A proposal to build a high-density resort in the heart of Eastpoint slammed into a brick wall at Tuesday evening’s county planning and zoning meeting, when the P&Z advisory board voted unanimously to recommend the project not be approved.
The vote followed a presentation by developer Craig Dermody and landscape architect Patrick Hodges explaining the details of the proposed 57-acre RV resort to be located in an undeveloped block of Eastpoint land bordered by Island Drive on the east, South Bayshore Drive and Las Brisas subdivision on the south and west and commercial properties facing US 98 on the north. Dermody’s partner Max Cross of Eastpoint was not present.
“Serenity By the Sea Motor Coach Resort and Coastal Cottages” which Dermody said was named by his wife, would include 150 RV slips and 75 single family residences; a restaurant and bar with a seating capacity of 175 clustered around an 11-acre retention pond.
Serenity also featured nine acres of amenities including facilities for stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking, a yoga room and a “resort style swimming pool.” Dermody said the developers planned to run a shuttle to the public beach on St. George Island for the convenience of visitors to Serenity.
Another proposed feature of the resort was a 43-foot observation tower or belvedere. Dermody said the tower would afford guests at the landlocked resort a view of the water. He said the structure had been scaled down from a 50-foot tower, which would be in violation of the county construction code. Dermody said total elimination of the tower was “not a deal breaker.”
Dermody said the development would be constructed using eco-friendly techniques and materials.
He said he and his wife had dreamed of developing such a “first-class, high-end luxury motor court” for years. He said it would be “an enhancement to the community.”
The single-family residences planned for Serenity were one or two-bedroom cottages with a footprint of 500 to 900 square feet. Dermody said the cottages would be individually owned and owners would be free to rent them for long or short-term occupancy. He said Eastpoint Water and Sewer would provide water service to Serenity.
He said there would be rules, now under development, about quiet time for the resort and that the restaurant would be a facility for use by resort visitors and not a “public restaurant that would compete with anybody else.”
Dermody said Serenity would create construction jobs and bring affluent visitors to Franklin County.
Developers said the primary entrance to Serenity would be off Island Drive north of the intersection with South Bayshore but there would be additional entrance/exit points on Begonia Drive and South Bayshore.
In order to accommodate a request for smaller lots and denser population than is normally allowed in the county, the developers requested that the area be rezoned as a PUD (planned unit development).
According to Investopia.com, a PUD is the clustering of residential and commercial land uses providing public and common open space. Owning property in a PUD includes ownership of a “lot,” with common areas either owned by a homeowner’s association (HOA) or collectively by all invested parties. PUDs set aside existing land use regulations for a specific area to allow more flexible bargaining between a developer and government entities.
The developers’ presentation was followed by comments from the assembly. About 80 people attended the meeting and more than a dozen commented. Feedback from the audience was universally negative.
The arguments against allowing the development revolved around several basic themes.
A number of speakers said they feared the increase of traffic on South Bayshore and Island Drive. Eastpoint resident Gayle Dodds asked if the Florida Department of Transportation had been asked to do an analysis of the impact on existing traffic.
County Planner Mark Curenton said he had not contacted them and that it would not be normal to do so, so early in the planning process.
David Diehl, who lives on South Bayshore, said the quantity and speed on traffic through the neighborhood is already a problem although the sheriff’s department has made heroic efforts to calm traffic in the area.
Dermody said the RV park planned to have a website directing visitors away from South Bayshore and to the entrance off of Island Drive, which is already a commercial street.
Related to concerns about traffic control was a fear that the dense development along the evacuation route for St. George Island could cause serious problems during an emergency like a hurricane. South Bayshore resident Hank Kozlowsky said his biggest concern is public safety. He said South Bayshore and Island Drive are the evacuation routes for the island, which houses an additional 20,000 visitors during high season.
Dodds said that once evacuees have made their way through the secondary roads, they must still go either east or west on US 98, a two-lane highway, to escape the area.
Curenton said current information shows that Island Drive averages less than 5,000 vehicles daily and that the evacuation during Hurricane Irma in 2017 was accomplished with no problem.
Dermody said owners of expensive RVs would evacuate early to protect their property.
South Bayshore resident Tony Partington questioned whether Eastpoint Water and Sewer has sufficient existing capacity to handle the increase in population density. He said he believed additional construction would be required.
South Bayshore resident Laverne Holman said she “passionately opposed” the development of what she described as one of the most beautiful and historic parts of Franklin County. She read a short history of Eastpoint’s settlement.
“A forest of ancient, beautiful trees will be destroyed to be replaced by RVs. Why would you want to destroy trees that have been growing for hundreds of years?” she asked.
Holman said Serenity would be a “huge eyesore to community and tourists on the way to St. George Island” and would lower property values.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday morning, Hodges, the landscape architect, said he was meeting with Dermody in the near future to discuss whether to bring a revised plan back to county P&Z. He said it was unlikely Dermody and Cross would consider locating the same development in another part of the county.
Hodges said he was surprised by the outcome of the P&Z meeting and he believed residents misunderstood the project and had received misinformation. He said hoped the project could gain community support through small meetings and one-to-one conversations between the developers of Serenity and county residents.