The proposed 268-home development for the long-abandoned Matanzas Woods golf course in Palm Coast’s L Section is yet again mired in a sand bank: The Palm Coast Planning Board Wednesday evening capped a three-and-a-half hour hearing with a unanimous vote to send back the project to the negotiating table between city planners and the developer.
But that’s where it had been for months, stalemated. The Planning Board was supposed to break the stalemate.
Developers and city planners have fundamental disagreements over Lakeview Estates, as the proposal is called, about where to put houses, whether to build retention ponds, and whether the lines of sight of existing residents would be impeded by the new development. None of those issues were resolved yesterday.
The development itself is nowhere near doomed: city planners are ready to approve it. They even recommended as much to the planning board, with conditions. Much of the fury that had confronted the development late last year has abated, replaced by more tempered if still persistent opposition. The planning board was supposed to be the arbiter–either recommend the plan with the planners’ conditions, approve it without the conditions, or deny it. It made none of those decisions.
The board sent the matter back to city staff without even setting a certain date when it should reappear before the board–a move that had all the makings of ducking a politically delicate matter five weeks before an election in which three seats could turn over on the City Council. Had the board made any recommendation, the proposal would have then had to be scheduled for a hearing before the council in the next few weeks, even closer to the election. The council’s defensiveness over the proposal was apparent when it discussed it briefly last August. It will now almost certainly not do so before Nov. 3. (Planning board members depend on council majorities for their nominations, though they serve set terms.)
The remand to city staff was nevertheless surprising considering how close the matter appeared to a recommendation. “I want to compliment both the staff, because I think they’ve done a superior job of analysis and making recommendations for consideration,” Suzanne Nicholson, an alternate member of the Planning Board (she did not have a vote Wednesday) said, just before the vote. “I also think the applicant has done a great job responding to the residents and neighbors’ requests for consideration. It really seems like there is a blend of the applicants’ recommendations as well as the staff recommendations that would probably yield the best solution for this consideration.”
Nicholson was almost immediately followed by James Abano’s motion: “To table this discussion and let the developer or the applicant and the staff go back for another round to try to close the gap between the disparity of Tracts 1 and 3, I think that’s what the bulk of this is down to, and I think there could be some common ground.” The vote was 7-0 in favor of that motion.
The acreage consists of nine tracts that circle or snake around existing development and around the golf course and its fairways. Some of the tracts are larger than others (Tract 1 and 2, for example, are very large, the remaining tracts are in strip form). Development on the largest space, Tract 1, is particularly contested between the city and the developer. The wooded buffers the developer is proposing for Tract 1 is 50 feet–smaller than what the city is asking for. The developer is also proposing to build large ponds in the tract, which the city opposes.
Tract 2, the second-largest tract, is not in contention for the most part. But Tract 3 is black and white: the developer is looking to develop the whole tract, with 100-foot buffers, the city is opposing all development, because it would block views of existing homes. “We’re committed and we’ve done our engineering, and we’re ready to move forward to preserve probably 98 percent of people’s views on this area,” Michael Chiumento, the developer’s attorney, said. (Just last week Chiumento was at the receiving end of the County Commission tabling another major development he represents.) He showed a 60-second drone video to make his points: most existing homes’ views are already “obstructed” by thick lines of woods behind them. In effect, he said, just a few houses don’t have a line of woods behind them. The 100-foot buffer would preserve that line of woods. But 12,000-square-foot lots and homes would replace the fairways. Some of those homes would have shared driveways.
Chiumento went through the other tracts one by one, showing proposed a stormwater pond on Tracts 4 and 6, for example, which the city opposes. “It was just to keep it natural, as is,” Ray Tyner, the city’s deputy development chief, said. There are no differences between the city and the developer on Tracts 5, 7 and 8. Tracts 9 and 10 are more problematic, reflecting some of the conflicts of Tract 3.
In early December, developer Alex Ustilovsky and Chiumento held a neighborhood meeting at Matanzas High School to present the development plan and hear the community’s concern. At the time they were proposing 300 homes. It was as if the entire community around the golf course had shown up, overwhelmingly opposed. Residents charged that the development of clustered houses on smaller lots would depress existing homes’ property values (the current housing trend is toward smaller houses). Neighbors also had concerns about losing their green views of the golf course, about planned commercial development and potential apartments.
