It took a massacre of motions–four died before a fifth brought one back from the grave–and the most unexpected line-up of council members–Nick Klufas and Mayor Milissa Holland siding with Ed Danko. But at the end of a three and a half hour hearing and 14 months of regulatory wrangles, the Palm Coast City Council Tuesday evening approved the controversial Matanzas golf course development Tuesday evening, now called Lakeview Estates, at least on first reading: between the thin voting margin, the restrictive plan approved and the unpredictable wiles of the developer’s attorney, little is certain about what would normally have been a formality of a vote when the proposal is submitted for second reading before the council in two weeks.
The plan the council approves strikes at the heart of the proposal. Sticking with the recommendations of its planners and its planning board, the council rejected any development on the tract at the center of the development–so-called Tract 3–stretching on a fairway along Lakeview Boulevard to the east and neighboring Lee Drive to the west. City staffers said any development there would violate the “view protection zone” existing homeowners expect.
Residents bought homes in the L Section, surrounding the long-disused golf course, on the assumption that they were buying property in a golf course community–whether the golf course there is in use or not. The city’s land development code protects views of the golf course for homes that abut its fairways. The code does not define distances vectoring those views. The developer, Alex Ustilovsky, and his attorney, Michael Chiumento, not only interpret the code narrowly, but say there’s no golf course there anymore, so it shouldn’t even apply: “It applies to a golf course but there is no golf course and never will be,” Chiumento said–a position that carried almost no weight with residents or the council. The city attorney said the city has consistently interpreted the code as it refers to golf course communities, rather than to golf courses, an interpretation that puts more weight on a neighborhood’s founding history and intent than on the current condition of its greens.
The “view protection zone” has been the most contested variable of the past 14 months, a red line the city administration drew and hoped the planning board and the council would not cross. “We have been consistent that we’re not willing to negotiate our interpretation,” Jason DeLorenzo, the city’s development director, said at Tuesday’s special meeting. “But you can provide your own interpretation of what a vpz is, you can spell out as Mr. Reischmann stated from the beginning, you can spell out from A to Z what you would like to see.” Bill Reischmann is the council’s attorney.
That had been Chiumento’s hope.
“I believe the sticking point as they talked about is the definition of what is a reasonable VPZ,” Chiumento said, using the acronym for view protection zone. It was the end of the meeting. Motions had already floated and died for lack of a second. Chiumento stood at the podium, where speakers do, and where they’re not supposed to be while the council deliberates, since it bars anyone from interfering. But Chiumento is an old hand at tactical swagger, and as motion after motion died, he interjected, addressing Holland: “May I interject please? Madam?”
“What?” Holland shot back. Chiumento made his latest pitch.
“If city staff got clear direction from council as to how to define the notion that it’s not clear,” he continued, “that the parties could come back and identify ways to improve the entire development, giving them, giving the city and the community some of the proposed community projects that are not presently in staff’s proposal. And I think Mr. Morton and I have discussed, until we understand what is meant by this VPZ, staff and the developer have different ideas and are able to be creative and come back to you with a proposal that might satisfy you all, the community, the developer. Would that be fair Mr. Morton?”
Matt Morton, the city manager, didn’t take the bait: he wasn’t about to undermine his own staff or–unlike his predecessor, who didn’t hesitate to muddy policy phases of the council’s discussions–interfere with the voting. “There’s a motion and a second, I don’t think I’m supposed to be speaking,” Morton said immediately.
By then Council member Victor Barbosa had made two stillborn motions, one to adopt the city staff’s original recommendation, which differed in one mostly technical regard from that of the planning board, and one to table the whole thing. It looks like there’s a big impact on the way of life here,” he said. When Holland asked him what tabling it would do, he didn’t have a clear answer.
Then Danko made a motion to adopt the planning board;’s recommendation. The application had twice gone before the planning board, in October and November, both meetings drawing a large audience. The board punted in October, asking Chiumento and city staff to go back to the negotiating table. Nothing changed when the application returned in November. The board approved it along city staff’s lines, except for Tract 9, on the portion of the development that parallels U.S. 1. Tract 9. City staff’s recommendation was that the 8.3 developable acres be all placed on the northern end of the tract, behind the lots the developer owns on London Drive, above where the fairway ends. The planning board decided developable acres can spread throughout the 20-some acreage of the tract, thus impacting the views of some existing homeowners.
Danko’s motion also died. Then Klufas made a motion–to approve Ustilovsky’s application as submitted, giving him all he was asking for. Klufas was attracted by a fresh proposal the developer made subsequent to the planning board meeting in November. He offered to set aside 4 acres on disputed Tract 3, for a community park, “impounding” impact fees generated from that tract–the one-time fees developers pay to defray the cost of new parks, roads, schools and utilities–so it can be used to pay for constructing the park. But Klufas’s motion also did not draw a second.
Holland said the council was out of option but one: to deny the application. That drew a warning from Reischmann, the city attorney. “If there is going to be a motion to deny, you expect me to defend that if there’s a court challenge,” Reischmann said, “I’m going to need for the motion to specify why there is a denial. On what legal grounds, what was established to deny this, what part of the code, Land Development Code or the Comprehensive Plan were not satisfied in order to support a motion to deny, because that is required by the Florida statutes.”
Even residents who oppose the development had conceded for the most part that they could not stop the developer from building on the golf course. He bought it. He had development rights. The only questions were about the scope of the development. Reischmann’s warning had its desired effect. The council had not formulated any kind of rationale to deny the application outright. So Holland asked if a Lazarus could be found in the graveyard. Danko obliged. He made a motion again to accept the planning board’s recommendation. Holland passed the gavel to Council member Eddie Branquinho so she could second the motion. Klufas joined the majority, with Branquinho and Barbosa in dissent.
There was no applause from an audience of about 45, just exhaustion, likely some confusion about what exactly was approved, and the sort of malaise that left no one particularly satisfied, in politics the usual indication of pragmatic compromise.
About a dozen and a half members of the public had addressed the council, some of them by phone, moist of them opposed to the development for one reason or another. ““I’m sorry, but your homes there are very, very unattractive,” one resident told the developer, “they do not coincide with the homes that are on Lake Success right now, and I really fear that my home will drop in value, considerably.” Residents fear that the development’s smaller lot size–the range is 7,000 to 12,000 square feet–will result on small homes that will badly affect property values, a contention no one supported with evidence. New housing is trending toward smaller homes as the population ages.
“The applicant counsel has talked a lot about facing reality,” one resident said. “The reality is that from a resident’s perspective, we all paid, bought houses on there to have a golf course view, whether the golf course is in function or not matters not. We all paid, we’re not getting anything out of this whole deal, we’re just trying to mitigate our losses.”
Others spoke in more general terms. “We will not allow you to infringe our rights, we will not allow you to take our building equity,” one resident saids, threatening litigation. A few said more development wasn’t needed, or worried about the impact on wildlife, essentially saying their impact on the neighborhood was OK but newcomers’ was not. There were also a few supportive voices, though two people who spoke by phone, identifying themselves by first names only, sounded as if they were reading a script written for them.
A small irony: one of the more eloquent but measured opponents of the development in the past had been Brad West, a resident near the golf course. He was, in fact, more frequently at the podium than. anyone else Tuesday evening. But only to wipe down the podium with sanitizer between speakers. West is now the city’s chief spokesman, and on this issue, remained mum but for his spritzing.
Fortunately for the council, there was no other item on the special meeting agenda as the mayor implored anyone to make a motion to adjourn. That one lived.