It wasn’t even supposed to be one of the more controversial topics on this morning’s busy Palm Coast City Council agenda, at least not yet. You could tell, so could council members, just from seeing who was presenting the item: Brittany Kershaw, the city’s communications director, arguably the cheeriest and most apolitical government employee in the county.
The council’s priorities include ensuring a “resilient economy” and planning for a very long horizon, to 2045. The council agreed at a previous workshop to develop a survey of residents on apartment housing in the city, with the city’s long-term comprehensive plan in mind. (The comprehensive plan is the city’s long-range blueprint for development, not specific, day-to-day zoning and planning decisions.) The topic itself can be controversial, but one of the ideas behind the survey is to demystify the issue and give council members another tool to gauge their way through the issue.
Less than 30 minutes later, however, Council member Eddie Branquinho, seeing that he wasn’t getting his way, was declaring “I don’t belong here,” standing up from his seat, walking out–storming out is the usual cliche when someone makes a theatrical scene of exiting–and very possibly leaving his brief future on the council in doubt.
He had wanted his two specific questions on apartment and single-family home construction, and only his two questions, issued in one city-wide survey. His colleagues weren’t comfortable with that, for many reasons. So he threw up his hands.
“I don’t belong here. I’ll rethink my future as of today, because I don’t belong here.I don’t want to do this to the people of Palm Coast,” Branquinho said, gathering his papers and exiting stage right. “Being here and not caring for the people of Palm Coast–that’s exactly what you do, okay? Thank you very much. And let me think about my future, sir, and I’ll have an answer for you by the end of the next week.”
There are four months left on Branquinho’s term. If he leaves, with the election so close, the council has the option either to yet again to go through the exercise of advertising the seat to fill it by appointment for what would end up being a handful of meetings or, as is more likely, exercising the option the charter provides for: ” If said vacancy occurs within six (6) months of the next regularly scheduled election, the remaining Council members may delay the appointment.”
But a council with an even membership leaves it vulnerable to motions dying for lack of seconds or lack of a majority: any tie vote on a motion defeats the motion. Branquinho’s. bailing would leave the council short on the cusp of critical budget votes, though council dynamics have been such that divided votes have receded almost to insignificance.
After Council member Victor Barbosa’s resignation earlier this year, and his replacement by the more thoughtful and analytical John Fanelli, the two most disruptive voices on the council had been Ed Danko and Branquinho. But Danko’s tempers have also receded–he respects and defers to Mayor David Alfin’s leadership–and Branquinho would be gone: as unthinkable as that might have been a year ago, the council has the potential for returning to an all-business, no-drama zone, at least until for a Prague-Spring-like four months until the November election. That election’s results carries potential again for council head-spinning a-la-Regan.
Asked later by text if he was serious about potentially not returning, Branquinho said: “Need time to think about it.”
Kershaw began today’s item early in the meting with a straightforward summary of what the council had directed, including working up a survey this year. It would be conducted by Senior Planner Jose Papa (another shaman of apolitical calm in the city). There’d be neighborhood meetings paired with a “comprehensive” survey of “all residential dwelling units.” By comprehensive, Kershaw means one that would combine all issues related to growth, not just about apartments, to avoid “survey fatigue.”
Kershaw noted that Branquinho had already submitted two questions he wanted included: “Are you in favor of additional multi-family housing development in the City of Palm Coast,” with only a courtroom-like option of answering yes or no. And another question asking whether the respondent is in favor of allowing single-family homes to be built on lots 25, 50, 60 and 80 feet wide.
Both questions are, of course, highly tendentious: as a premise, they are being asked overwhelmingly of existing single-family home dwellers (apartment dwellers remain a tiny minority) living overwhelmingly in ITT-type quarter-acre lots. Judging from innumerable rezoning and other land-use hearings before the council and its planning board, those residents overwhelmingly oppose smaller lots and apartments, often to the point of naked prejudice and ill-informed fabrications about who lives in those dwellings (what County Development Director Adam Mengel referred to as “those people,” a prejudice he decried as offensive during a County Commission hearing Monday night).
