After 12 of the 27 people who addressed the Palm Coast City Council in the first hour of Tuesday evening’s half-marathon meeting complained of flooding issues–theirs or those of people they knew–City Council member Theresa Pontieri made an unexpected motion: to halt construction on so-called in-fill lots (the traditional quarter-acre lots that ITT platted in the original Palm Coast boundaries) for 60 to 90 days, or until until the city’s revised construction regulations are enacted.
The proposal drew immediate applause for the capacity crowd, guarded support, with cautions, from most of Pontieri’s colleagues on the council, and a procedural cold shower from the city attorney, who reminded everyone that there is such a thing as process, especially on a proposal as considerable as a building moratorium, whatever its form.
“Let staff do the legwork,” Anthony Garganese, the attorney sitting through his first council meeting, said. (The firm that bears his name has been providing legal services to the city for 19 years, but it’s ending that role soon.) “Because really what in essence the motion is, is a moratorium regarding the development of infill lots, and that in my opinion would require a more formal action of the council by ordinance, and having advanced proper notice and having public input before the council would take an action such as that.”
After Pontieri conceded the point and seven more people spoke in favor of the moratorium, the council approved delaying the discussion to the Jan. 16 meeting, when that proposed ordinance is expected to be discussed and possibly adopted in one form or another: Pontieri is advocating it, but Council member Ed Danko, who was the early champion of turning the flooding issue into a top priority, would now have a difficult time voting against it, and Council member Cathy Heighter has so sympathized with the flooded residents that on Tuesday she told them she thought of sitting with them rather than on the dais.
Mayor David Alfin and Council member Nick Klufas were more cautious. And if Pontieri was sounding an alarm for urgency on flooding, her proposal raised different alarms for builders.
“My job now is to educate the council and make sure everyone understands,” Annamaria Long, the executive officer at the Flagler Home Builders Association, said today. “There are residents who are having very real issues in their yards and they’re coming to the council, they’re having real experiences, and that’s got to pull on your heartstrings, they’re you’re constituents, and I empathize with that. However I would urge Council not to legislate for the few but to focus on those few and solve their problems, while legislating for the many.”
A moratorium, Long said, would not solve the problem so much as “put local businesses out, it will end jobs, not only for our public employees but for our city employees. It’ll result in layoffs and furloughs.” Instead, the city should focus on fixing problems at the affected properties and, moving forward, applying the longer-range fix through the revisions of the city’s regulatory, technical manual for builders.
That process is almost complete, and if the possibility or reality of a moratorium spurs the city to speed it up, then so much the better, Pontieri said today. “Either 90 days or when the technical manual is done, so really this was to motivate us to get across the finish line,” she said.
Dozens of longer-term residents have been complaining to the city for months that suddenly, as new homes have gone up next to theirs, their lots, their back yard, their front yards and sometimes the interior of their homes have flooded as never before, even through tropical storm emergencies. Those flooding issues have typically happened where new homes have been built on much higher fill bases than previously, with some of those bases rising three or four feet or higher than adjacent lots. The city does not dispute the fact. Nor does it dispute that the current technical manual allows homes to rise significantly, though not indefinitely. (Long calls the technical manual “problematic.”)
So the manual has been rewritten. It will have limits on fill heights, and presumably address other issues related to flooding. But it’s still circulating among city staffers and “stakeholders” such as the home builders, for their input, and is not due to go before the city council until mid-February. Meanwhile, city staffers have been continuing to address flooding problems on a per-case basis. But the drizzle of flooding complaints the council has been hearing at every meeting for the past several months has continued, with Tuesday night closer to a downpour than a drizzle.
“I had to spend over $8,000 just to put a French drain on the side of my home going to the front of my house,” Melissa Caballero told the council. “I never had any issues with flooding. Now all of a sudden you build all these homes around me and I have water that comes into my home. I’m an educator in Flagler County Schools. So obviously you know that I don’t bring home a huge paycheck. So to be able to keep pouring money like that because of an issue that the city has made is it’s just ridiculous.”
One resident on Seagul Place had gotten “a nice visit”: from Lynn Stevens, the deputy stormwater director–who has been getting steady raves for her work– but she had gotten water intrusion in her home and was looking for sand bags from the city, which the city is not currently making available. It does so during hurricane emergencies. Candace Stevens, a retired government official and founder of Flooded in Flagler, a Facebook group tracking flooding issues, and now counting 442 members, described being threatened and called names by people contacting her as a result of the page’s reach. “I’m used to law and order. And I don’t feel like we’re having it here,” she said, seemingly making a connection–without evidence–between builders and those pressuring her.
A few of those who spoke of flooding asked for a halt to construction, suggesting that word of such a moratorium had begun making the rounds of local talking points.
