in terms far more alarming than Dance did.But commissioners are salivating at the prospect of the new development, and they know that very soon, it won;t be their problem since they’re kicking the issue to Palm Coast once it’s annexed into the city. In essence, commissioners can take the credit for “bringing” a BJ’s and take none of the blame for subsequent traffic issues.
Sullivan’s remarks aside, the four commissioners seemed neither particularly concerned nor inquisitive about the coming traffic even after Mengel outlined the issues. Commissioner Joe Mullins was only interested in pointing out the jobs and tax revenue the big box store will bring. He did not note that the jobs will not be living-wage jobs, but service jobs at the lowest end of the wage scale.
“We’re going to have a little pain but I mean this is good pain. This is good stuff to occur,” Mullins said, claiming, without evidence, that it would lower taxes for residents. The evidence suggests otherwise: despite the most residential and commercial growth in 16 years, neither the county nor Palm Coast lowered taxes this year. They both approved tax rates that project tax increases of around 15 percent. Mullins promptly made the motion to approve the preliminary plat for BJ’s development.
The specific set of applications was for a preliminary plat and for permission to diverge from parking-space regulations. The items were detailed before the county planning board last week. (See: “Building Plans for BJ’s Wholesale Club, Gas Station and Several Stores on SR100 Clear County Board.”) On Monday, Mengel summed up the mechanics of the application and the annexation to come. But his focus was on traffic issues not only around the future development, but on its periphery, including “what’s already a very busy intersection coming in at Bulldog-airport” drives.
One particular, unsolved problem: The county was hoping to have a cut-through from the BJ’s property through RaceTrac to Seminole Woods Boulevard. RaceTrac is refusing.
“RaceTrac has informed the owner, the developer of this property, the prospective purchaser, that that presents a conflict to them,” Mengel said. The county and the city are pressing for that cut-through because it would alleviate already-heavy traffic on State Road 100 and northbound traffic on Seminole Woods that would make the left turn onto 100. Mengel illustrated the point with a slide he showed commissioners: “What you’re seeing is all of that movement of traffic that we see every day. It stacks up heading eastbound on State Route 100.”
The traffic analysis for the development concluded that an additional traffic signal will be needed on State Road 100 at the entrance to BJ’s shopping center (it is to be paid for by the developer), and that the existing traffic signal at State Road 100 and Seminole Woods takes too long to cycle through. “My point there being is that we want that access to happen behind RaceTrac in some way,” Mengel said. “But it’s not part of the current plan.”
Mengel said RaceTrac’s stance is defensible, though at BJ’s the gas will be available only to members–and BJ’s has “a different kind of product mix.” So if RaceTrac would allow the cut-through, it could just as easily increase its customer traffic looking for snacks, drinks and the sort of things not readily sold except in bulk at BJ’s.
There is a county easement to the south of RaceTrac, opening the possibility of a cut-through there. For RaceTrac, that would be the surest way of losing entirely on the chance to capture some of the BJ’s traffic, since that trafic would entirely bypass State Road 100 and RaceTrac, and head straight south on Seminole. That risk appears so far not to be a concern of the station’s owners.
Since the county owns that easement, “there could be the potential for an access that would cut in there, but it would run through the middle of the wetlands,” Mengel said, “it would be costly for the [BJ’s] applicant. It would involve additional wetland mitigation that would be needed. It would also be something that potentially could have some environmental damage because it would it could be worked around.”
Wetland mitigation is expensive. It requires developers who demolish wetlands in one place to buy wetland credits elsewhere, on the presumption that the net total of wetlands demolished in the state would be limited. “You could have box culverts, you could have culverts that allow for the flow of water but it’s also going to still have some impacts no doubt,” Mengel continued.
At previous regulatory steps there was also discussion of a traffic cut through the county airport to the south and west of the property, but that was set aside because “the airport wasn’t interested in pursuing it because it would dump a lot of traffic into the airport, potentially.” That, again, underscored Dance’s point: traffic is an issue that requires further study.
That’s not taking into account the ongoing “doubling the size of the little Airport Commons place right now,” as Sullivan described the expansion of the commercial strip on State Road 100, closer to the airport’s entrance and opposite Bulldog Drive. “We’re locking that street up.”
“We’ve got a lot that’s going on in this area,” Mengel said. “We’re not alone with this. We’re working with the city. We’re working clearly with DOT,” the Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over 100. The state, Mengel said, considers State Road 100 as a crucial artery that would get priority if and when traffic flow fails.
“Presently you have the failure that’s happening at the intersection. As the project comes in you have some other failed points,” Mengel continued. “But those I think uniformly can be addressed through intersection improvements. And that’s what the traffic impact analysis showed us. And we do also anticipate no doubt about it–everything is dumping into this–you’re going to have widening that’s inevitable. And so we know that right now we’re tracking a large number of ghost trips, we call them ghost trips because they’re not on the road. But they’re things that are presently approved in the pipeline that could develop any day now. They’re going to continue to add traffic, to this traffic shed, continue to impact the roadways.”
There may be a three-laning of SR100 in the future, but when that happens, the road will become an urban road with gutters and sidewalks rather than its more swale-bordered rural designation now, Mengel said. When that happens, speed limits will be reduced. “That will be fairly dire,” he said.
It was at that point that Dance spoke of his objection to moving forward with approval, absent a complete review of traffic analyses by Palm Coast’s traffic engineer.
Mark Hudgins, a representative for Matthew Development, the developer on the project, said the traffic study was submitted to the city. It may not have been circulated to the traffic engineer. “But the city traffic engineer hasn’t reviewed the traffic study so you can make it sound pretty, but that’s the fact,” Dance told Hudgins.
Hudgins said the permitting is going through Flagler County and the state Department of Transportation, not the city. As far as the developer is concerned, it has fulfilled its responsibilities. “At the end of the day, FDOT is the leading jurisdiction on the traffic signal and all the traffic improvements here,” Hudgins said.
“Our comp[rehensive] plan specifically talks about coordinating multi-jurisdictional approaches to solve problems,” Dance said. “That’s, especially if it’s being annexed. That’s my point. That’s all. I’m not going to argue with you about it.”
Hudgins cited the work done until now, and his focus on getting the application through the county. “Obviously we don’t want to delay the application any more than is absolutely necessary,” he said.
Neither did a majority of the commission.