When approving apartment complexes are on local government boards’ agendas, whether through zoning changes, site plans or future land use plans, opponents, who are legion in Palm Coast and the rest of the county, cite all sorts of reasons to oppose them. Sometimes the concerns are soundly based on environmental or infrastructural issues, or lack of available space in schools, though those haven’t generally been issues locally. More often, opposition is based on exaggerations, fallacies, prejudice or nimbyism.
There was some of both Tuesday evening as the Palm Coast City Council considered approving plans for a new, 251-unit apartment complex at Town center. But there was something new and ugly: a sustained attack on the developers, and on their origin: Alabama.
“I’m alerting the people of Palm Coast. Which side are we on? Are we on the side of Alabama–with all due respect–or are we on the side of Palm Coasters, people that live in Palm Coast?” City Council member Eddie Branquinho, who has opposed apartments with crusading verve, said. He returned again and again to calling out Alabama, every other time claiming he had nothing against Alabama, and every time apparently overlooking the fact that Palm Coast is filled with Alabama immigrants. Not least of them: Denise Bevan, the city manager Branquinho applauds every other week, and who sat on the same dais as lobbed verbal sallies across the border.
It was left up to the city attorney to remind him that there’s nothing in code or in law preventing anyone from anywhere to invest in the city, and to Council member Ed Danko to say archly: “We’re not at war with Alabama.”
At one point Branquinho appeared to reach for another comparison when he said he’d seen “first hand” what apartment complexes do to a city, an apparent reference to his years as a police officer in Newark, but he stopped himself: that may have been a prejudice too far. And the council did what it was expected to do all along. It approved the project.
The Wilton apartment complex is to rise on 10 acres on the south side of Brookhaven Drive in Town center. It is zoned master planned development, as are its surroundings, which are all part of the Town center Development of Regional Impact, or DRI. The DRI was established at the beginning of the last decade as an enterprise zone, or community redevelopment agency. (Almost all the property tax revenue generated in that zone stays in the zone, including revenue that normally would be transferred to county coffers, but excluding revenue that goes to the school district.)
The apartment complex’s 251 units will be divided between five buildings, including a massive, four-story central building, a three-story building over garages, and two two-story buildings that have the look of town houses, also attached to garages. The central building will have a business center, a clubhouse, and a pool in its central courtyard, resembling the layout of some motels and hotels. There are also garage and maintenance buildings. The buildings will have 414 parking spots and 23 bicycle parking spots, and rise up to 42 feet. There’ll be a pool at the center of the massive building, along with other athletic amenities, a dog park and walkways. Every apartment will have a washer-dryer.
The smallest apartments will be a 671 square foot one-bedroom, with one-bedroom apartments averaging 735 square feet, two-bedroom apartments averaging 1,115 square feet, and three-bedroom apartments averaging 1,365 square feet.
Bentley Nelson of Crest Residential presented the project to the council with a brief powerpoint. Crest is based in Birmingham and specializes in apartment complexes in the South, especially in coastal towns (Brisa Apartments in St. Augustine, the Griffin in Vero Beach, Primrose Apartments in Destin, and so on.)
When he was done, and as if on cue, Branquinho was first to speak. He’s adopted an ideological opposition to essentially all apartment developments, whether zoned in apartment zoning or not, as the Tilton is, whether isolated from single-family residential neighborhoods or not, as the Wilton is, whether neighboring other apartment complexes or not, as the Wilton is, and as Council member Nick Klufas noted. (It’ll sit north of the Tuscan Reserve and Brookhaven apartment complexes, and south of apartments along Central Avenue).
“This is a perfect example why I am opposed to this type of projects. Perfect example,” Branquinho said. He then cited the size of the smaller apartments–671 square feet–before making his first prejudicial statement: “We’re going to be bringing investments from Birmingham, Alabama, not to the betterment of Palm Coast. It’s for the interest of the people that are investing here.” He said he loves diversity, but “the density that’s bringing, this is what people of Palm Coast are worrying about.” He said the development had “nothing to do with workhouse housing,” though smaller apartments are generally geared precisely at workforce renters. Branquinho said the apartments won’t be affordable.
