Community and pressure groups usually make their presence felt either in public demonstrations or at government meetings. The community group called Preserve Flagler Beach and Bulow Creek took a different approach Thursday evening. It held its own public meeting–not as a reaction to anything: it’s already done that to significant effect, but as a statement of purpose and a show of what it projects as its own political force.
Fresh from her high-profile battle with the St. Johns River Water Management District over the “wetlands restoration” of 110 acres of Intracoastal marshland off Flagler Beach last year and early this year, Elizabeth Hathaway launched the new group to oppose the planned development called The Gardens, initially proposed as a nearly 4,000-home and apartment project on either side of John Anderson Highway. Using the viral scaling of social media and her own track record, Hathaway quickly built up a large following and turned the effort into a non-profit with its own board (she’s the president), or core members.
The organization showed its public muscle twice. First at a July town hall The Gardens developer organized at the Hilton, and where the developers and their attorney ended up on the defensive most of the evening. And again at a staff-level county government regulatory meeting of the Technical Review Committee–the sort of meetings that never draw attention, but that in this case became another forum on The Gardens. Hathaway’s group filled the room and spilled out of it. County regulators this time were on the defensive, though not nearly as much as the developers had been: county officials were in more of an explanatory stance, stressing that nothing was “done” in the deal, that much had yet to be worked out.
Whether the two public displays of Hathaway’s group had any effect or not is ultimately conjecture. But what’s certain is that the developers changed track, signed a document saying they’d be willing to sell a portion of their acreage to a land trust or land conservation concern, and submitted a sketch plan that would scale back the development to 330 lots, or less than a tenth of the initial concept of 3,966 units. Even then, County Planning Director Adam Mengel rejected the sketch plan, saying it would require a rezoning and another regulatory step before it could go forward. It’s now up to The Gardens to decide whether to appeal Mengel’s determination to the County Commission or opt for yet another approach.
But there’s been no triumphalism from the Preserve Flagler Beach group. With some notably strident moments at the Hilton meeting that had a few deputies reminding the audience that they existed, Hathaway has preached a consistent approach: “The more pressure, the better–positive, respectful pressure.”
So it was Thursday evening at the United Methodist Church in Flagler Beach, where some 100 people turned up–the group’s own members included–for Preserve Flagler Beach’s community meeting. It was dubbed as an informational session to update residents and supporters on the status of the project, and a means of drafting more supporters, selling a few more t-shirts, distributing fliers and yard signs.
Though at least two Flagler Beach city commissioners attended, no county officials did–either elected or administrative–and no one from The Gardens was there, at least not officially or overtly. They would not have been turned away had they showed up, though they would have almost certainly been subjected to barrages of questions and statements. Still, for all the meeting’s one-sidedness, and despite occasional bursts of applause similar to those heard at public meetings when the audience likes what one or another advocate says out loud, polemic was kept to a minimum and shrillness was absent from any of the presentations and speeches by Ken Bryant, the organization’s vice president, and Robin Polletta and Sallee Arnoff, who took turns outlining concerns and potentially dire scenarios should the development proceed.
The direness was at times more reflective of worst-case-scenario deductions than fact, especially when Hurricane Irma’s floods of Flagler Beach streets were connected dot by dot to images on the projection screen and to Houston-like possibilities of 500-year floods every few years, if development went ahead. But the bulk of the presentations hewed to the factual and the known, based on documents from The Gardens, county government and the organization’s rigorous research.
There were no ad hominem attacks on the developer and the initial development itself was even complimented for its quality (“it’s a beautiful concept,” Polletta said), just not for its location. But this is not a wide-eyed group, either: Bryant said there should be no hesitancy to be “vigilant” about developers and what they could do on their own land, suggesting–without specifying what he was concerned about aside from allusions to clear-cutting–that a degree of neighborly surveillance, including drones, would be useful.
There was no question either that the group was seeking to show its muscle and press what it sees as an advantage, using the kind of language calibrated for political effect in an election year when three of the five seats on the county commission are up.
Bryant, the organization’s president, started the meeting by describing the diversity of the group and its supporters, who he said, sometimes using the plural, sometimes the singular, include “former county commissioners, we have writers, editors, attorney, we have contractors, Realtor, business owners, planning board members, or former planning board members, information technology, teachers, management, federal and state government experience.” He then introduced the core members before Polletta and Arnoff tag-teamed their presentations (an effective means of keeping the audience’s attention).
In the Q&A segment of the evening, Hathaway, former County Commissioner Barbara Revels and Bryant fielded most of the questions, getting somewhat stumped only once, but critically so, when asked–twice–about their definition of “smart growth” or “sustainable development,” which was another way of attempting to get around the group’s nimbyism (the not-in-my-backyard approach that defines much opposition to development).
“OK, you told me what I can’t do. What can I do?” one man asked. “What is the sustainable development in your view? And if you haven’t got an answer, you’re in trouble, because the next question will be–they just don’t want anything, and they’ll take you to court and get something. So I need an answer. What is sustainable?”
“Sustainable for this area versus Town Center, two completely different things,” Hathaway said, “so what’s sustainable for this area is what it’s been designated for,” adhering to flooding hazards and FEMA flood maps.
Revels offered as sustainable the example of the original Ginn proposal for the same area that The Gardens took over (The Gardens took over Ginn’s entitlements and): Ginn had proposed using treated wastewater from Flagler Beach on its golf course and lawns, thus keeping effluents from flowing into the Intracoastal, as they do now. That had been in The Gardens’s initial plan as well, but not in the sketch plan they submitted recently, and that was rejected by Mengel. Revels did not resolve the contradiction of her statement though: the golf course would have been an amenity of the development the group opposes, and those lawns would have been framing the development’s dwellings.
There were other questions about next steps, about the group itself, about elected officials and to what extent they may be lobbied on the matter.
As upbeat as the organizers were, they repeated a message that was summed up by Polletta: “Right now nothing is happening. That doesn’t mean that something will continue to happen. There’s a good possibility that later this winter–and again this is hypothetical–but I don’t think the developer is going to sit on all this land. It’s costing them money and time. So something’s got to give. Either they’re going to walk away from this project or they’re going to resubmit some other plans here. And they’ll be talking to the city, and they’ll be talking to the county about that. So attend these city commission meetings. Attend the county. Attend and pay attention. Listen and learn. You know, a lot of us like myself are retired. We’ve got the time. Not to mention that just because we’re retired doesn’t mean we’re stupid.”
Poletta said supports can each do his or her part “by bearing witness. And they count on us not to bear witness.” She concluded: “Don’t give up. Don’t get bulldozed.” That was one of the evening’s applause lines.