For the Flagler Beach City Commission, the vote approving the site plan for the once and future hotel soon again to anchor the heart of the city after a 50-year absence was almost an afterthought Thursday evening.
“The final product is something you can be very proud of,” Manoj Bhoola, manager of Elite Hospitality, the Ormond Beach-based firm developing the 100-room hotel, to be called Compass, told commissioners. Elite recently completed a Margaritaville hotel in Jacksonville, and has developed other hotels in St. Augustine and Daytona Beach.
The unanimous vote was a foregone conclusion. “Don’t let working the bugs think that it’s a detraction from this,” Commissioner Eric Cooley said. “You have a very nice project here. And the finished product is much better than I would have thought it would have been. You did a great job.”
But commissioners were nevertheless concerned about parking and especially concerned about the effects of a vague plan to extend impacts on a vast swath of beach parallel to the project zone: the property extends that far–not construction per se (no construction is allowed) but plans of some sort.
Whether at the planning board or in the plans presented the city commission Thursday, there were no details about those plans on the beach-side. Only an ominous indication, drawn in outline on a slide, that there will be some sort of activity on the beach tied to the construction of the hotel. That worried Cooley and Commissioner Jane Mealy. It should not have surprised the developer, who knew city officials wanted more details about those plans as far back as late 2020.
“If we are going to approve it, since there is nothing about what’s going to be built, I would like us to make sure we address this verbiage that that will have to be a separate approval,” Cooley said. “We can’t approve something we have no data for, and that’s going to have a significant impact on our beach. The verbiage bothers me, by saying that is part of the project site, which is the site plan that we’re approving, when it’s never been discussed, It was never brought the power board, it’s not in the packet, there’s no detail.”
The developer had been cautioned about Cooley’s very concern in a previous step before the planning board in December 2020. At the time, that board’s Roseanne Stocker stressed–looking at understandably vague plans then, though the vagueness now was no longer defensible–that she did not want the customary public use of the beach be infringed, even where the hotel property extended into the sands. At the time, she was concerned about the possibility that a portion of the beach would be made private. That would be illegal under current law and a local ordinance.
Mealy, whose service on the commission is matched by an unparalleled memory for detail, made that very point: “It was slipped through during one of the PAR board discussions,” she said, referring to the planning board by its acronym. “A little radar went off in my head about something on the beach. I know we have regulations about no sales on the beach, we’ve had other restaurants wanting to put chairs, and rent them out or whatever, various projects that have come up over time that we’ve always said no to because of our regulations. This is the one thing that bothers me about this whole project. I love the hotel. I love all the work that you did with it, all the cooperation that went on between the developer and the city staff. But this is something that that won’t fly with me at all. We have–what’s the legal term for open beaches?”
“Customary use,” City Attorney Drew Smith said, before specifying: “That does not mean that a private beach owner cannot use their piece of the beach. It means they cannot gate it off and prohibit access.” Flagler County enacted a customary use ordinance that applies along all 18 miles of Flagler’s beaches in June 2018. A federal appeals court upheld customary use in August 2021, and a A Walton County circuit judge earlier this week rejected a constitutional challenge to an ordinance similar to Flagler’s in Walton County.
Bhoola was compelled to explain what the plans are for the beach portion of the property. “I guess the use of it would be to enhance that area,” he said, again somewhat vaguely. “So we’d have chairs, umbrellas, something like that, that we take down at the end of the day. But that’s open to the public. It’s not to be rented. It’s just an amenity for somebody who’s either staying at the hotel and going to work there, like you see the other couple of hotels in Flagler Beach that are presently there and have their own access to go to the beach. It’s similar to that.”
Smith said any individual may use the hotel’s chairs, but may not bring his or her own to sit on that portion of the beach–an arguable interpretation of Flagler County’s customary use ordinance, which does not make any such distinctions for other private portions of the beach. In effect, almost every part of the 18 miles of beach has a private portion, just as the hotel’s frontage does. But there are no such prohibitions on individuals bringing their chairs or towels or anything else to those private portions of beaches–which most people don’t even realize are private.
“I don’t like it, but OK,” Mealy said of the restrictive interpretation.
Cooley still wanted more clarifying language. “You have a site plan for the western part of the project, but you don;t have a site plan for the eastern part of the project,” meaning the beach side, he told Bhoola.
“We haven’t designed that,” Bhoola said.
“Correct. So how do we approve it if you haven’t designed it?” Cooley asked.
