Relying on state regulations that require the land to be cleaned up of arsenic and any other contaminants before development can go forward, the Palm Coast Planning Board this evening voted unanimously–6-0–to approve the latest step, with more to go, in a large-scale residential home development in the L-Section that will over the next few years replace much of what used to be the Matanzas Woods Golf Course over time.
The Planning Board conditioned the motion on designating viewsheds as natural buffers and ensuring that all contaminants on the property are treated and eliminated in accordance with state environmental standards before any construction proceeds. It didn’t please a large crowd that had attended the more-than-two-hour hearing, with about a dozen people speaking one objection or another to the plan. But environmental matters were not up for debate, at least not from the board’s perspective. The board was tasked strictly with approving or denying a narrow step in the development process, within which environmental concerns were incidental, not determinative.
Still, as such hearings generally go, neither the board nor the government administration determine how the discussion goes and what residents’ concerns are. And those concerns end up prevailing over any regulatory minutiae. With certain developments, a confrontational unease frames every public discussion, as it did this evening and as this sprawl of fallow land has been doing for years.
First it was the Matanzas Woods Golf Course. Then it was an abandoned golf course, an eyesore, a legal liability and a bane for Palm Coast government–until developer Alexander Ustilovsky bought the 278-acres’ circuitous clasp of nine tracts around the L Section, renamed it Lakeview Estates, and pitched a 300-home development. It was too much for city regulators, who negotiated a scaled back project before it went before the city’s planning board and council for rezoning. Both panels cleared the project, the last key vote in January.
The big issue then was “view-protection zones.” Existing residents surrounding the old golf course did not want to lose their views on unbuilt, green zones. Regulatory conditions ensured that 50-foot views would be largely protected. There were also concerns among residents about the arsenic in the course, which would resurface during construction. (The only thing green about golf courses are their color. The rest is strata of poisonous insecticides.) The developer originally insisted arsenic, while detectable in traces, was not at hazardous levels. That was not quite the case, once more serious soil samples unearthed the course’s toxic past.
“We’re back,” Michael Chiumento, Lakeview Estates’ attorney, told the planning board this evening. More specifically, it’s a 98-acre portion of Lakeview Estates known as Tract 1 that was the focus of this latest step, again before a relatively large crowd, again mostly–and predisposed to be–opposed to whatever would be presented. In fairness, the crowd was not there to be surprised but to respond to a detailed and publicly available administrative report outlining the steps ahead–and the environmental problems. So environmental concerns were a big issue, not least spurred by the city’s own findings.
“We’re going to make sure that it’s cleaned up via DEP,” Ray Tyner, the city’s deputy development director, told the planning board this evening, “before any construction happens in that area.”
It was not the most ringing endorsement for the property, and it seemed like vindication of the crowd’s worries. But the developer’s representatives argued both that it was not quite yet the time to debate the soil issues rather than whether the proposal is consistent with the city’s comprehensive plan. And they argued that cleaning up former golf courses for eventual construction is nothing new. (Golf courses have been going out of business for years, many replaced by developments, where environmental regulations have mandated clean-ups.)
Lakeview Estates’ development plan is broken down in phases. This first one is one of them, specific to Tract 1. (Tract 1 is bounded by London Drive on the southwest, Lakeview Boulevard and Laramie Drive to the south and Lake Success Drive to the east. It’s in the thick of a significantly developed portion of Palm Coast.) It’s a proposed 200 single-family home subdivision “master plan,” which provides bird’s eye view of the development without an actual design. Construction may not start until the developer clears yet another step–preliminary platting, which is an administrative step, then a third step–final platting–which must get city council approval. Since there is no construction immediately ahead, Chiumento tried not to let the environmental issues become a focal point, if with some assurance that remediation would follow.
People in the audience were nowhere near convinced. Mary Lucky of London Drive prefaced her comment with near despair. “I really don’t believe that we really have any bearing on what you’re going to do,” she said, before charging the developer with having “no plan, none,” to mitigate the environmental problems. “And we’re supposed to believe that their experience and all of the things that they say are true. No plan. And they’re asking you today to approve it. This is not the way things run. So you know, I just have no faith. Prove me wrong.”
“We will not allow development until it’s cleaned up,” Tyner said later in the hearing, Lucky’s words possibly still ringing in his ear.
