In a twin blow to the developer–and to the city’s meager apartment market–the Palm Coast City Council Tuesday rejected a rezoning application that would have allowed for an apartment complex near the south end of Seminole Woods Boulevard, and rejected a land use change that would have allowed for the total number of housing units there to go from 416 to 850.
Instead, the proposed development, called Cascades, will be limited to 416 units, all of them single-family homes. While it was a 180-degree reversal for the council, which had approved the proposed change on first reading in September, the decision in essence kept the development as originally conceived two decades ago, when it was originally approved by county government in a somewhat different guise.
The pair of votes at the end of two hours of public comment and council debate in a packed and at times tumultuous chamber was a victory for Seminole Woods residents who had turned up in force to oppose the proposals, largely because of the apartment component. Proposals for apartment complexes in Palm Coast have typically drawn opposition, not infrequently fueled by misinformation or prejudice against apartments (they lower property values, they breed crime, they intensify traffic. None of those claims are supported by evidence.) The closer to existing single family home subdivisions, the staunchest the opposition.
Still, the rare defeat for a major development’s expansion is the latest example of residents’ blowback against what they perceive to be too much development, too fast, in a city that’s been ranking among the fastest-growing in the nation in recent Census reports. Opposition to development is fueling several candidacies for council seats in the 2024 election.
The Cascades development was originally approved by Flagler County government as a planned unit development of 416 homes but was mummified by the housing crash. Douglas Property and Development revived the plan under the name of Byrndog PCP LLC. Palm Coast annexed 330 acres to go with the 44 acres already within the city as the developer applied for a comprehensive plan amendment and rezoning that would have doubled the number of housing units allowed, and enabled the construction of apartments.
The council approved the comprehensive plan amendment on first reading on Sept. 19. State agencies and Flagler County reviewed the proposal, as required by law, generating no objections. In contrast, public opposition has been building since. The developer has been taking the measure of that opposition, including hosting a meeting with residents on Monday. By the time the developer’s attorney, Mike Chiumento, represented the proposal Tuesday evening, it was clear that the proposal’s momentum had been deflated, and that a compromise would be sought.
On the council, the opposition to the proposals was driven largely by Council member Theresa Pontieri. She based her opposition on the impact of an 850-unit development on infrastructure. “Obviously, that’s going to have a larger strain on infrastructure, water, emergency services, all of the things that our taxpayers pay for,” Pontieri said.
The city calculated its impact on infrastructure based on “a worst-case scenario” of 850 single-family dwelling units, Senior Planner Jose Papa said. With 850 housing units, the development would add 2,040 people, including 92 school-age students. From the city planners’ perspective, existing infrastructure can absorb those impacts, including traffic.
Concerns about traffic are not imaginary. The Seminole Woods-State Road 100 intersection has become a daily nightmare for Seminole Woods residents going north, with daily, epic back-ups, even on weekends, especially for the turn west onto 100. The coming opening of the commercial development anchored by BJ’s Wholesale Club near that intersection is not expected to improve matters. The south end of Seminole Woods, along the boundary of the proposed development, remains a two-lane road.
Pontieri also had questions about compatibility, a central component of comprehensive plans. “How is it that the city is determining that this, with the inclusion of multifamily, is still compatible, knowing that we’ve got to the east and west agriculture and timberlands and conservation, and to the north and south, only single family?” she asked Papa.
In terms of the comprehensive plan, the only designation is “residential,” which encompasses the potential for apartments. “We have mixed use, which permits residential uses, but I believe in this case it probably would not be appropriate,” Papa said. “It would be inconsistent with what’s to the north and to the south.”
It’s different when it comes to zoning. That’s when the city may more closely define the apartment component–by zoning for it or against it. Both the comprehensive plan change and the zoning change were before the council on Tuesday evening.
“I wouldn’t want you to be confusing the public by combining these two issues, is was what you’re doing,” Mayor David Alfin admonished Pontieri early in the discussion.
“They don’t vote, mayor, we vote,” Pontieri said, knowing she had the crowd–grumbling against Alfin at that point–on her side. “I think that it would benefit the residents to hear from staff because there is no dichotomy of these two issues in the public eye.”
