This BOCC meeting began Mon. at 5:30 and didn’t adjourn until 1:50 Tuesday morning. If you weren’t one of nearly 400 people attending, you missed some great theater. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Palm Coast, FL – February 4, 2015 – Shortly before 2:00 A.M. Tuesday morning, the Flagler Board of County Commissioners approved Salamander Hotels & Resort’s Application #2962; a Site Development Plan Review and Rezoning (Reclassification) that will allow them to build a 198 room beachfront Lodge and Conference facilities to replace the deteriorating Hammock Beach Club Lodge. If you weren’t one of the nearly 400 people attending, you missed a marathon 8 ½ hour meeting and some great theater. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
In the final half hour of the marathon session and following presentations by county staff and Salamander and hours of public comment, Commissioner Barbara Revels moved to deny Salamander’s request. Commissioners George Hanns, Nate McLaughin and Chairman Frank Meeker remained silent (Commissioner Charlie Ericksen was in the hospital). Revel’s motion died for lack of a second.
A motion to accept the staff’s recommendation to approve Salamander’s petition was made by McLaughlin and seconded by Hanns. The vote resulted in a tie with Meeker and Revels voting NO. The motion needed a majority to pass. The tie vote amounted to a denial.
A subsequent modified motion containing concessions by Salamander passed on a 3 to 1 vote. Revels voted “NO.” The project will go forward. Salamander will pay the county $500,000 and donate approximately one acre of land to expand Old Salt Park, which is adjacent to the project at the end of 16th road. In addition, there is a sunset clause requiring Salamander to start vertical construction within four years.
1. Most importantly, the project was approved. The new Lodge/hotel, bundled with a host of improvements to the main structure at the Hammock Beach Resort, will help transform Hammock Beach into a world-class Resort and Convention Center. The county will receive additional revenue from sales tax, bed tax, property tax and a special donation earmarked for the environment. Flagler residents and businesses will benefit from the economic impact of having a world-class resort in the county. The project’s total capital investment is expected to be $72 million.
2. Robin King, president and CEO of Career Source Flagler/Volusia provided the BOCC will the organization’s estimate of the local economic impact of the Lodge project.
- There are 400 individuals employed at Hammock Beach Resort. Based on the average income of hotel workers in Flagler County, their earnings total $11,538,634. Because those 400 people have jobs, another 92 are employed in the county with estimated annual earnings totaling $3,358,397.
- With Salamander adding 150 (75 full time and 75 part time) jobs after the renovations, the economic impact is an additional 26 jobs in the community. With a 1.29 multiplier, this equals an additional $4,208,411 in earnings.
- After the expansion, the 550 employees at Hammock Beach Resort will generate and sustain an additional 119 jobs in Flagler County. The total economic impact of the workers alone in $19,068,200 annually.
- During the proposed renovation, up to 300 construction jobs will be created.
The new visitors to the resort will have an estimated $55 million economic impact on Flagler County. Flagler County will receive an additional $10 million in combined tax revenues.
3. Visitors attending group meetings at the expanded resort and convention center will be introduced to Flagler’s unique setting and lifestyle. Many will return with their families as leisure travelers. Some will decide, as many of us did, to relocate their lives, and perhaps their businesses in Flagler County.
4. Most Hammock Beach residents, club members, Flagler residents and the business community, including this journalist, viewed an approval decision as a no-brainer. Salamander has an impressive track record of creating and managing world class resorts. They worked closely with all stakeholders throughout the planning and approval process, often overcoming concerns by modifying their design; an approach unprecedented in Flagler County.
But the Lodge was not without its detractors who looked on the Lodge as an intrusion upon the Hammock’s pristine environment. The gulf between proponents and detractors over the past month was wide and passions ran high. Petitions were circulated, opposing facebook pages (“Save the Hammock,” and “Hammock Beach Lodge Facts”) were spawned and the BOCC was bombarded with hundreds of emails, letters and lobbying material.
5. I was impressed. In my 15 years as a Flagler resident, I have never seen the business community (led largely by the Chamber of Commerce) coalesce as it did in support of Salamander. Likewise, I was impressed with the support efforts of Hammock residents, led by local entrepreneur Tim Hale. I was also impressed by the ability of a rather small number of detractors to successfully mount and sustain a well organized opposition.
Both sides turned out in impressive numbers at Monday’s BOCC meeting. Total attendance was estimated to be nearly 400. Advocates identifying themselves by wearing white shirts and seemed to outnumber the opposition who wore blue. Individuals who could not be seated in the packed chamber were directed to second and third floor overflow rooms. The meeting was carried on local radio station WNZF and broadcast live on the county’s cable channel.
Board Chairman Frank Meeker opened the meeting. He and county attorney Al Hadeed let everyone know the serious nature of the quasi-judicial proceeding. No spontaneous outbursts would be allowed. Each segment of the meeting would be timed.
