It is a small skirmish in a larger battle: what is county government’s responsibility to residents who don’t have a reliable supply of water? What if that water supply has become unreliable because of a new development nearby–a development county government approved? What should a reliable water supply be, and who should pay the cost of installing it, prohibitive as it may be?
Those are the questions at the heart of a developing debate–and an occasional struggle–between residents of a small subdivision at the northeast end of Flagler County and their county government, a debate and a struggle that’s also divided the community itself, as residents are taking sides between those who want to connect to a municipal water system, at great cost to all, and those who want to stick with their wells, even though many wells are running dry or being fouled with non-potable water.
Willow Woods is a small subdivision of about three dozen lots that, to the pleasure and retreat of its residents, most people have never heard of. It is at once isolated and not, branching off of State Road A1A along the northern boundary of Washington Oaks Gardens State Park, its half dozen dirt roads forming something of a square beneath thick, old trees that create distinctly small, autonomous and rustic worlds for each property.
The houses themselves are a mixture of near-luxury and the occasionally shabby shack, their values ranging from over $700,000 for a property fronting the Intracoastal to a 1,000-square-foot house valued at a mere $138,000. A1A connects Willow Woods to the Hammock a bit south and to St. Johns to the north, so the geographic isolation is limited.
But Willow Woods is not connected to water mains. It depends on well water. And all was fine with that–fine if expensive for residents who have invested thousands of dollars to ensure themselves a clean and reliable supply of drinkable water.
Then came Las Casitas–Spanish for “The Little Houses.”
That’s half the new development now churning up land to the south and north of Lakeside By the Sea. The other half is Los Lagos (“The Lakes”). Together the two developments will add 190 little houses to the Matanzas Shores area, all of them elevated on 9 feet of ground, ostensibly to avoid flooding in an area increasingly prone to flood, and in proximity to rising seas.
The residents of Lakeside By the Sea raised vehement objections to the developments for fear that the elevated houses and mass of concrete and asphalt on either side of them will render them into more of a bathtub than they already are (though of course they did not object to their own development creating impermeable grounds, so the opposition had an element of nimbyism–not in my back yard).
The Flagler County Commission, then just starting its bullish approval of all things development on the barrier island, ignored the concerns and approved Las Casitas’s 97 homes on 25 acres and Los Lagos on 23 acres. Las Casitas is immediately north of Willow Woods. Left unspoken was the risk of flooding to Willow Woods properties. But that, in retrospect, now appears to be a minor matter.
The sudden drying up of Willow Woods’s wells is not so minor.
Part of the development of Las Casitas entails the “dewatering” of ponds. With that dewatering came the change to Willow Woods’s wells. Many no longer produce potable water. Some went dry. Some had to be dug deeper.
The developer got a permit from the Department of Environmental protection to dewater, so it’s legal. St. Johns Water Management District officials came out to speak with some residents. They told them there is no cause and effect between the development’s dewatering and the wells running dry. And strictly speaking, a causal link is difficult to make. The residents have a hard time believing it. The coincidence is too great, the proximity too obvious.
Meanwhile, the subdivision is facing an existential crisis: it needs water to survive, but the solutions aren’t simple.
On Sept. 23, the Flagler County administration sent a letter to the residents inviting them to a meeting to talk about options–one option in particular: in County Administrator’s words, “the possibility of participating in a project that would provide water utility service and a system of fire protection hydrants to your neighborhood.” Palm Coast water would be the utility.
The third paragraph had all the makings of a clever salesman’s pitch: “To implement this endeavor, the County would finance the project through a Non-Ad Valorem special assessment on each property over a specified period of years, so there is no upfront cost to you. The total assessment will cover the cost of design, permitting, and all construction and a breakdown will be provided at the meeting.”
“Special assessment” means “tax.” “Non-ad valorem” means that it would not be a tax tacked on to property taxes, though when it comes to such special levies, that’s meaningless: a tax is a tax. The fact that there is “no up front cost” is also meaningless: the annual cost is what matters to residents, and that cost, Cameron did not disclose.
