Local governments’ legislative priorities–the wish lists they submit every year to state lawmakers in hopes of drawing down as much money as possible to pay for them–are often not the sort of things residents get excited about: sewer plants, drainage systems, road and bridge building.
This year’s unusually long wish list from Palm Coast has plenty of that. But it also has two new wishes certain to resonate with residents, even if they are long shots: permanently protecting from development the hardwood tree canopy at the east end of Palm Coast Parkway, and acquiring acreage between Old Kings road I-95 where a long, historic dune and one-time Native American burial ground stretches and rises to 45 feet. That acquisition would be intended to protect Bulow Creek from further pollution.
The two proposals are part of a wish list of 10 items Palm Coast would submit to the county, which in turn would submit a unified and single list of priorities reflecting all the county’s and cities’ wishes to the legislative delegation–Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Paul Renner–ahead of next March’s legislative session.
For the first time in the county’s history, Flagler will have its own representative as Speaker of the House, paired with Hutson’s seniority. That means Flagler for the next two years is positioned to potentially reap barrels of pork. Local officials are openly and nakedly salivating at the prospect. Today’s discussion of Palm Coast’s priorities, in the context of a council workshop, was no exception.
“During this window of the next two years, we will have a louder voice than we have enjoyed in many years,” Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin said, referring to Rep. Paul Renner, who is the Speaker of the house. It was a naked call for tapping into Flagler-Palm Coast’s share of state pork as it has rarely been able to do before, and may not get a chance to do again for decades. “So I would invite each city council member to bring forward any additional priorities that could be considered by the legislature because this is money that that we have an opportunity to see that’s not coming out of taxpayers’ pockets.” He did not mince words: “I implore you with a great sense of urgency that we make our list as long as we can, of truly important items, and take advantage of it.”
The list Chief of Staff Jason DeLorenzo presented, summarizing each of the 10 items in turn, did just that. In previous years, the city would typically submit just three priorities. And in previous years, the price tag was in the $6 to $10 million range. Not this year. “We’re easily within, to give you a broad window, a $25 to $50 million ask, all things considered,” Alfin said. “I just want to highlight that because this would be money pouring out of Tallahassee in our direction. So it’s a big deal.”
The council had never discussed preserving the “Tree Tunnel,” as the canopy is known, that signature Palm Coast area east Florida Park Drive, on the eastbound lanes of Palm coast Parkway, which also serves as the headwaters of Graham Swamp. Some of the stately trees there are 70 inches in diameter. They’re home to wildlife and floodwater storage.
“I don’t remember this coming up in discussions at city council before,” DeLorenzo said. “If you travel on Palm Coast Parkway eastbound from Florida Park, you find something quite unique: a hardwood hammock, and it’s a beautiful hammock. The northern side of Palm Coast Parkway through that area has mostly already been protected. It was acquired through land trust from the state, and we don’t have to worry about development on that side. On the south side of Palm Coast Parkway, it’s still in private ownership and has the potential to be developed. This ask would be to have the piece of property included in the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands priority list, which would then make it eligible for Forever Florida funding, if that became available.”
Flagler County voters have over the decades approved having a part of their property tax fund the county’s Environmental Sensitive Lands program. It’s a modest contribution: 12.5 cents per $1,000 in taxable value, or about $19 a year for a $200,000 house with a homestead exemption. The Environmentally Sensitive Land fund, known as ESL, is expected to collect $1.5 million this year, and exceed $7 million in its reserves, finally returning to a level it hasn’t seen in over a decade, since the county raided it substantially to pay for dubious acquisitions last decade. (See: “County’s $3.5 Million Gamble on Pellicer Flats Raids Credibility of Land Program,” and “In Knotty Deal, County Agrees to 980-Acre Buy from Ginn Co. for at Least $3.25 Million and “Burned Just 4 Months Ago, County Cooks Yet Another Risky Deal With Ginn on Public Dime.”)
Pairing ESL dollars with state environmental trust dollars would enable the city and the county to buy additional lands for preservation. But there is no dollar figure yet attached to the cost of acquiring all the required parcels.
The city owns many of the parcels along the Parkway’s south side. The Florida Inland Navigation District owns a large parcel. Canopy Walk Condominiums owns another. Jehovah’s Witnesses own the nearly $10 million property at 4500 Palm Coast Parkway. Daytona State College (or the state) owns a large parcel. The city owns all three properties from Club House Drive to Colbert Lane, along the north side of the eastbound lanes of the parkway.