The process began with a presentation by county planning director Adam Mengel. Adam was followed by Salamander as applicant. The proceedings were then opened to public comment. Those speaking in favor went first, followed those opposed. Proponents slightly outnumbered opponents. In total, about 65 individuals waited in line for as long as two hours for an opportunity to speak for three minutes each. All those who commented were polite, well prepared and generally stayed on point without pushing the time limit too far.
It was a wonderful example of citizens becoming engaged in a governmental process. And Commissioners Hanns and McLaughlin performed as we expect our representatives to perform. They asked good questions and provided explainations for their positions.
1. In the end, Commissioner Revels was the lone dissenting vote. Revels based her objection on her 60-year residency in Flagler County. She recalled unfettered public access to Flagler beaches, sinced curtailed by subsequent development. She recalled a time when Flagler was a paradise, where residents could do pretty much whatever they wanted, including driving on the beach and building bonfires there. She seemed to project that her local tenure elevated her to a position superior to others at the proceeding; as though she was super-qualified to make a decision.
There was no question that Salamander had the right to file their application. The response was to be based on a land-use and Comprehensive Plan exercise. Revels failed to provide sound land-use reasons for her vote.
Revels vote was ironic on two levels. The opposition was based primarily on environmental and preservation arguments. The vision of lodge visitors mobbing the beach and trampling on turtle nests and the vision of hotel lights disturbing and misleading turtle hatchlings were invoked. Yet Revels lamented the loss of uncontrolled beach driving (perhaps over turtle nests). I assume that some of the driving might have occurred after dark, necessitating the use of headlights. And then there were the bonfires too.
Second, Revels chairs Flagler’s Department of Economic Opportunity’s Advisory Council. I find it ironic that she failed to consider the Salamander project from its economic development perspective. After all, Flagler’s Comprehensive Plan contains language and a graphic recognizing the importance of economic development. It is, after all, one of the plan’s three pillars.
2. Over the past few months, Salamander has offered to replicate a program that has been tremendously successful at the Sanctuary on Kiawah Island; built and managed by Devadas. That program collects a $2 voluntary donation from guests for each guest night. The monies collected are paid to a local conservation organization.
Somehow, that Salamander-designated recipient language did not find its way into the Flagler agreement. Hammock Beach Resort’s donations, estimated to be $100,000 annually, are to be paid directly to the county, who will direct its disbursement. Sounds a lot like a tax.
I recall the promise that Florida Lottery profits would go towards education. We all thought that lottery proceeds would augment existing education funding, only to learn that lottery proceeds replaced existing funding. Of course what used to go toward education is now used to plug other budget holes. The county should make sure that same thing does not happen to donations collected by Salamander.
3. Attorney Michael Chiumento III, spoke during the public comment portion opposing the Lodge development as a representative of a few Hammock Beach community associations. He requested additional time beyond the allowed three minutes. When granted only five minutes by the chair, Chiumento became petulant, tossing his notebook on the floor after returning to his seat.
1. Commission Chair Frank Meeker’s behavior was an embarrassment to the county. If he were opposed to the project, he would have seconded Revel’s motion to deny. By not seconding, he signaled his support. But when McLaughlin moved to approve the application, Meeker joined Revels with a NO vote, producing a tie. Approval requires a majority vote, so the application was denied.
Meeker justified his NO vote citing Salamander’s failure to mitigate the effects of the new Lodge on Old Salt Park, a 2-acre public beach access at the end of 16th Road. His explanation was disingenuous. Salamander’s plan calls for repaving the parking lot at the park lot, creating additional parking, replacing the existing restrooms, adding a storage facility and removing existing retaining walls to restore a more natural slope to the dune line. Additionally, Prem Devadas, Salamander’s president, had stated during his presentation that he had proffered to the county additional land adjacent to the park. The proffer had been ignored.
Had the meeting adjourned at that time, the application would have died, but Devadas rose and asked if there was anything that Salamander could do to modify their plan in order to overcome Meeker’s objections. Meeker’s response was a demand for a cash payment to the county of 1% of the project’s estimated cost, or $720,000.
Following a huddled discussion with a representative of Hammock Beach Resort owner Lubert-Adler, Devadas countered with an offer to the county of $500,000 plus a one acre parcel contiguous to the park. Note the hand-drawn rectangle on the aerial graphic locating the offered parcel.
We expect a give and take process to occur along the road to final plan acceptance. The past year’s progress was the result of continuous modifications by Salamander. But Meeker’s blatant extortion when the ball was on the one inch line was out of order and highly objectionable.
I have been openly supportive of Salamander’s proposal. I should have walked out of the meeting feeling pretty damned good. Instead, I was embarrassed for my county. I reside in Meeker’s district and felt somehow soiled by his behavior.
I am not alone in my reaction. One individual memorialized his feelings in a letter to Commissioner Meeker in which he says, “Dear Mr. Meeker, I was a fervent supporter of yours until last night’s meeting. I'm glad that you're doing what you can for the County, but I think I witnessed you committing extortion last night.” The letter concludes, “I'm embarrassed for my County. I'm not sure you will ever earn my trust and vote again.”
Apparently, Commissioner Meeker thinks that political self interest is somehow nobler than economic self interest.