But he and Michael Esposito, the county’s point man on the project, did so when 32 Willow Woods residents gathered at the county’s tourism offices at the airport on Oct. 2. They were taken aback: $1,700 a year for 20 years, or $34,000, for each property. The cost would be imposed on all Willow Woods properties, whether residents choose to connect to city water or not. That means those who have invested thousands of dollars to improve their well systems would still have to pay the additional levy.
“This letter is the first communication I got from the county after my well failed,” one resident told Cameron and Esposito at the meeting, who were joined by County Commissioner Greg Hansen and County Attorney Al Hadeed. “And my well failed and I think the surrounding wells failed due to a development that my property butts against. I had to make myself right by investing into my home system. The county was not there to help. And for this to be a response, 20 years of $150 a month, it’s insanity. This is is the hell that comes when a development impacts my property, my life and my family. I just think it’s insane. I think it’s also very bad business. I think we’re rushing here. I think if we all had a chance to come together, that we all could come to an agreement and if the cost were reduced significantly, it would be a different story, but it seems like we’re jamming this through.”
By the end of the meeting the county officials conceded that more discussion was necessary, though Hadeed had also offered the proposed timeline: the county commission would approve the creation of a special taxing district before the end of 2019 (though not the levy itself), and by September 2020, would vote on the imposition of that levy, which would then go into effect in 2021. So Hadeed said there was no rush. ‘This is the beginning of that consideration,” he said.
But the residents, many of whom had attended a meeting in the Hammock featuring Hansen the evening before, were nonplussed by the commissioner’s eagerness to move forward with the special district. He had given the impression at the Hammock meeting that it was close to a done deal. He walked back some of that language before the Willow Woods residents.
“I was a little overzealous on that because I really want to do this,” Hansen said.
Cries of “why” went up. “If there’s one home that doesn’t have water, I really want them to have it,” he said.
The county officials used the meeting to put a distance between them and the development, or the cause for the wells going dry: they insisted that they had nothing to do with it, nothing to do with permitting the dewatering, which was true, though they did not say that it was ultimately the county’s decision to approve the development (limited though the commission was regarding its options to deny it). The meeting got heated several times, with some residents accusing the attorney of going in circles and the attorney charging that some residents were speaking without the facts. And there was a bit of sniping between the residents themselves, some of whom favor going to the city water option now, regardless of the cost: the divide between those wealthier and not-so-wealthy properties in the small subdivision was sharpening.
There was no opposition to hooking up to Palm Coast’s water system. “For the record, we love city water,” one resident said. The objection is cost.
“I feel like this should change from whether or not we should bring city water to voting whether or not we should pay for it,” one property owner said. “We’re not against city water, but we’re against paying $34,000 for city water when it was not our fault. I’m fine with city water,” she continued, though she said she would choose not to hook up to it “because I have a reverse osmosis system. Now the other issue in play here is there are people who need it tonight, and this is a two-year process.” Her solution: expedite the process but don’t charge the residents for the water hook-up. The $34,000 cost was unacceptable, she said. “That’s not a good solution, so you as our leaders, as our elected officials, you need to come up with something that actually helps us.”
But Cameron reminded the assembly: “We can’t listen to just one group. We have to listen to everybody.”
The day after the meeting, and after an apparently intense day of discussions within the administration, Cameron issued the residents another letter saying the county would meet with water management officials and would raise the issues of well problems directly with the Las Casitas developer.
“Please understand that the County has not determined anything definitively and we will keep you involved by this and other updates. When we are far enough along, we will schedule another meeting,” Cameron wrote. “To be sure, we actively will be considering alternatives to address the situation, both short term and long term. In the meantime, it would be prudent for you to save any emails, documents, photographs, readings from your water service if any, and any other items related to this issue.”
The Developer/builder should be on the hook for this charge to remedy (hook up) water issue. This shouldn’t have been approved with consequences to these homeowners’ well water and possible flooding.
But Cameron reminded the assembly: “We can’t listen to just one group. We have to listen to everybody.”
Yes, Cameron and some of the commissioners must listen and obey the developers, regardless of what the Flagler County documents state. “Pave Paradise and put up a parking lot.”
The Realist says
You are so against annexing to Palm Coast…All of your mailing addresses say Palm Coast yet you like beating the system per se by not paying city taxes like the rest of us Palm Coasters. Well some times beating the system works and sometimes it doesn’t. Time for you guys to pay the piper.
