Nine months after granting approval for the concept, the Flagler County Commission on Monday gave its administration the go-ahead to start building three air-conditioned tourism cottages at the Princess Place Preserve, along Pellicer Creek, as the first step in a plan to build several more and foster a new kind of eco-tourism in one of the state’s most pristine areas. A 1988 voter referendum adding a surtax to buy environmentally sensitive land enabled the county to buy and preserve the 1,600-acre Princess Place preserve in perpetuity.
Some commissioners were concerned about the cottages’ footprint, location and effect on their surroundings. Some of those details were not available Monday. But County Administrator Craig Coffey, who is driving the project, said the cottages’ impact will be limited.
“I feel like a little bit like it’s the cart before the horse if we’re talking about an agreement and permitting, and I didn’t know if we had fully vetted all of the issues with the site,” Commissioner Barbara Revels said. “I was expecting to see more in this presentation about the site and where it was going to be located and what the implications are.”
“I don’t want to move forward with anything you guys aren’t comfortable with,” Coffey said. “Princess Place, I think our whole staff understands the sensitivity there and are cognizant of trying to do the right thing with regard to sceptic and wells.” He said it will be a “cool place to rent.”
“It seems like we’re moving right into an agreement and permitting and we still haven’t had details discussed,” Revels said, “so I would like to see some of the details come back before we’re actually digging dirt.”
Still, while Commissioner George Hanns also raised some concerns, Revels moved to have the key agreement to move forward with construction approved, and the commission voted in favor, 4-1, with Hanns dissenting.
The first phase of the project, entailing the first three cottages, is a joint venture between Flagler County government at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Reserve, a conservation sub-agency of the state Department of Environmental Protection that oversees the 73,000 acres of an estuarine area stretching from south of Jacksonville to Flagler County. The Reserve is providing $60,000 from the state DEP this year (though half that may not be produced until next year), and another $346,000 from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant, available after next Sept. 1.
“We have the grant in hand, that’s the lion share of the funds we’re talking about for this project,” Michael Shirley, manager of the reserve, said Monday.
Flagler County is committing $220,000 in land value, labor and equipment—$60,000 of it in cash, $100,000 of it as the land value, and the rest in the form of in-kind work, such as building the roads, in-house engineering, permitting. County crews will build part of the cottages. The rest of the construction will be contracted out.
Construction would start Oct. 1.
All parties involved acknowledge that the project breaks ground on a new kind of tourism and land use in public preserves. “With this project the parties are entering relatively new territory for the county and the” Reserve, the Memorandum of Understanding the county commission approved today states. “The parties have laid out these operational understandings in a good faith attempt to ensure the project meets the various interest of the parties to include research availability, public tourism usage, longevity and self-funding operations to name a few. It is understood that the operations protocol laid out today will likely evolve over time and that everyone will need to operate in good faith to ensure this quality working relationship and these cooperative attitudes carry forward even after the players of today change.”
The cottages would be rented at various rates depending on the calendar and the parties booking them: the cottages are intended to be used by priority by the scientific community, with the Reserve getting 140 days per cottage to rent out or use at its discretion. Public booking would be available beyond that.
The Reserve’s preferred rates would range between $50 and $60 per night for a cottage on weekdays and weekends, in off-peak times, to $60 to $70 on peak dates. The public would pay higher rates set by the county, which would defray the cost of running the cottages and, in the county’s estimation, yield a modest profit. The maintenance and upkeep of the cottages will be the county’s responsibility.
The county intends to build nine or 10 additional such cottages at the River-to-Sea Preserve subsequently, with that revenue accruing exclusively to the county. That $1 million project would be paid for out of the county’s purse, with some of that money, the administration hopes, coming from a grant from the Tourist Development Council, and dollars generated by the county’s 4 percent sales surtax on short-term rentals and hotel stays.
Monday’s workshop, which was immediately followed by a special meeting where the commission approved the memorandum of understanding, was focused just on that document, however.
“We know what’s in this document,” Hanns told the administrator, “and I’m certainly not going to carry it around with us. The more information the public knows, the less likely someone will turn it around into something that it’s not, and start all of a sudden making comments and statements that are not accurate.”
“This is not cookie-cutter tourism, cookie-cutter park stuff,” Coffey said. “This is a little bit cutting edge, and this is exciting stuff. This is kind of a cool thing you’ll be a leader in.”
That document is below.