Flagler County School Board members said today they are not ready to sign off on an agreement with the planned 335-home Gardens development on John Anderson Highway that would offset projected overcrowding costs in the district’s schools. The Gardens project is expected to add 90 students in three schools, two of which are currently beyond capacity.
School Board member Collen Conklin found the agreement “worrisome” for being based on what she deems to be faulty or outdated data, and fellow-Board member Janet McDonald called the agreement “nebulous” and to the district’s disadvantage. If in fact the data is faulty, it was inexplicable–and try as she did, Conklin was unable to get an explanation–as to why or how the agreement ended up before the board in its present form. It was prepared and presented by District Planner Patricia Bott.
Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt agreed to have her staff revise the agreement’s figures before it is resubmitted to the board for approval on Jan. 19. For The Gardens, it is the latest albeit minor bump in a very long, nearly two-year slog through regulatory hurdles and significant popular opposition.
State law requires developments to meet “concurrency” requirements before they can go forward: If roads can’t handle the projected traffic, the developer must front money to ensure that new residents won’t overburden roads. If there’s not enough water and sewer capacity, the developer must ensure that capacity is provided before residents move in. If there’s going to be a shortage of seats in neighborhood schools, the developer must “mitigate” the shortage.
The Gardens won regulatory approval from county government in November. It meets traffic, water and sewer concurrency requirements. It does not meet school-concurrency requirements.
Its residents’ children are expected to attend three schools: Old Kings Elementary, Buddy Taylor Middle School and Flagler Palm Coast High School. Old Kings and FPC are already over capacity. Specifically, and based on current calculations, while Buddy Taylor is expected to have room for the 12 students The Gardens will generate, Old Kings does not have the space for 41 students, and FPC doesn’t have the space for 29 students expected to attend from The Gardens.
School impact fees, the one-time fees developers pay with the construction of every residential home, are designed to offset that cost. But the Flagler County School Board last approved its impact fee schedule in 2005, when it set the fee at $3,600 per home. It was far short of the recommended amount even then: the district’s impact fee study conducted the previous year had set the recommended amount at $4,274. But impact-fee votes can get very political, and pressure from developers and builders on elected officials who often rely on the two industries’ endorsements can be intense.
The per-student cost of a school hasn’t stopped climbing since. The state Department of Education provides that cost monthly. The last figure for Flagler County, for a high school student, was almost $33,000. When all the financial impact on the school district of students generated by The Gardens development was calculated, it totaled $1.9 million, just for capital costs. Impact fees that will be generated by the development will account for just under $1.2 million. That left the district $719,000 short.
That’s the “mitigation” sum The Gardens is now required to pay to enable the district to make room for the additional students in its next five-year capital improvement plan. (The technical name of the document is a “proportionate share mitigation agreement.”)
District Planner Patricia Bott and Michael Chiumento, the Palm Coast attorney representing The Gardens, reached a verbal agreement on the sum on Sept. 18, and Chiumento forwarded a memo with the agreement on Dec. 1. The Gardens would pay $719,000, or $2,134 per dwelling, split into three payments (a payment is to be made made each time 100 building permits have been issued).
Bott submitted the proposal to the Flagler County School Board at a workshop this afternoon. It was supposed to be a routine overview, with ratification set for the board’s Jan. 19 meeting. It did not turn out that way.
The $719,000 figure, Conklin said, is lower than what it ought to be, because it is based on a faulty data.
“We had the data when we calculated it, we were miscalculating the credits given,” Bott said, referring to the impact fee credits subtracted from the $1.9 million cost that would be generated by the development’s new students. But Bott was conceding that one set of numbers was not what it may in fact be, if it were calculated accurately.
“If we are getting ready to approve this, would we not want to calculate it with the correct formula numbers, credits, instead of adopting and approving something that’s coming before us now with a number that may not be accurate,” Conklin told Bott and the board, “and I’m worried about setting a precedent for future development down the road that would come back to say to us, well, you gave them this calculation, why are we not getting the same calculation. So it’s worrisome to me. I shared my concerns with the superintendent, and I think it would be for the benefit of the public to know what would the calculation with the credits have been if they were part of this agreement, and does it put us into any kind of jeopardy. If we approve this, does it create any kind of precedent for future development that comes before us that wants the same deal.”
Bott acknowledged that mitigation agreements have never been prepared with any type of consistency to date. Every agreement in the past has been “handled differently and in a different way,” she said. “What we’re trying to do going forward after this one is to standardize everything and put everything out there so that there’s no question going forward as to how it’s done, because it’s been done in a different way on every mitigation agreement you’ve approved up to date.”
One of the problems, of course is the outdated impact fee structure. Board members and the administration frequently say it must be updated. But it requires a comprehensive study, which has yet to be conducted.
“I’m still not clear on why we would adopt or approve something when we know that there is an error, when we have an opportunity to correct that error prior to us adopting or approving it,” Conklin said. “We know the error is there and we have the opportunity to correct that error before it comes to the board for approval. As of right now I’d be a no on this because of that reason. And what’s the significant difference in value? Are we talking about $50,000, are we talking about $500,000? It feels like we need more information.”
“Everything feels very nebulous and at our disadvantage,” McDonald said.