The tenor of Wednesday’s meeting was radically different from the raucous meeting in December. An occasional speaker raised his or her voice, but that was the exception. The hearing was attended by 70-some people, not including city staff or board members, seated in socially-distant, paired clusters in the largest room at the Palm Coast Community Center. None of the three other overflow rooms readied with seating and video links proved necessary.
When the city got Ustilovsky’s initial plan in January–the first in a half dozen such plans– Development Director Jason DeLorenzo and Tyner echoed some of the residents’ concerns. The city’s analysis concluded that the development had to be scaled back significantly to avoid blocking existing residents’ views. It also called for 10,000-square-foot houses in places where Ustilovsky wanted to go smaller, and houses no smaller than 1,000 square feet. The city was opposed to swaths of planned development along the golf course. (See: “City Planners Urge Significantly Scaling Back 300-Home Matanzas Golf Course Development to Preserve Views.”)
The latest plan addresses some of those concerns. Ustilovsky “is already doing another development in Palm Coast where his lot house packages are starting in the low 300s,” Chiumento said, pointing to the developer’s interest in higher-value housing. He was referring to the P-Section’s American Village, a gated community. On one of the Lakeview Estates tracts around the golf course, the initial plan had smaller, 50-foot lots. Ustilovsky is now proposing that whatever houses are built on the golf course sticks to the same zoning district as adjacent lots: 12,000 and 8,000 square-foot lots, “which are complementary and the same, if not larger, than the adjacent lots, so we hope that addresses the issue of value,” Chiumento said.
Residents are also worried about maintenance of the golf course after the development. Chiumento said that while rights-of-way will be maintained, the developer is not required to mow the course itself, which will “go back to nature.” But other areas of the development will be maintained by the development’s homeowner association.
City planners can’t make policy and don’t decide whether a developer may or may not build. They have to abide by city codes and land-use regulations. All they can do beyond their analysis is make recommendations to the planning board and the city council. The developer still has his rights.
But those rights must comply with existing codes. And one section of the Land Development Code is directly relevant to Ustilovsky’s plan: “Existing golf courses communities located within the former Golf Course Community (GCC) District seeking to add residential units must comply with the standards established for the Master Planned Development District.” The code goes on: “Existing direct golf course views from the rear yards of all existing, platted lots located within any residentially zoned districts directly abutting the site shall be maintained.”
What the code doesn’t specify is what those “views” consist of: how far out? What’s a “direct” golf course view? What if backyards are rimmed with trees or brush that block the view on the golf course already? Those questions have no answers in the code, leaving it to planning board and city council members to answer.
Chiumento conceded that key terms are undefined. “What is reasonable is in the eyes of the beholder, obviously,” he said. “We’ve talked to people that live on the golf course. Some people want lakes, some people don’t. Some people want it to remain exactly the way it is, which it won’t, because it’s going back to natural. Some people want forest. So the couple of dozen homes that are on the golf course that would be impacted by our proposed development clusters, they all have a little bit different idea of what’s acceptable in this viewshed protection area that we’re talking about. Should it be 20 feet, should it be 50 feet, should it be 3 miles. I don’t know how to address that, and I think that’s ultimately the decision of the city council, but obviously something that you would address here tonight and talk about and make a recommendation in come capacity to the council.”
But he said whatever the distance and nature of the viewshed, “it’s not inconsistent with the comprehensive plan or with the Land Development Code.” He said it’s a “balancing test.”
A Planning Board member attempted to have those line-of-sight definitions clarified, but the board’s attorney said it wasn’t in the board’s purview–not within the context of considering the Lakeview Estates application.
Almost two dozen people addressed the board in the public comment segment. One resident disputed Chiumento’s claim that but for some fairways, where arsenic was found, contamination on the golf course was found not to be an issue. Another resident contested the quality of the developer’s testing for arsenic, saying it didn’t show what his own testing had showed. Peter Kennedy, who described himself as a “strong proponent” of property rights who’d previously served on a planning board and two terms as a city council member (elsewhere), spoke of property values and viewsheds. “When the city was showing their plans where they were restricting certain areas for houses, that if the developer wants to still maintain his 268 houses, he’s going to be forced to shrink the size of those lots, and I don’t see that as a positive for people’s property values,” he said. “On viewsheds, 50 feet is not enough.”
Other speakers offered their objections to the developer’s plan with questions specific to certain tracts neighboring their properties, or questions about the future: would this proposed development close the door on future development, beyond the 268 homes? (In effect, it does.) But concerns about lot sizes kept recurring.