When the floor was opened to public input, a long stream of residents addressed the council to oppose the rezoning. Donna Stancil, a Seminole Woods resident, set the tone for what was to come: “As you probably notice, the room full of people behind me is a pretty good sized crowd tonight, most of whom oppose rezoning our area to build apartments, townhomes or even more housing, because we’ve got so much of it already,” she said. “The only people who seem to be in favor of this are the members of the developers, the lawyers and some of the members of our council here. It has come to our attention that many of you favor rezoning or neighborhoods for this new development. We know that at least two of you are going to be vacating your positions to run for the other offices.”
She was referring to Ed Danko and Nick Klufas, who are running for County Commission seats. Klufas was absent from Tuesday’s meeting. “You should not vote to do what the residents do not want and leave others behind to deal with this.” Some 18 more people spoke, often with bitter asides about perceived overdevelopment, or the council’s indifference, or about Alfin (“Quite frankly Mayor your facial expressions right now say everything that we need to know about it because you just don’t care, flat out, and it shows”) or even Danko’s “girlfriend”–“his current girlfriend is in real estate,” one speaker said, also pointing at the two other members of the council who are Realtors, implying that it is a “conflict of interest,” before dog-whistling: “Changing it to a multifamily is going to change it from Seminole Woods to Seminole hood.” The same commenter made a veiled threat about the council members getting themselves in “legal rouble” because of alleged conflicts of interest.
At that point Chiumento was still representing the application as initially presented that evening with one amendment: there would be town houses, not apartments, at least to the east of the development. But the usually pugnacious Chiumento was more reserved, as if aware that more compromises would be necessary. That proved to be the case. He lowered the total number of units by 100. He then conceded that there would be no apartments at all, though not before the council wrangled through its series of votes, starting with Pontieri’s initial motion to deny the comprehensive plan amendment application outright.
Council member Cathy Heighter seconded. The motion failed on a 2-2 vote, with Heighter and Danko voting against, Alfin and Pontieri voting for, and a lot of confusion among council members along the way.
That was followed by Danko’s motion to approve the application by limiting the development to 750 units, and no apartments. But since it was a vote on the comprehension plan, it could not be conditioned on the type of housing units that would be built. Only the density could be conditioned. Danko changed his motion to continue the matter to a future date. He got no second. The motion died. The audience applauded.
Pontieri tried again. She made a motion to approve the comprehensive plan amendment, limiting it to the original 416 housing units. It was really the same motion she’d made initially, phrased differently, because both motions aimed for the same end. Heighter seconded. That motion passed 3-1, with Danko in dissent. There was dead silence in the room, because the decision did not address the nature of the housing that could be built, and a council member alluded to the act that apartments could still be built.
Then came the zoning vote, which could address that issue.
Danko asked if the developer would be willing to drop the apartments altogether. Chiumento said the developer would.
“So I guess what would make sense to me is to agree and to amend the zoning application to just place single family residential on the entire property,” Chiumento said. “And then we would come back and deal with phases into the future.” It would all be single family residential and preservation-designated land. Danko made that motion, Pontieri seconded, and that passed unanimously.
Just before the motion and the vote, Alfin had opened the floor to further comment, since the zoning issue was separate from the comprehensive plan issue. By then, the audience knew where the vote was headed, and its tenor changed radically from the abrasiveness earlier in the evening. The words “Thank you” were repeated from the few residents who spoke, the first of them asking residents to limit their comments and let the council vote.
Even more unusually in the council chamber of late, Jeff Douglas and Michael Chiumento were singled out for praise by one of the residents who had opposed their development. “I attended the meeting last night with Mr. Chiumento,” a resident who did not identify herself told the council, “and I just wanted to say thank you to him and to Mr. Douglas for switching that to single-family, to thank you guys for what you did as well.” By which she meant council members. “You guys listened to the residents. In the future, I hope we can do this a whole lot sooner than many, many hours of showing up and having to go this route. But you guys did an amazing job with the vote and very much thank you to Mr. Douglas and to Mr. Chiumento.”
“There is hope in government,” another resident said, as others echoed the thank yous, though one resident also noted: “416 units is still 416 units, which means that that is still a strain on the infrastructure and all of those things that we discussed.”