“It’s something that I’ve watched develop over the past 35 plus years here in Palm Coast and it’s absolutely beautiful,” City Council member John Fanelli said, referring to the trees, not to construction. “And I think we need to do what we can to preserve that.”
The city is also interested in acquiring the Bulow Creek Relic Dune and Burial Mound, also known as the King’s Road Mound, according to local historian Bill Ryan. The dune stretches north to south east of Old Kings Road, parallel, in part, to the county landfill, south of State Road 100. Satellite photos clearly show the mound, which is all encompassed in land belonging to Bulow Creek LLC (the landowners are in Orlando). The 345 acres are valued at $3.7 million, according to the property appraiser, but actual purchase value would typically be higher.
The dune rises about 42 feet high (what ranks as a mountain in pancake-flat Palm Coast), and is bordered to the east by Bulow Creek. It’s a unique topographical feature in the city, protecting Bulow Creek from road pollution. At the end of the ridge, there used to be a Native American burial mound, but it was polluted, or unwittingly desecrated, years ago. James J. Miller, an archeologist who studied the area, wrote in a July 1978 Palm Coast Cultural Resource Assessment that the mound, three miles north of Bulow, “was a sand burial mound in which the only visible remnants of burials were human teeth and fragments of jaws.
“The dune itself is very interesting,” DeLorenzo said. “I have walked it. It’s very surprising. It’s white sand and has cactus on it. You do not expect this type of this type of environment in the middle of Flagler County.” The city is also looking for the site’s inclusion in the county’s ESL program, and potential funding to protect the dune and in turn protect Bulow Creek. The entire dune is within city boundaries.
Other projects on the city’s wish list are more pedestrian, if no less essential to the city’s development and protections from flooding.
One such goal is to secure the $11 to $14 million necessary to build the bridge crossing from U.S. 1, at the roundabout with Matanzas Woods, west, across the railroad tracks. Road crossings at railroad tracks are no longer allowed to be at-grade. They must either bridge above or tunnel under. The crossing is part of the council’s goals. The council has already reviewed and paid for the design and land acquisition for the project.
Phase One would provide an entrance to the city’s new public works facility. Other phases would open up that west side for development, both commercial and residential. Two huge developments of regional impact, approved a decade ago, stretch in that area–Neoga Lakes and Old Brick Township, though not one home has yet broken ground there. The crossing would make a difference. Phase one for the road crossing will break ground in the first quarter of 2023. If funding is secured, the whole project is to be done in two years.
The city is also looking again for dollars to pay for the widening of Old Kings Road north of Palm Coast Parkway. Phase one was completed earlier this year. That was the reengineering and widening of the Old Kings Road intersection with the parkway. The four-laning of Old Kings Road has yet to make it into a Department of Transportation five-year plan. “This project was initially requested 15 years ago, and although Phase One was funded and constructed, the city had to move projects around to be able to actually cobble together the dollars from DOT to get that construction done,” DeLorenzo said. “Phases Two and Three haven’t moved forward in several years now.”
The city is also looking for money to replace Fire Station 22, at 45 years of age, the city’s oldest structure, on Palm Coast Parkway, and to build drainage systems that would help drain the Woodlands and areas of Colbert Lane, a crucial evacuation zone. for Grand Haven. T the project would improve safety. There are no construction dollars available. The city ranks this sort of project under its “resiliency” category–the current euphemism, used statewide, for projects and spending intended to counter the effects of global warming and rising seas.
In other projects, the city is also looking for money to pay for a “regional rapid infiltration basin,” a way to use soil and large parcels of land to treat wastewater. The filtered water may then either be collected for re-use or channeled to the aquifer, as would be the case in Palm Coast. And the city is also always looking to improve its pep-tank management system–those in-place sewer tanks that serve as homes’ septic tanks before effluents are pumped to neighborhood stations then flowed into the city’s treatment facilities. There are 16,000 such pep tanks around the city, and will eventually number 20,000. “There’s a need to be able to understand and manage these sites” through software, DeLorenzo said. “It will be fairly expensive.”
The county is coordinating all local governments’ legislative priorities this year. It is expecting their lists by Sept. 30. Palm Coast council members did not remove a single item from the proposed list, details of which appear below.