So the fix would be in: the survey would likely return with overwhelming opposition to apartments and smaller lots, even though the market now demands both, while the single-family lot, driven by issues of space, environment, cost and access, is losing its once sacred spot in the pantheon of American housing. (In Palm Coast alone, the median price for a single family home has doubled from $200,000 to $400,000 just since 2018, according to the Flagler County Association of Realtors.)
On the other hand, it’s also up to the council to close the gates and make precisely the sort of policy decisions Branquinho favors–severely limit apartment construction and focus on quarter-acre, single-family home construction. But that’s not where the city’s comprehensive plan is, and it’s not where the majority of the council is, looking forward.
It’s also not where the law is. Nor would the survey give the council a tool to circumvent law. “What makes me nervous and what you cannot do is take the results of this survey and use it when you’re considering future quasi judicial matters that come before you,” City Attorney Neysa Borkert said. “You cannot say for example, if a multifamily project came before you say, Well, I’m not going to approve this because people don’t want it and that’s based on what the survey said. As you know, and as I’ve told the Council on other occasions, quasi judicial proceedings have to be determined by the evidence that’s presented to the council, on the record. It can’t be determined by outside factors, and this would be an outside factor.”
On the other hand, the survey answers could be used to guide future comprehensive plan projections, the attorneys aid.
Palm Coast government’s survey questions have not been written. That’s why those community meetings: “So through that process, we will create create one big survey to have public input so that we can get everyone’s take from the community,” Kershaw told the council, already laying out a more inclusive approach. for that reason, it was suggested that these questions be included. In that survey, instead of having a standalone survey with just these two questions. But again, that’s not your direction.”
I wouldn’t mind at all these two questions because in my mind, they’re the most important ones,” Branquinho said. “Anything else when it comes to housing, it’s just going to be loaded questions. It’s going to be to distract people.” He said all he was asking for was to listen to Palm coast residents, before he repeated his theme, this time giving in unabashedly to those people-type prejudice Mengel warned about: “if we keep on building this we’re going to have a new work over here. And I could say this because I came from there.” The statement was barely coded language (Newark is only 27 percent white). He then added a reference to New York’s Bronx to further the point and claim another misconception: that apartments bring crime in steeper proportions than in single-family housing.
At one point Branquinho appealed to Danko as a fellow-supporter of his thoughts on apartments and crime, but Danko disabused him: “I did live in apartments before I purchased a home many years ago, the Washington DC area, and I just want to say I’ve never had any crime where I lived,” Danko said. “I just wanted to make sure I thought you were inferring that I might have said there was a criminal thing or something where I lived. I had no problem.” Alfin said he started his career and raised his first child in an apartment.
Alfin was concerned about Branquinho’s yes-or-no question because it has no context: council members themselves don’t know how many apartment units there are in the city or what may be needed. And he was worried about setting a precedent that would then lead to similar surveys every time an important issue occurs. Still, he had no objection to Branquinho’s two questions, with a caveat: the questions should have context.
But Branquinho was adamant: he wanted his two questions in a survey–and only his two questions (“I will be vividly vividly in favor of a two question survey.” It would not be a scientific survey.
“I don’t see us getting much out of this,” Danko said, “other than pushing it into more of a conversation like we’re having now. But I think it’s a waste of time and money. If you want to put these questions in our annuals survey, that–I’m good with that. But stand alone, I really don’t see any point because it’s not going to give us an accurate response.”
Fanelli agreed: “If you put out a survey with two questions on it, you’re going to get the people that have a specific opinion on those two questions,” he said. “If you roll it into an annual survey or comprehensive survey, then you may get a more diverse group of people responding to it because they’re responding to a whole survey, not just to how they feel about those two questions.” Klufas, for his part, also would favor only survey questions placed in their proper context–not throwing out just two questions.
That returned the option to Kershaw to issue questions as part of a larger, comprehensive-plan survey, though even then Fanelli had concerns with the dogmatic wording of Branquinho’s question.
When Branquinho again asked his colleagues whether they were in favor of his stand-alone questions in a stand-alone survey and it was clear they were not, he walked out.