Smith said the developer would not have to bring any additional site plans if all the developer plans is chairs and umbrella–items Cooley is not worried about. The city clerk then specified that no structures may be built on the beach anyway. But the developer accepted a condition of approval that spells out exactly that: only umbrellas and chairs.
There was also some vagueness about who will be responsible for road improvements. So an additional condition was added: Prior to issuance of building permits, the developer will agree with the city to infrastructure improvements. The plan to ensure that streets remain open during construction–if they are to remain open–has not yet been developed.
Parking was the other matter of concern, as it generally is with any development of note in the city.
At 100 guest rooms plus a restaurant, the building would be required to have 139 parking spaces on site. It only has 81, plus five for the disabled. Commissioner Deborah Phillips was concerned. Planning Director Larry Torino said the facility is “taking advantage of the exemptions” allowed by being located in the mixed use downtown district. “To say it in layman’s terms,” Torino said, “the difference between the required parking of 139 spaces that are required for the entire development, 83 are being accommodated on site, the balance of the parking is first come first served on the street.”
But that also means the hotel’s parking will be encroaching on current parking benefiting other businesses and residents or visitors. (Commissioner James Sherman raised some concerns about nights like First Friday, when parking may be further maxed out than it already is on First Fridays. Torino said St. Augustine faces the same dilemma. “We get into parking, we could talk about it all day, all night,” Torino said.)
That brought to light a coming chance for residents: the section between Moody Boulevard and South 2nd Street along Central Avenue will see parking configurations change from parallel parking to angled parking, adding eight spaces on that street. South Central will become a one-way street southbound, parallel with the hotel, narrowing the street and perhaps adding a speed bump. “That is something that we’re we’re looking at for that stretch of corridor to make it more pedestrian friendly,” Torino said. South Daytona will remain a two-way street, parallel to the hotel, but the parking configuration will change there, too, adding four spaces.
Those “bugs” dealt with, the response to the plan was laudatory, including from members of the public and a representative of the county’s tourism office.
Other than its original unveiling at the city’s planning board, a less visible advisory level but for the wonkiest followers of city developments, Thursday’s was the first chance for the broader public to see the full plans of what will be the Compass Hotel: a 100-room, three-story, 70,000-square foot structure on the 1.37-acre lot best known to two generations of city residents and visitors as the site of the farmer’s market. It’ll also have a restaurant.
The Flagler Beach hotel’s unusual name seems to evoke the mariner’s tool rather than the more prosaic mathematical one, as if connecting the hotel to its seafaring horizons to the east. Other motifs designed to blend the building into its beachy surroundings abound. The facade of the building–stucco, brick, concrete masonry, stone, clapboard siding and tiles–will have a couple of swirling murals. The design is visually contrapuntal: “It looks like there’s a range of buildings, you can see how we’ve treated different areas differently, with canopies, with roof colors, with relief and balconies,” Brock said. Tropical vegetation will surround the building,” says Margaret Brock, director of leisure and hospitality for BRPH, the Orlando and Melbourne-based architecture and design firm.
There’ll be a traffic entrance off of Old Moody Boulevard onto parking that will take up a little more than half the block, facing South Daytona Avenue. The hotel itself fronts South Central Avenue. “As you come from pedestrians on the front side along Central you’ll come in and you’ll really basically start to feel what Margaritaville on the Compass brand brings,” Brock said, “which is just a very lifestyle-centric, boutique level hotel, which is unique. Again, this is not a typical, prototype hotel. This has a lot of character, and it really speaks to a lifestyle brand which is very specific to Flagler.” She said it will “define the inner core of Flagler Beach.”
The hotel will be 47 feet high at its highest point, its main roof topping off at 33 feet. The first floor totals 14,329 square feet. The second and third floors, the room floors, will spread over 25,505 square feet each. (The balance on the first floor will be occupied by more parking.) The current proposed restaurant hours are to be from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. The rooftop bar would be open between 5 p.m. and midnight.
“This has probably been the most vetted project that I’ve been involved with in my association with the city of Flagler Beach,” Torino told the commission. “I have to also tell you that this development team has been really a pleasure to work with. It’s a group of professionals, and I’m not trying to build their case. Win, lose or draw, they’ve been fair. They’ve been very transparent and I believe the product that has been delivered to the city speaks very well of the effort that they made from the beginning and the inception of the development process, to where it is today.”