- November 12, 2020
Updated 4:26 p.m. Oct. 14 with the new date for the next County Commission vote (Nov. 16).
Although he got involved in Flagler Beach politics to fight the proposed Gardens development and was eventually elected to the City Commission, Ken Bryan is now a believer, thanks to a dramatic reduction in the scope of the project, and thanks to a greater understanding of the environmental impacts.
“I went from ‘stop it’ to ‘win-win,’” Bryan said during an Oct. 12 interview in his neighborhood, on Palm Drive.
He recalled the original presentation on July 1, 2019, in which developer Ken Belshe revealed plans for a proposed 3,996-home development on John Anderson Highway. Bryan was one of more than 330 residents to pack into the Hilton Garden Inn to protest the development, which was to include 10-story apartment buildings, essentially in his backyard.
That summer, Bryan gathered with other residents to formally oppose the development, and Belshe sued him for defamation, an accusation Bryan is currently fighting in court. (Bryan was elected in March 2020.)
Since then, Belshe has limited the scope of the development to 353 homes, less than 10% of the original plan. In addition, Belshe and Bryan met so that Bryan could understand Belshe’s commitment to reducing the impact on the neighboring Palm Drive neighborhood.
Still, many residents are upset about the potential increase in traffic, as well as fears of flooding on Palm Drive, a street that was hit hard by flooding during Hurricane Irma in 2017 and other rain events since then.
After county staff gave initial approvals to the development, the Flagler County Commission has the final say. And the commission unanimously voted Sept. 21 to table an expected the development until Belshe could provide further reassurances on traffic and flooding.
“Your water management is crap,” County Commissioner Greg Hansen said to attorney Michael Chiumento, who represents Belshe. He wanted Chiumento to prove there would be no flooding. "You haven’t done that yet," Hansen said.
Since that meeting, Belshe has prepared new exhibits that will demonstrate “the mechanics and science” of the water management, he said, as well as research showing that traffic will be low on John Anderson even with the Gardens being added to the area. The next vote is Nov 16.
What follows is a further exploration of the flooding issue, after a tour of Palm Drive and a review of Belshe's new exhibit.
Theresa Seufer lives at the southern end of Palm Drive, the first house built on the street decades ago. She said the water behind her house is usually about 30 yards away, but in recent years, whenever it rains, the water threatens to reach her swimming pool. What used to be a canal behind her house is now so shallow that a “raccoon can walk across it,” she said.
That, of course, isn’t the fault of the Gardens, considering nothing has been built yet. But if the Gardens homes were to be built on the other side of the tree buffer, wouldn’t that make her property flood even more?
“I am in favor of progress, but it can’t damage my current lifestyle,” Seufer said. “We don’t want to shovel mud out of our pool three times a year.”
“I do what I think is best for the community. Something is going to come eventually. Everything could be bought and conserved in perpetuity, but we know that’s not going to happen.”
KEN BRYAN, Flagler Beach city commissioner
What is causing the flooding on Palm Drive?
Bryan, who was a St. Johns county commissioner for 13 years after serving in the Air Force and then a career in the U.S. Department of Justice, recalls kayaking around the neighborhood after Hurricane Irma in 2017. The street flooded to the height of mailbox posts. He said the retention ponds in the neighborhood have not been maintained, in part because a homeowners association was never formed to pay for it. As a result, the berm behind his own home has a clear breach point, and the berm behind Seufer’s home is nonexistent.
Would Seufer feel better about the flooding issue if the current drainage areas were better maintained?
“If it were dredged, I would feel like someone has attempted to help us,” she said.
Bryan said he is working with the city of Flagler Beach to maintain the neighborhood. Nearby Lambert Avenue is already having drainage work done, thanks to a grant. Belshe said he is open to talking about how he can help, although the retention areas are not in the Gardens property.
Barbara Revels, a developer and former Flagler county commissioner, has been a vocal opponent of the Gardens — in large part because she doesn’t believe it will be possible to avoid exacerbating the flooding issues.
“Palm Drive is experiencing everything all of us are along the marsh in Flagler Beach,” she said. “That area doesn’t have good flow. … Over the last few years, everything has gotten worse.”
Developers — and possibly environmental changes — over the years have contributed to the problem, she believes.
“Please, somebody’s got to hold somebody accountable to stop the flooding and the degradation of the Intracoastal,” she said.
FEMA’s regulations are no longer sufficient to protect the area, she believes.
“The Irma flood was higher than FEMA’s 500-year flood event, so if the county and Parker Mynchenberg (the Gardens’ civil engineer) say we’ll build at FEMA guidelines, you’re going to be building at flood levels automatically.”
Chiumento and Belshe, however say the St. Johns River Water Management District will not permit the development to impact surrounding areas.
Will the Gardens flood Palm Drive?
“Unequivocally, no,” Chiumento said in an interview with the Palm Coast Observer. “It’s illegal.”
Belshe gave the Observer a preview of the exhibits that will be shared with the county. More than 800,000 square feet of dry retention ponds and more than 600,000 of wet retention areas are included in the plans for the Gardens. The water is thereby treated as it seeps into the wetlands, which run along the coast as they filter into the Intracoastal Waterway.
A vast tract of land in the Gardens is wetlands, and it will remain wetlands. That means, for all intents and purposes, the water doesn’t flow, Belshe said.
The Gardens neighborhood closest to Palm Drive will be elevated, but it will also have its own retention ponds. The terrain will be engineered — by law — to drain toward the retention ponds before it filters into the wetlands. Palm Drive will not be harmed by the Gardens, Belshe said.
“I do want to be a good neighbor,” he added. “I plan to live and work here in this county with my family for the next 20 years, and I don’t want them to be unhappy.”