“We developed the plan with them and the DEP on how we were going to progress through this remediation and restoring the land back to a healthy condition,” Chiumento said, the them in the equation being city regulators. “So tonight, we can talk about the layout and the plan that’ll be handled by myself and or our engineer who did some of the layout. But I know what’s important to the community that we’ve heard loud and clear, is the environmental issues.” Chiumento is representing the developer on land use issues. Michael Sznapstajler of Daytona Beach’s Cobb Cole law firm and Kirk Blevins of SCS Engineering are representing the developer on contaminant issues.
“There are some issues at the site,” Sznapstajler said. “But it’s one that based on the data I think is relatively minor.” It was an unfortunate choice of word that the attorney later corrected. He said the golf course opened in the 1980s, after certain pesticides were banned, so it wouldn’t leave as bad an environmental footprint as a golf course that opened in the 1950s. “We know based on the data we’ve seen so far that our issues are limited to arsenic. Two environmental investigations netted 27 samples, out of 200, that were “above the residential cleanup target level.” Testing took place 2 feet deep, in two intervals (to determine if the top interval leaked to the bottom one). Arsenic is the primary issue. But the groundwater has not been tested for contamination yet, raising another concern among planning board members and residents. Blevins was not more precise. His assessment came down to this: a plan to delineate a plan.
“When we say the issues are minor that’s not to say that this is something that we’re just going to brush to the side and forget about, it’s that we feel confident that this is something that we can achieve and remediate,” Sznapstajler said.
There are two approaches: digging up the soil and either taking it off site for treatment, or “managing” it on site and re-testing until contamination levels are rendered safe. Contaminants would be moved to a landfill. Less contaminated soil would be “blended” with soil to lower contaminant levels to acceptable levels. “The purpose of the sampling that was done to date was not to fully identify the extent of the issue. It was to determine whether we had a problem or not. And so it did determine that we have a problem and we have a plan to to move forward with it. So it’s not like we’re stopping at this point.”
Surprisingly, and in another gift of anxiety to the project’s opponents, the groundwater hasn’t been tested yet. Sandra Shank, who was chairing the planning board meeting, wanted to know when that would be done. “It’s required,” Chiumento said. So it will happen. But the timeline is uncertain.
Michael Martin, a Lake Success resident–and a member of the East Flagler Mosquito Board, and a former member of the city-appointed redistricting commission, which just completed its work–objected to a change in the current plan that wasn’t in the plan presented to the board and council in January: the re-emergence of a pond at the southern end of an existing pond. That word was broken, the resident said “as a matter of trust and a matter of honor.” Another resident, however, loved the lake and said he’d buy Martin kayak.
The majority of comments, however, focused on environmental issues. One resident objected to the shallowness of environmental testing done so far. Others spoke in variations on the theme, some addressing soil, some the waterways, some the buffers. “How is that going to be scraped out of the ground or taken care of to where it’s not polluting not just my neighborhood but anybody else?” a resident asked, wondering if future deeds required to denote that homes were built on contaminated land would lower surrounding property values. One resident said she and her husband moved when Lakeview Estates emerged, because “we’re too old to fight.” Still, she had a question about drainage of water that will “probably” be contaminated.
“It’s really important to note that we have no public supply wells within the golf course area,” Tyner said after the public comment period–not as reassuring a statement as he might have intended: there was no doubt that what he said was true, but the statement also reveled enough to say that the groundwater in the Lakeview Estates area may be an issue.
There was a voice among the public that, in that crowd, sounded like dissent: the voice was in support of the development. It was that of Don Tobin, the publisher of GoToby.com, the real estate site, and a business partner of David Alfin’s, the Realtor and mayor of Palm Coast. Tobin frequently appears at these hearings, a roving antithesis to the NIMBY crowd. “The L-Section properties have appreciated in the last 12 months almost as much as the median household income in Flagler County,” he said, “in spite of all of the talk about ‘woe is me,’ so I can’t say I feel sorry for the people that are worried about the property values going down. I don’t think that this is going to have any effect on the property values whatsoever.”
An optimist who saw good times ahead even during the Great Recession, Tobin was overstating the case, if not by much: the market value of one of the speakers, a London Drive resident, increased by $40,000 over the last three years, not over the last 12 months, still a bit lower than the median household income in Flagler, which stands at $54,000, according to the Census Bureau.
In this case, it was the lone dissenting voice in the crowd that carried the day with the Planning Board. But there are still more steps ahead for Tract 1, and still many, many more tracts in the regulatory torment known as Lakeview Estates.