Gina Hall, 21 Packard Lane, a 30-year resident spent $20,000 in the past to dig trenches, grading, building swales. That was years ago. It took care of the problem. Now a new house is going up next to hers, and the builder told her she would flood, as would her neighbors. She has. “So I plead: Please stop. Please come. Please stop this building until you can figure it out. Thank you.”
City Manager Denise Bevan said staffers were visiting every one of the homes where property owners have registered flooding complaints. There are 125 individual such cases. Crews have visited 50 of them. Stormwater and Engineering Director Carl Cote said the administration intends to clear those cases by the end of January and submit a report to the council at a mid-February workshop, when the technical manual revisions will also be submitted.
The re-written manual drew “minimal feedback” from the Home Builders Association, Cote said, though the HBA is not done. Lynn Stevens “has been incredible in making these changes and I commend her for the actions she’s taken to do this,” Long said, referring to the revised manual, “and I will have our formal response to their suggested revisions by the end of the week to stormwater.”
It was after the initial round of public speakers had ended that Pontieri made her motion. “With regards to the wait on the technical manual update, I’m going to make a motion that we stop infill lot building until that’s done,” Pontieri said, drawing applause from a capacity crowd in the chamber. The crowd had spilled into an overflow room.
Pontieri said no construction should be stopped if foundations have been poured. “But if foundations have not been poured, there’s no harm, I don’t believe, or I believe that the harm to our current residents potentially is outweighed by any harm in waiting 60 to 90 days until we update this technical manual,” Pontieri said. “So I’m going to make a motion that we stop infill lot building where foundations have not been poured for 90 days. And then we can revisit where we are on the the update to our technical manual.” She described it as a “pause” that could then be extended or not, depending on the adoption of the technical manual. She stressed that she was not “proposing a building moratorium across the city of Palm Coast.”
Danko seconded the motion for discussion’s sake, cautioning that “it’s a little more complex than just stopping.” He was not opposed to 60 days, but if construction is proceeding “the normal way” on a lot that’s not expected to cause nearby flooding, “I’m good with making an exception.”
Heighter didn’t explicitly throw her support behind Pontieri’s motion, but did so in other words: “I almost wanted to come and sit out there tonight because I need to feel what you feel, and that is the truth,” she told the crowd. “I’m hearing the same story over and over and over. And I’m actually asking people, well please don’t attack me because it’s not my fault. I’m looking forward to something being done about this. So I feel like us as council members, we need to listen to our citizens.”
Council member Nick Klufas said he would prefer to hear from the city administration on how to address immediate flooding problems affecting a few dozen properties–he put the number at 26–before taking a broader brush to construction as a whole. “Just having a blanket, basically a moratorium on development in Palm Coast is a little bit of a heavy blanket solution,” he said. “Obviously there’s a problem here. But let’s hear from our staff to see whether or not that problem reconciles with what we’re talking about today.” (A resident later cast doubt on the number Klufas gave: “If they keep closing cases, then of course you don’t have the accurate number,” the resident said.)
Alfin was more blunt: “You’re starting to walk into the area of private property rights, you’re walking into the area of unemploying people,” he said, before turning to the city attorney for an opinion–and what turned out to be a moratorium on moratorium talk. If the administration was unusually silent on the potential consequences of such a moratorium–how many permits would be affected, how many are in the pipeline, how would builders’ tightly choreographed crews be affected from job to job–it’s because the proposal took likely was a surprise.
Pontieri asked for that proposed ordinance at the Jan. 16 meeting, and if not then, a special meeting could be arranged, she said.
But Long said there may be more damage than anticipated even with the mere talk of a moratorium. “The red flag went up to businesses, to developers who were thinking of coming to the area, the damage is done,” Long said. “Whether it’s a threat or actually happens, it’s not a word that a business investor wants to hear, and the fact that it was thrown out in a council meeting is enough to scare business investors off.” Long noted that in a meeting with the home builders, Pontieri had pledged not to sign off on a moratorium, “so for me to hear last night her call for a moratorium was shocking, and truly going back on her word.”
Pontieri did not dispute the pledge. “On building, period, in Flagler County, sure, but this is specific to infill lots,” Pontieri said. “I don’t consider it to be the same thing, and this is only 90 days, and it could be sooner if the city staff completes the edits.” It seemed clear by today that Pontieri’s strategy is to accelerate the technical manual’s adoption, in essence potentially making adoption of a moratorium moot.
Until then, the drizzle–or downpours–will continue at council meetings, as it did Tuesday evening.
“I’m exhausted from worry. I just don’t understand this elevation of these new builds next to pre-existing homes,” Carol Brasfield of the W Section said, describing the destruction of her property and her retirement by “lunacy.” “The new communities they are building off of US1 are all at the same level. This makes no sense to me. This cannot be continued here in existing neighborhoods,” she said.