Commission approves Salamander resort

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After meeting for more than eight hours and hearing more than three hours of public comment, The Flagler County Commission voted 3-1 in the early morning hours of Feb. 3 to approve Salamander Hotel and Resorts' proposal for a 198-room hotel at Hammock Beach, with conditions to mitigate its impact on public lands.

The 3-1 vote, with Commissioner Barbara Revels dissenting, came after the commission split 2-2, with Revels and Commission Chairman Frank Meeker voting against the proposal. Had the meeting ended there, the two votes against the proposal would have failed it.

But after the split vote, the board made several demands of Salamander — money and land for to be set aside for parks, ultimately agreed to as an acre around 16th road and $500,000 to purchase mitigation land — and made a new motion on the proposal, approving it 3-1 after Meeker change his nay vote to an aye.

“I think that the idea of trying to find some benefit for parks in Flagler County is a good one, that we can support,” Salamander President Prem Devadas said after the meeting. “So I was happy that we were able to continue the discussion, and we’re very happy with the outcome.”

The meeting hall, and additional space on the Government Services Building’s second and third floors, was packed with about 377 people during the hearing, which began at 5:30 p.m. and adjourned at about 1:52 a.m. A dozen or so people in the audience in the commission chambers retreated into books or e-readers during the roughly 3.5 hours of public comment as white-shirt-clad proposal supporters and light-blue-shirt-wearing opponents made their cases.

One of the commission’s five members, Commissioner Charlie Ericksen, missed the meeting because he was hospitalized, leaving the commission one member short during the vote. (It is still binding: Salamander agreed to hold the hearing even if the commission was a member short.)

Revels said in the meeting that she understood that the county needs jobs, which the proposal would bring. But she thought the building was in the wrong place.

“I'm a resident in this community for 60 years. I don't think there's many people here who can say that,” she said. “We had a paradise here of residents who could go anywhere we wanted,” horseback riding and driving and camping on the beaches at will.

Then, she said, developer ITT came and began amassing land, chipping away at residents’ ability to go where they wished. People fought hard for little beachfront parks like Old Salt Park, along 16th Road near the proposed resort, which were granted as concessions from developers. “You just don't know what we had, and what we gave up,” she said.

But Commissioner George Hanns recalled the many times in his more than two decades on the commission that residents had opposed various developments that were ultimately approved and which exist today. He said he saw Salamander’s proposal as a major opportunity.

“So many positive things could come of this if it's done right,” he said. “These are changing times, and I applaud anyone who is trying to do something positive for Flagler,” he said. He said he was sympathetic, though, to residents’ concerns. “All those concerns are real and urgent to me,” he said.

Commissioner McLaughlin also supported he proposal. “The question that this applicant has to this board today, with all those things considered, is is it consistent to the comprehensive plan? Is it consistent with the land development code?” The testimony he heard from professionals, McLaughlin said, led him to believe it was.

But Commissioner Meeker said he thought the proposal’s impact had not been properly mitigated. “I think that the public’s enjoyment of that park has been messed around with,” he said. “What was left of Old Salt Park in the end is being assaulted more here, and I don’t see where that’s being mitigated.” Meeker proposed Salamander address the problem. Devadas said he could do so, and the board haggled with Salamander until it came out with its result:

Supporters of the proposal, who spoke first during the public comment period, focused on its potential economic impact, while opponents describe it as a threat to the environment and the quiet tranquility of locals' lives.

“We need to invest in new projects like this to keep pace with the number of visitors,” said Marineland Dolphin Adventure Vice President and General Manager Kurt Allen. “A well thought-out and responsible project like this is exactly what Flagler needs.”

Flagler County Chamber of Commerce former chairman Garry Lubi said that Salamander’s willingness to put such an investment in the county could spur other businesses to relocate to the area, and Chamber President Rebecca DeLorenzo noted that the project is expected to bring in about $55 million in tourism dollars in the first five years of operation, according to Tourism Development Council estimates.

Others said the project would bring in more people who would be buy local property and bring in new businesses.

Cline Construction President Scott Sowers said the proposal is a model of responsible development.

“It sits in the same footprint of the existing facility, it’s shorter in height, it’s farther away from the dune than the existing facility,” he said. “This project is a balanced development plan.”

Developer Mark Langello urged commissioners to consider what could happen if they don’t approve the proposal.

“If you say no, what happens?” he said. “The project would fail. … And you would see faltering growth, which isn't good for the surrounding area.”

Opponents said the project would overwhelm public beach access areas and conflict with the deed restrictions on the property.

Local Attorney Michael Chiumento, representing the Hammock Beach Club — but not all of its residents, some of whom in public comment said he was not speaking for them — said the vote was a matter of integrity.

“This is a really very, very simple decision that you all are faced with today,” he said. “What we are talking about today is our integrity, and doing what we say we’re going to do.”

The board had promised to keep the land low-impact, he said, but with Salamander’s proposal, “you’re putting a 200-room hotel, conference center, restaurant, 40 feet from the public right of way” and from the “community’s beach.” Chiumento noted that many of the project’s supporters were fairly recent residents, while many opponents of the proposal were decades-long Flagler County residents.

