Nearing midnight Tuesday the Palm Coast City Council voted unanimously again to limit development on the Cascades development in Seminole Woods to 416 single-family homes following an often raucous hearing before an overflow and untempered crowd. Much of the discussion–or arguments–hinged on whose fault it was that the issue required the extraordinary re-hearing, after the council had seemingly settled the matter in a pair of votes last September and November.
The Cascades is to be a development at the southwestern edge of Seminole Woods, nearer U.S. 1. The Cascades planning area includes two property owners: Byrndog, which owns 331 acres, and JTL Grand Landings, which owns 45 acres. The council in November voted to remove planned apartments and reduce allowable construction from 850 units to 416 single-family homes. Weeks later Michael Chiumento, the attorney representing the Cascades developer, requested the re-hearing, saying the council’s vote had included an impermissible land-use change affecting the JTL acreage.
It should have been a mere technicality: a rehearing to correct what amounted to the equivalent of a scrivener’s error. Instead, it turned into brawl of implications, assumptions and blame-casting. The November hearing in November had drawn a huge crowd worried about those apartments and the size of the development. That opposition swayed the council to adopt the scaled back development plan.
The re-hearing ignited the same crowd, this time accusing the council of setting up about-face. Chiumento did not contradict the assumption Tuesday evening when, in his presentation to the council, he asked for the 850-unit total to be restored, at least on paper: he offered the caveat that the full 850 would not be “necessary” without apartments. Still, the contortions gave credence to public outrage that the re-hearing was just a maneuver to remove the council’s limit of 416 homes.
So there were really two threads throughout the hearing: the personal and the technical. City Council member Theresa Pontieri dueled with Chiumento, disputing his claim that mistakes were made on all sides. Chiumento attempted, but failed, to return the maximum allowable development to 850 units. And speaker after speaker in more than an hour of often shrill public comments, included the occasional threat of a lawsuit, alternately accused the council of going back on its word–that 416-unit limit–and championing either city staff or Pontieri for countering the developer’s maneuvers.
Even though the council stuck to its original limit of 416 homes and no apartments, the controversy further eroded the council’s already vulnerable credibility–justifiably or not–on this and other fronts: Tuesday’s meeting had begun with nearly two dozen members of the public again berating the council in an hour of comments mostly over flooding complaints in Palm Coast’s traditional quarter-acre lots.
Mixed in with that hour of comments were the periodic accusations of corruption that, baseless and at times slanderous thought they are–none of the accusations have ever been documented by so much as one piece of evidence or testimony–have become almost routine at council meetings, at times affecting the tenor or direction of council members, who feel compelled to react: Tuesday’s opening salvos led to a proposal by Pontieri to halt all “infill” development on quarter-acre lots until the city’s technical manual spelling out new construction rules is ratified. That proposal will go before the council on Jan. 16.
And with yet another controversial land use proposal taking up the next hour–the proposed development next to the Polo Club West–tempers had shortened considerably by the time the council took up the Cascades matter, three hours into the meeting.
“Your vote last time restored faith in you as a council and you need to stick with it again tonight,” Jessica Matthews, one of the residents. “The comment that Pencils have erasers from the last meeting is completely uncalled for. I cannot go to a bank and sign a legal document and then ask for it to be taken back because I made a mistake.”
“The residents didn’t have a chance to even understand what we were going to read here today before this started, and that’s a problem,” Victor Rodriguez, a Seminole Woods resident, said. “That’s a big problem because that screams–and I hate to say it–but it gives the perception of corruption. I’m not saying that this is corruption, but it definitely gives a perception of corruption. And that’s not something we want for Palm Coast. And then to have the lawyer who I know is doing his job, not going to blame him at all for that, but to have him come up here and talk about your staff that way and not say anything to him, to question the people on the council’s experience and allow him to do that, is wrong.”
Rodriguez was referring to how Chiumento had explained the matter earlier, in response to Pontieri’s contention that the re-hearing was essentially unjustified.
“We had a motion for rehearing based on something that did not occur,” Pontieri had said. She quoted a letter from Chiumento saying that the city had changed the land use designation on the JTL, or hook, property without notice to JTL. But that claim is incorrect, as Senior Planner Jose Papa confirmed. “We have an authorization from JTL Grand Landings,” Papa said. The land use was and remains residential. At the Nov. 7 vote, the council did not change the land use on the JTL property. It included those 44.8 acres in the planning area that would have limited development to 416 units in the entirety of the development.
“The rehearing is only about the Comprehensive Plan Amendment, and the rehearing was requested because one of the parties in the ordinance that changed the land use designation or Comprehensive Plan Amendment by adding limiting policies, was never part of the process,” Chiumento said, citing email threads illustrating the issue. “It’s pretty darn clear that both myself and Mr. Jose Papa had said emphatically in writing that Cascades was the comp plan application and that the hook parcel and JTL was not part of it.” If there was to be a rezoning of the JTL property, there would have had to be authorization for that from JTL. Jeff Douglas of Douglas Properties–Douglas is the project manager on the entire project, not the authorized agent for JTL–secured an authorization for the rezoning from JTL. But that rezoning is still not part of the rezoning, Chiumento said. “So as I sit here right now, after working with Jose for 20 years, to suggest that that is not accurate, is really frustrating.”
“What happened here is that we made a mistake too,” Chiumento said, the too signifying that he and the developer alone were not at fault, but so was the city. “We made a mistake, when you look at the ordinance that was approved.” The mistake was not noticing that the JTL property was incorporated in a land use change for which there was no authorization. “It is unequivocal that the city does not have written authorization as required by your published handbook and state code that JTL consented to a change in the land use,” Chiumento said. “It was a mistake on all our parts. And I recognize that. But at the end of the day, there is no written authorization.”
The request for the rehearing was to remove JTL from the ordinance changing the future land use map. Chiumento also said that he was requesting the approval of the original limit of 850 units, not 416, drawing howls from the crowd. “So by removing JTL from the ordinance, the request is still 850 units,” he said. But since the apartments were removed, “850 is not necessary at this point in time.”
Along the way, he made unflattering comments about Pontieri’s experience, as if she had misread documents. Pontieri took sharp exception, reading from the documentation the council had approved to show that Chiumento’s account was a “misrepresentation.” That documentation specified that the only land use change was limited to the Cascades’ 330.8 acres, leaving JTL’s parcel untouched by the wording.
“So again, to say that we as a City Council misapprehended facts,” Pontieri said, “or what really really chaps my backside about this is throwing staff under the bus because staff did nothing wrong. They did everything that was asked of them.”
Council rules forbid meetings from continuing past 11 p.m. absent a vote to do so. With that time approaching, Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin attempted to adjourn to Jan. 16 before the Cascade matter was completed. The Jan. 16 meeting would be held in the morning. A vote to that end failed, 3-2. The council agreed to extend the meeting 30 minutes.
That led to further discussion about email threads and the possibilities of lawsuits, if the proper documentation was not in place, and finally a motion by Council member Nick Klufas to remove the JTL parcel from comprehensive plan ordinance, and preserve the limit of 416 homes. That passed, 5-0. There was no applause from the remaining crowd, just an adjournment of the remaining items on the agenda to the Jan. 16 meeting.