In or out of the county’s hands, Bull Creek Fish Camp has been part of Flagler County’s history since before it was so named. Sitting at the confluence of Bull Creek and Dead Lake, it was the last stop of steamboat trips down the St. Johns River and through Crescent Lake, ending at what today is the fish camp location. Hence the lake’s funereal name.
“A restaurant here is called The Bull Creek Fish Camp and each year hosts hundreds of devoted fishermen who arrive in their camp trailers towing boats,” Bill Ryan, Flagler County’s premier historian, wrote in his Journey into History, a 2018 book about Flagler County. “They follow the water temperatures across the United States for the ‘best catching locations’. In early winter, usually February to March, they arrive here for contests with large prizes.”
Flagler County government bought the fish camp’s 6 acres as part of a 29-acre, $1.81 million acquisition with dollars from the taxpayer-supported Environmentally Sensitive Lands fund, and in 2014 re-launched the fish camp’s restaurant with new owners.
But rising seas are not only eroding the sea shore and flooding properties there. The rise is affecting inland properties that sit on interconnected watersheds, as Bull Creek does: the St. Johns River rises and falls in echoes of storm surges, and with it its tributary creeks and lakes. When it last did, during Hurricanes Ian and Nicole, Dead Lake waters flooded the fish camp’s restaurant. And stayed there a month.
Last week, to the dismay of the current lease holder, County Administrator Heidi Petito informed commissioners by email that the 2,500 square foot restaurant building and the 700 square foot apartment on top of it will be torn down next month, after suffering what the county describes as irreparable damage from the flood.
“The costs necessary to fully restore the structure to its before-damage condition exceeds 50% of the structure’s valuation (excluding the valuation of the land) before the damage occurred,” Petito wrote. “The basis for this determination includes, but is not limited to, structural, mechanical, and electrical damage.”
The building’s age was considered, as well as its construction – wood frame on wooden piles – which is not eligible for repair to current building code, a county release stated. Demolition and replacement would be required. Conservative estimates for new construction of a 2,800 square foot building are upwards of $1.8 million.
That cost “is probably very conservative, as we would have to do additional boring samples because this area is built on a ‘cord road’ (layers of trees and soil) and we would likely have substantial costs for foundation work,” Petito said. “Today we have met with our tenant to make him aware of the county’s decision to red-tag the facility and proceed with demolition.”
The county does not have that kind of money right now. It just finished building the Sheriff’s Office its new operations center in Bunnell, a $21 million project, it is planning to build a new South Side public library, whose own footprint keeps getting eroded by county pressures to make it smaller and less expensive, and it is facing insistent requests from the county’s Health Department for improvements to that facility. A restaurant building in the nether regions of the county simply would not rate high on the priority list.
“The county is assessing options, but there is no funding in the current fiscal year,” a county spokesperson said Thursday.
The county’s other amenities there, including the camp ground, fabulous fishing and undisturbed flora, are not affected, though the restaurant certainly was a draw for those who chose the campground’s spectral isolation.
On the other hand, the county may choose to resurrect an old idea: planting revenue-generating cottages there, the way it has at Princess Place Preserve (not without some controversy).
The county a few years after it bought it had considered tearing down its non-performing restaurant and replacing it with lodging. The location had at one time been home to a three-story hotel.
Then came Chris Zwirn and partners Matt Crews and the late Joe Rizzo, all of whom long seeped in restaurant ownership and management. They took over the Bull Creek Fish Camp restaurant in 2014, reviving it thanks to a generous lease. The county charged $1,000 a month rent. It was due to rise $100 a month starting at year six, but it has not. The restaurant owners were also to get a 50-50 split from usage fees at the adjacent county park.
By 2018 Zwirn was the sole owner. Last fall, before the hurricanes struck, he let Petito know he was selling the business, and in September the county agreed to shift the lease to Domenech Base Inc., a Bunnell-based company established at the time by Alberto Domenech, who runs the Latino Market and Bakery at Palm Coast’s St. Joe Plaza. The rent was to stay at $1,000 a month, increasing by 3 percent a year after the first year. The county extended the lease to 2037. It had been set to expire in 2029.
Then the storms struck.
Domenech had gotten a few months’ use of the property rent-free, to prepare the transition. After the storms, he had sought to repair the property himself, at his own expense. Daytona Beach’s Zahn Engineering conducted an independent inspection for the county, and looked into possible damage reimbursements from the Florida Division of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It was determined that no funding would be available through DEM or FEMA, and that our current insurance policy does not cover flooding,” Petito said. “This facility is a non-conforming structure that sits in the floodplain, and is ineligible for flood insurance.”
“There are substantial deficiencies throughout the structure,” the two-page inspection report states.
The report lists deficiencies, from uneven floor slabs to deteriorated wood posts to sagging beams to numerous indications of water damage. But the inspector could not verify foundation elements or footers under the existing slab, electrical or plumbing installations.
“The improvements required are extensive and are estimated to far exceed 50% of the buildings appraised value,” the inspector, Peter A. Zahn, concluded. “This requires the building to be brought up to the current Florida Building Code: foundation, structural, doors & windows, electrical, mechanical, plumbing, handicap accessibility. This will require the [finished floor elevation] to be a minimum of 1-foot above the [base floor elevation] (approximately 4’ above current existing grade). Remediation of the existing structure will be financially unfeasible due to the above [Florida Building Code] code requirements.”
The county’s release listed some of the issues found at the building: “exterior high-water mark 3 feet above grade; could not verify “load path connection” at the slab; walls and structural wood posts were black, some soft and deteriorated from water damage; uneven flooring; sagging overhead beams; filth from both flood waters and septic backup; wiring impossible to inspect; and a host of other problems that, in short, are ‘substantial deficiencies throughout the structure.'”
The county offered to allow a food truck with a screened in pavilion at the site. Domenech declined. In a brief phone interview today, Domenech was not convinced that the building had to be torn down. He made the difference between buildings damaged at the seashore as opposed to buildings inland, where flood damage can more easily be mitigated, and said the building could have stood “a hundred years.” But it was the county’s decision. “I don’t want to create conflict,” he said.
When the county bought the camp in 2007, it consisted of a main building built in 1997 with a restaurant area on the first floor and an apartment on the second floor. It also had a 20-slip marina and a boat ramp, and the 50 full hookup camp sites. All of that remains, of course. The area is dominated by large, old-growth cypress and mature sweet gum, red maple and cabbage palm, all of which contributed to the county’s desire to buy the land. The two appraisals the county conducted came in at $1.723 million and $2.06 million, resulting in the $1.81 million purchase price.
The county had been interested in the property since the early 1990s. But “at that time a title cloud on the property thwarted the county’s purchase attempt from an owner named Kinney,” documents from the County Commission’s December 2007 meeting state. Charlie McCraney bought the property in 1994, and approached the county for a possible purchase with sensitive lands dollars.
The fish camp’s future is now uncertain, with nearby Dead Lake bearing its name like an epitaph to the property.