Beach Dweller says
Never wanted to live in Palm Coast! That was your choice. Would love it if my mailing address was Hammock or Flagler Beach North.
Gail Calvo says
Thank you for publishing this article. For the County to suggest imposing an assessment on a neighborhood that is having an issue with something as important as potable water, I believe would set a very dangerous precedent for all residents of Flagler County.
Willowwoods is the only unincorporated subdivision that does not have access to city water. The county paid for and installed the lines elsewhere in the Hammock. Property owners were only asked to pay a hook up fee.
Hammock resident says
I have never previously lived anywhere where improvements in the county were expected to be paid by the area residents of the county they affected, yet this is the second time I have seen this happen since buying property in Flagler County. The first time was the drainage improvements in Marineland Acres. The cost of utility improvements within the county should be spread across the entire county. I do not live in Willow Woods, yet I would gladly throw in my $1 a year or whatever small amount it would cost on my property taxes to provide my neighbors with drainage or the ability to hook up (at a charge) to city water if they chose to do so. The argument that those of us who do not live within the city limits of Palm Coast should “pay the piper” holds no water, pun intended. I pay a private company for my sewer service because that is the service that was provided to my property when I bought it. I pay the City of Palm Coast for my water because that is the service that was provided to my property when I bought it. The City of Palm Coast is more than happy to collect money from me and my neighbors on a monthly basis for the service they provide outside the city limits, the choice of the utility and the City. When my father’s established beach neighborhood in Bay County installed sewer service, the residents were given the choice to hook up to the sewer lines, at a one-time cost, or not. They were not asked to pay for the sewer line installation, just the connection to the house. To expect a small group of residents to personally pay for county improvements goes against every reason for establishing a government body to begin with and if that’s your attitude, then we should all be paying individually for our kids to go to school, the fire department to put out our house fire, and a toll charge for every mile we drive when we back out of our driveways.
I hope the Willow Woods residents hire the best attorney they can to sue the pants off of the Flagler County Commissioners, Adam Mengel, KB Homes and every other person or entity directly or indirectly responsible for this travesty. Flagler County continues to encourage growth in The Hammock when the infrastructure cannot support it. They won’t be happy until it looks like downtown Orlando. I hope Flagler County goes down in flames on this one. The Commissioners and Mengel deserve it. Just a bunch of incompetent losers motivated by the almighty dollar. Corruption at its finest.
Shorty Hamburger says
Build a cistern and catch the rainwater like folks did years ago and will do in the future. The developers are not at fault, they are following guidelines put forth by the county administration. If the ground water is inadequate and the county needs compensation for services, this is the best viable option. Your welcome!
P.S. Tax monies should be viewed as sacred, right Sheriff McCarthy?
Flagler soap box says
With a little investigative reporting it would be easy to see that a 10’ deep pond would not cause a potable well to dry up. Most potable wells are at least 60’ deep. If everyone is confusing a shallow irrigation well for potable drinking water then again please clarify if there is a story here.
The developer is hiring local talent and creating jobs in Flagler which is a good thing.
Alora Pico says
Too much of a coincidence that the weeks dried up when the development came in next to this. The homeowners are screwed. The city approves too many developments with zero understanding of the long term impacts. Good article and info, and we should all wake up and take heed.
I totally agree that the developers of both new housings should pay the cost of bringing the water lines as remember that they didn’t as the county has still an 8 years moratorium (that they are trying to end now at a cost of 150,000 our hard earned taxes to start at least with a consultant) exempting developers from the impact fees so Las Casitas and all other projects before them were exempted from the utilities and other impact fees since 8 years ago and now they want the existing residents to pay the cost. Is a real shame that FL is run by these developers from Tallahaasee to Flagler County including all our cities.
This abuse of the quality of life and the financial security of the existing residents in favor of wealthy developers has to stop in Florida. We need to elect commissioners and councilmen that will represent us and not developers interest only.
John Smith Esq. says
Why, in the article, is “the developer” not named? Let me guess,
it’s one of the usual big ones that gets all the tax breaks, and Flagler
Live is afraid of getting sued by naming them.
