Fifteen years ago, the Palm Coast City Council appropriated money to design a master pump station at the foot of the Hammock Dunes Bridge and $3.4 million for what would eventually be a $12 million sewer system running a force main up to Marineland. Hammock residents panicked, worried that the sewer line was a precursor to annexation. The city sought to reassure them that it wasn’t interested in annexing.
The pump station was eventually built, though not before 2010, and for close to $8 million (the city’s cost was $3 million). It now pumps wastewater from Beverly Beach back to Palm Coast’s sewer plant on Utility Drive. The force main to Marineland was to be partly paid by developers. It was never built. The housing bust followed. But the idea has never died, and has only been gaining momentum anew, though the Hammock’s concern now is not annexation but the accelerated development that such a sewer line might facilitate. The concern is tempered with the same residents’ environmental concerns. They see the environmental damage that septic systems can cause, especially when the area floods as it did during the Hurricane Matthew emergency in 2016.
Last spring, Palm Coast filed a request to the Legislature through Sen. Travis Hutson for $7.5 million to pay for a $9 million force main to Marineland, alongside a fiberoptic, broadband line for the city’s FiberNet network, to connect the University of Florida’s Whitney Research Lab in Marineland. The request would have had Palm Coast pick up $1.5 million of the cost. It was one of several requests Hutson filed in the Senate Appropriations Committee on behalf of governments in Flagler County. It didn’t make it.
Palm Coast, Marineland and Flagler County government haven’t yet finalized their request lists for the coming legislative session, but the force main remains at or near the top of the county’s and Marineland’s lists, local officials say, and may yet draw Palm Coast’s interest, though this year the city is focused on doing what it can to help bring a University of North Florida presence to Town Center. That initiative may displace the force main proposal from the top of the list, but not remove it from the city’s long-range goals.
“I would hope that it be requested again,” says Palm Coast City Council member Bob Cuff. “I would hope that Palm Coast as well as the residents of the Hammock are going to continue to look at that and be able to come up with something that works.” But he said the year’s decisions may be swayed by the UNF proposal. (That decision may be made for Palm Coast on Oct. 3 and later in the month when the university system’s Board of Governors decides whether to include the UNF proposal in its legislative request.)
There’s no guarantee that any request will make it through the Senate and House, especially in a budget year when lawmakers–who have already filed $120 million worth of requests for their home districts, and the list is growing–have been put on notice by their revenue estimating conference that they will not have the surpluses of recent years. Even if a request makes it through the Legislature, there’s no guarantee that it would be spared a veto by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Whether local governments include the force main initiative on their lists this year or not, the proposal will not go away, nor will the issues it seeks to mitigate–or the unintended consequences Hammock residents fear it may trigger.
“Wastewater availability means that maybe a third of the land was going to septic, and now will go to parking, so you can basically turn a small lot into a commercial enterprise,” says Dennis Clark, who chairs the Scenic A1A Committee–an advisory arm to Flagler County government–and is involved in the Hammock Community Association. “That’s the concern. So we want to make it a little bit harder to do that, to maintain the character of the area so we don’t turn into Flagler Beach. Flagler Beach is nice, but it’s Flagler Beach, a whole different character.”
The Hutson request filed last March was framed at least in part around environmental concerns: “Within this project area in Flagler County, there are greater than 1,000 septic tanks on the barrier island which will grow to thousands of septic tanks with future development,” the request read. “This project will allow an opportunity for mitigation against environmental damage caused by sea level rise providing for a sustainable environmental future by removing domestic sanitary sewage from the barrier island. The project will also provide fiber optic communications to the University of Florida’s Whitney Research Laboratory in the Town of Marineland. The project timeline is expected to be over three years and the total estimated project cost is $9,000,000.”
The inclusion of the fiber optic line is a matter of efficiency, Palm Coast Utility Director Richard Adams said. “The idea was that if we were to trench in a sewer system, that the concept is dig once. You could install fiber conduit at the same time you put in the sewer main, that’s why the idea of two totally distinct, different projects.”
Marineland currently has a so-called “package plant,” a small but outdated sewer plant. The force main would enable the two to decommission that plant and “present opportunities for areas that are currently served by septic,” Adams said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’re ready, willing and able to provide the service if the funding were to become available.”
County Commissioner Greg Hansen, whose district includes the Hammock, said the force main has been Marineland’s top project, has been atop city and county lists, and “Renner and Hutson know it’s a project we want done.” Rep. Paul Renner represents Flagler. Hansen said even Mike Waltz, the congressman who represents Flagler, told him he’d be willing to help if there were a federal avenue. “It’s the right thing to do but we’ll get some push-back from the residents.” But environmental concerns should be the driving force behind the idea, in Hansen’s view. “The environment is very important. We don’t want to happen to us what happened in South Florida to where you had the red tides and green tides.”
Commissioner Joe Mullins said if the force main proposal isn’t at the top of lists, it’s a “close second.” (He, too, sees the UNF proposal as the leading contender.) He said the Hammock can best protect itself from development by taking lands off the market through conservation trusts, though Hammock residents are skeptical, seeing that as a long shot. Clark, the A1A committee chairman, said the committee is looking at re-examining the overlay district with an eye on proposing development rules that take into account potential changes brought on by ready access to a sewer line.
“We’re not against wastewater in the Hammock, it’s a good idea,” Clark said, acknowledging the problems of septic tanks. “The concern was when you had flooding in these area like Marineland Acres, that the septic systems were basically under water and they were leaking. That was a problem also. Some of them are very old, built in the 70s and 80s. They might not be the best built to the best standards.” But Clark could cite a few developments that have not gone ahead but for lack of a sewer line–and that would go ahead the moment a sewer line is available. Only a few months ago, the absence of a sewer line was instrumental in the county’s decision eventually to deny a proposal by Captain’s Barbecue at Bing’s Landing to build a larger restaurant.
And he said some of the push back would come from residents who just don’t want to connect to a main sewer line because of the cost: they don’t want to pay $200 a month (for water and sewer).
But Cuff, the Palm Coast City Council member, said that he would not be in favor of a main line if it were somehow to enable more intense development, or the sort of development that even Palm Coast might not allow: he would not want the utility used as such a subsidy. “I’m not saying that couldn’t be a result, but that’s not a result I’m interested in seeing,” he said.