When he was asked what rent would be, Nelson said it was “an ever-changing environment,” but said it would be market rates comparable to apartments at Tuscan Reserve or Integra Woods apartments. Not cheap, in other words. Rent for a two-bedroom apartment at Integra Woods was listed at $1,815 a month as of today. No one-bedroom apartments were listed. At Tuscan Reserve, a one-bedroom was renting for between $1,404 and $1,505 as of today, two-bedroom apartments were renting at between $1,550 and $1,680, and three-bedrooms for $1,774. At the lower end of the scale, and assuming the renter devotes a third of his or her income to housing costs, that means the renter would have to have a salary of at least $54,000 to afford the place.
Other council members had no issues such as those Branquinho raised–only support. The city’s planning board had approved the project 5-0.
In public comment, one individual who identified himself as being from Colorado wondered what sort of people would move into the apartments, saying it would not be a family of four, but rather “three, four, single people moving in there.” It wasn’t clear how single people were somehow less desirable than people with families: both pay taxes, both contribute to the local economy, an economy–and a health care infrastructure–that depends on younger, often single people to function to the benefit of older, non-working people. He continued, saying Palm Coast would “rather have single family homes, where in that single family home, they’re going to be a part of that community”–again repeating a misconception that apartment dwellers are not part of the community. He said he could “talk hours on this,” but was limited to three minutes.
He was followed by Alan Lowe, the candidate for council, who said the project wasn’t reducing urban sprawl, because while it will add 251 apartment units, it wasn’t necessarily going to subtract 251 single-family homes from the construction equation. “We’ve just increased density,” he said. But he was also misapplying the term “urban sprawl.” In fact, Palm Coast’s single-family homes have overwhelmingly been going up within original city limit boundaries, in the tens of thousands of remaining old ITT lots still undeveloped. In other words, in what’s called “infill” development (another one of which, including many more homes, was on the council’s agenda the same evening). That’s not sprawl, though by nature it increases density–a density always expected by the city’s development blueprint.
Lowe said he was concerned about the additional density because it increases traffic, further damaging already degraded roads. He said he wasn’t opposed to the projects in general, but that infrastructure in Town center should be repaired before developments go up. Klufas, the council member and the closest thing to a real-time fact-checker in council meetings that often needs one (more lately because of audience rather than council fabrications), said he drove the same roads the same day and didn’t notice anything amiss other than where drivers” dive-bomb” over speed bumps too much.
Two others echoed the concerns about density, one of them referring to “high rises,” though there are no such structures in Palm Coast (she was referring to four-story buildings). A fifth individual went straight for explicit slurs, claiming populating increases brings “trash,” “crime” and “riffraff.”
City Attorney Neysa Borkert cautioned the council on density. “What the City Council has in front of them tonight is a master site plan approval, meaning that the zoning, the comp plan, those are both in place,” she said. “So the density is set at what it is. This master site plan doesn’t change that, and that shouldn’t be a consideration in your review today. In your review today you’re just looking at the master site plan and whether it meets the provisions of the Land Development Code as far as connectivity, really those technical aspects of development, and not the general planning ones, where you would look at that in a comp plan amendment or rezoning. This is a different ask here. So I just want to make sure that that was clear not just for you all but for the members of the public, too, that spoke, because there seemed to be some misunderstanding there as to what the request is.”
Branquinho went for a rejoinder: “I’m still entitled to my opinion, and I’ll say it right here,” he said. He said Palm Coast will be affordable when everyone else moves out, from becoming dissatisfied with the look of the town (an argument existing residents have been making for years even as the city’s population continues to swell), and he told Lowe there was nothing the council could do to oppose approval, otherwise it would get sued. Yet he still voted against it. “You’re destroying this town by this vote,” he said.
In yet another caution that mirrored the sort of careful interventions her colleague, Bill Reischmann–who used to sit in her chair–would make with increasing frequency over the past few years, Borkert tried to remind council members that “there is no standard in our code that requires a developer to be from Palm Coast or live here, work here.”
Mayor David Alfin said there is not just a severe shortage, but a lack of student housing in Town center despite hundreds of university students going to school in the area, and Danko–who recalled his own younger days when he was renter–said the soon-to-open hospital on Palm Coast Parkway will generate new jobs for people who will need housing they can afford, when they may not immediately be able to afford or wish to invest in a mortgage. So they’d have the choice of apartment rents.
The council voted 4-1 for the project, a proportionately wide margin than the 31-29 score by which the Crimson Tide beat the Gators in their last football matchup last September.