You’re right, the developer should have been named in the report: when it was going through the approval process the development was presented by Singhofen & Associates on behalf of David Allen, managing partner with Realty Financial in Needham, Mass., an investment firm, who has since sold the properties to KB Homes.
Wait until the buyers find out how “de-watered” their new houses will be next time a hurricane or heavy rain hits us. 25 acres paved over? What about drainage? Have we learned absolutely nothing? Well they have homeowner’s insurance, who cares. The developers walk off with fat wallets and the homeowners get flooded every time it rains.
All of this is a result of the incompetence of the Flagler County Commission and the county engineers for not doing their due diligence.,
Another article https://flaglerlive.com/116784/lakeside-development/
Lance Carroll says
Welcome to reality. Water access will soon be a very dry conversation. Paradise is gone!
Blah blah blah (required) says
I remember when my parents moved to this area to retire 13 years ago. It was an area surrounded by lush, green, natural preserve land. The scrub jays were safe, the coastal foliage was beautiful, sea turtles and right whales.. ALL good Washington Oaks state park was renowned nationally for its incomparable beauty. Add a couple of devastating hurricanes and a whole lot of yuppies with prospective dreams of beachside living, and you have this… a wasteland of what was once, (ONCE,) The most beautiful section of A1A between St. Augustine all the way to Ft. Lauderdale. The whole thing is sad. I just hope you yank’ yuppies buy, sell and profit before it all hits the next (speed-bump.) It’s like people never learn. The 8th floor of surf club was once the most beautiful (westward) view in the county. Now.. it’s just just you seasonal warriors, (BTW, you have 30 days to switch that NY tag off your car.) I’m glad you shortsighted new money morons haven’t learned a thing. I didn’t know we could go back to 2007, but I’d have thought someone.. ANYONE, would’ve learned something. I’ll be here with popcorn. Just a watchin’ while you fools rush in. As though you simpletons have only just learned what a high and low tide is. Astounding. Enjoy it while it lasts. (P.s. it’s already run it’s course.)
Rob O says
I feel sorry for the people in the northeast part of the county that are having water problems. We here in the southeast end of the county we be going through the same thing if the county approves the development of the land on John Anderson Highway just outside the Flagler Beach city limits. A developer is proposing almost 4,00o residences on a plot of land that goes for a little over a mile stretch and from the ICW to Bulow Creek. This development will devastate this pristine area and cause major problems for Flagler Beach residents and the residents of the unincorperated surrounding area. I can tell you that the commissioners already have their minds made up about the development. All they think about is tax dollars and how they can get richer off this development. It doesn’t matter what we the tax payers want. We seem to have no say in these matters because they know what is best for us.
Mike Oxmhall says
Still trying to configure a way to articulate into English that you Yankee schmucks have ruined a perfectly good southern beach side town. Totally. Any ideas? What a job you’ve done. Just… WOW. Not sure what’s worse, your attitude, your politics, or your intellect .
Lakesides went in mass to the commission meeting. What I remember most about the evening was watching Adam what’s his name and the Duval attorney sitting so close together it looked like they were sharing a malt at the drugstore.
Mark A Kowalski says
The community became divided indeed as a result of the secret negotiations conducted by Commissioner Hansen with the selected residents and him not doing his due diligence. I have informed Mr.Hansen and Mr.Cameron of my concerns of the rumors in the emails in July.Mr.Cameron acknowledged , Mr.Hansen ignored it. The only official information was presented to us in that meeting
on October the 2 . In the meantime Mr.Hansen was presenting the project in public as ” an almost done deal with only one or two people opposing it “. I find it disgraceful and unbecoming of the publicly elected official We have placed signs on our properties denouncing the special tax assessment. 20 residents are participating.
Not sure what’s to blame on the “yankees”?
Wasn’t it the local “southerners”who sold out to anyone with a checkbook?
Spent most of my 47 years of living in Florida running from over development and urban sprawl. I have NOT met any state/local government official who puts quality of life over tax revenue. They just don’t exist!!
Well said Beachdweller! Constant approved growth overcomes our old (1970’s deficient obsolete sewers and our lack of enough roads that need widening and do not get repaved often enough. Never mind that lack of sufficient traffic units enforcement addressing newcomers, tourist or service commercial vehicles that believe in Florida traffic and anti litter laws do not matter as are not enforced.