Some spoke supportively of the developer, among them Toby Tobin, a Realtor and the publisher of GoToby.com, the real estate-focused news site. “The response from opponents has been well organized and forceful. However, their dialogue has failed to invite discussion about three neighborhood issues that could be mitigated because of this proposed development,” he said, listing the lack of public park in the area, drainage issues, and possible access to U.S. 1 from London Drive, all of which he said could be negotiated into an agreement with the developer.
“Opponents appear to be focused on making development impossible rather than seizing the opportunity to negotiate on behalf of these important issues,” he said.
Still, while there was clearly outright opposition from residents, many of those who spoke at the hearing had specific questions, down to requesting that the developer is financially sound, and they often spoke of a more transparent process with the city. There was little of the intensity heard at the December meeting or in opposition to, say, The Gardens or other controversial developments in the county.
Perry Mitrano, a resident on the golf course drew on his experience as a director in municipal government to urge the board: “If you change this golf course from what it was, you’ve now opened the door for every golf course in this community to be completely annihilated and wiped out by an investor who has plenty of capital to do so,” Mitrano said. He claimed there was an ITT document that required the golf course to remain as such “in perpetuity.” But he didn’t have the document. He asked city officials to find it. (Chiumento said a title company researched all covenants on the land. There was none of the type Mitrano described. “If it were a covenant that would be between the homeowner and at that point probably ITT, not us or the city,” Chiumento said. The city attorney concurred.)
ITT opened the golf course in 1985. The city incorporated in 1999, when the property was zoned for urban single family residential housing, allowing for three houses per acre at the time. The city in its comprehensive plan reduced that to one house per acre in 2004. The city had a golf course community zoning district as well–the zoning in effect in that neighborhood. The golf course closed in 2007 as the housing bubble burst and golf as a sport crashed along with the real estate sector. The course has been a bane to the neighborhood since, for different reasons: its former owners didn’t maintain it. It became an eyesore. Then Ustilovsky, a well-established developer in Palm Coast, bought it and proposed his plan.
The property is already zoned Master Planned Development, so the zoning is in place. Ustilovsky’s position is that he has rights to build there, as he wishes. But there is no development agreement in place. That’s what Wednesday evening’s hearing before the board was about–to secure the board’s recommendation for that development agreement, which carries almost the same consequential weight as a rezoning.
The Planning Board will have to do it all over again later this year, assuming city planners and Ustilovsky agree to do what planning board members refused to do for them.
The full hearing:
The attorney stated there is a high level of arsenic on the driving range that will need to be remediated
Never take the city for its word or trust a politician. Both have an issue with telling the truth.
Dennis C Rathsam says
The Matanzas golf course, was the best in town, until the the economy went bust. I feel the people who bought homes around the course are intitled to what they purchased. No builder should be allowed to bully the city,to create houses on this land. If the city allows this to happen, it would be the worse move they ever made. Houses are poping up like mushrooms after the rain, once U take away land like this, its gone forever…forever! To hell with builders,who’s greed, is put before the cities people. The people who live in this once quiet part of town, now have Mega dump trucks,& huge delivery trucks everywhere. The streets are breaking apart, because of the weight of the trucks! We moved to Matanzas to get away from the sprawl, it was quite, peacefull,& a great place to live. Now are part of paradise is being destroyed by this current administation. Vote these clowns out in Nov
Mr. (serval property owning) Rathsam, you yourself have not lived in this section very long, why do you get to decide what was “a once quiet part of town” and what’s not? I highly doubt those two extra lots you own were purchased so endangered wildlife and exotic plants would have a place to thrive.
If no one is golfing on it and it’s not being used for any type of golfing activities, how can it still be called a golf course? The Mondecks has some “quiet parts of town for you, since your serenity so threatened.
Never believe the city of Palm Coast or a politician. They both have issues with the truth.
Palm Coast has been over building for too many years! Now is the time to reopen the golf course since it was planned to be a golf course!E
Looking forward that our Mayor and Council will buy out MGC and preserve it as green acres with walking and biking trails and nature and wildlife refuge for the sake of the community and all the affected homeowners around it were a park is needed. Anyone buying a Golf Course in Florida makes a better bad financial mistake now so as such that land if not financially possible as golf course should be bought out or eminent domain and turn into green acres preserve. Flagler Beach bought their golf course to protect the quality of life of their residents why not Palm Coast then?
In the end it is all about money. The homeowners will be the ones at the short end of the stick. That’s so unfair.