Flagler Beach City Planner Larry Torino said that by approving the project, the commission would be opposing its own planning board, which twice voted against it. Torino said he supported a resort project, but said that Salamander’s proposal paid insufficient attention to the public land adjacent to it.

Others said they worried about the ramifications of an approval.

“We’re basically not against the hotel,” another man said. “We’re against you lifting a plat restriction that could snowball all along the coast of Flagler.”

Hammock Conservation Coalition member Dennis Clark said many area residents moved to Flagler to get away from busy tourist areas like St. Augustine Beach and Ormond Beach. “We have a strong sense of place, and when we say there’s no place like home, we mean it,” he said.

Local turtle nesting volunteer Ann Butler said that the resort would inevitably affect endangered and threatened sea turtle nesting. “It will be impossible for a two-tower hotel ... to avoid directly or indirectly illuminating the beach during the nesting season,” she said. She said the area around the property already has nesting problems because of tourists who shine lights on the beach, leave out junk can trap turtles, and in some cases, she said, have moved nest markers to lay out their beach furniture. “Please be good stewards,” she said, asking the board to vote against the proposal.

Other opponents noted that Salamander’s proposal includes a loading dock and dumpsters next to Old Salt Park.

The Salamander proposal echoes an earlier one that drew more unified opposition from the Hammock Beach community.

That proposal, which involved property owner Lupert-Adler before Salamander had moved in as a manager, was ultimately defeated in court, and Salamander President Prem Devadas has strained to convince residents his company’s proposal was different: He sought out local community groups for meetings, and multiple times revised Salamander’s site plan in response to community input, especially environmental concerns.

“The value of the resort — at the end of the day, a resort like this — is in the natural resources, the natural environment,” he said at the Feb. 2 meeting.

The new proposal, Devadas told residents, would revitalize the lodge and bring 150 new full- and part-time jobs and about $55 million into the economy in the first five years.

But the property needs work to remain viable, he said. Salamander has said it would invest $72 million in the facility.

“There were hundreds of memberships lost at hammock beach during the recession, and that really threatens the (resort’s) viability,” he said at the meeting. “The property is not being competitive today, and we need to be able to find a way to fund improvements.”

Doing that, he said, means going head to head with other luxury golf resorts — like the PGA National Resort and Spa, the Marriot Sawgrass Resort and Spa, the Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort, and the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island — which offer 400 or more rooms.

“A critical part of the business model surrounds group business, conference business, if you will,” he said. Those other hotels, he said, “are eating our lunch… we studied this for over a year.”

Building the 198-room resort, he said, would give Salamander a total of 325 rooms, including the condo units, which “takes into account the majority of conferences that we would be serving.” The rooms would also be larger and more luxurious than those offered by the competition, he said.

Devadas touted Salamander’s record of running highly-rated luxury hotels, and offered some perks for locals, saying Salamander would take over the maintenance of 16th Road, add four public parking spaces, repair restrooms and a picnic pavilion, and (with county approval) add storage that could be used for emergency services equipment as well as for for beach furniture storage.

The resort could also, he said, charge a $2 per night donation from each hotel guest to fund local conservation initiatives, a policy Salamander has used at its resort on Kiawah Island

Since Salamander floated its proposal, residents have voiced concerns about what would happen to their property values if the lodge and golf course were to deteriorate. ACO Communities representative Daniel Baker, speaking on behalf of Salamander, told a concerned Hammock Conservation Coalition member at a Nov. 11 meeting that without the proposed 198-room-building, “We will stay, but we will have to develop major contingency plans.”

Still, the county’s planning and development board twice voted against the Salamander proposal: first in a 4-2 vote Oct. 14, which it nullified and reopened for a procedural error — the board had failed to give Salamander a chance for a rebuttal during the hearing — and then Dec. 9 in a 3-2 vote. The planning board’s decisions clashed with the advice of county planning director Adam Mengel, who supported the project before the planning board and again in a presentation before the County Commission at the Feb. 2 meeting.

Salamander’s latest site plan revision — which shifted the entire structure 15 feet further from the ocean and eliminated some parking on 16th Road, an area proposal opponents had said was dense with scrub oak — came after both of those planning board votes, on Friday, Jan. 9: just one working day before the Jan. 12 date the county had originally scheduled for the commission to hear and vote on the proposal.

The commission rescheduled the hearing from Jan. 12 to Feb. 2 in part because the last-minute change left staff insufficient time to review the revised site plan by Jan. 12, and in part because county staff had also hoped Ericksen, who was ill at the time but expected to be better by Feb. 2, would be able to attend and vote. (Ericksen was hospitalized, underwent brain surgery Jan. 27, was released, but was hospitalized again Feb. 2, County Administrator Craig Coffey said.)

The board rescheduled a proposed vacation rental ordinance that had originally been scheduled for Feb. 2 to Feb. 19.


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