After listening for over two hours to public comments, mainly from South Bayshore Drive neighbors who live nearby, the county planning and zoning board Tuesday night split down the middle and therefore took no action on a mixed use resort development proposed for Eastpoint.
With board members Paul Riegelmayer, Jerry Jackson and chairman John Murphy against it, and Skip Frink, Nancy Deal and Lon Wilkens in favor, the proposal for a planned unit development (PUD) on a 57-acre parcel of land now heads to the county commission without the blessing of P & Z, for them to decide whether or not to go forward and schedule a public hearing.
The acreage is 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.
The Serenity Seaside Resort, a limited liability company in the hands of investors Craig and Lindlee Dermody, from Walton County, is seeking approval for a PUD that would allow for 56 single family residential homes, each about 1,200 square feet, expected to sell in the $200,000 to $250,000 range.
The resort also would feature a 25-room inn, as well as an additional 50 bungalows surrounding a man-made lake, most of them 425 square feet, 10 of them 600 square feet, that would also be transient rentals.
“We did it that way to utilize the beauty of the land,” said Craig Dermody. “The lake is stunning.”
Scratched from the plans were 150 RV slips that he and his then partner, Max Cross, proposed over a year ago as an essential component of the “Serenity By the Sea Motor Coach Resort and Coastal Cottages.” In Jan. 2018, P and Z voted unanimously not to recommend that this earlier plan move forward.
In their opening remarks, the Dermodys stressed that, over the course of the year they were required to wait before reintroducing plans to the county, they listened carefully to suggestions from local residents before revising the proposal.
Lindlee Dermody said the couple joined the chambers of commerce and the St. George Island Civic Club, and worked with local realtors to acquaint themselves with the community.
“We’re not just going in and giving you our plan and not taking into consideration (your thoughts),” she said. “It’s going to be great. It may not satisfy everyone’s concerns. It’s a worthy approach, a responsible approach, for a safe and sustainable community in Eastpoint.”
She said she and her husband’s investment firm, LCD Investments, has experience developing residential home projects, and that they hope to eventually become Franklin County residents.
She said inclusion of Eastpoint two years ago within Gov. Scott’s Opportunity Zones enables Serenity to spur long-term economic development and investment in this unincorporated portion of the county, which she noted is in the bottom fourth of the poorest communities in the state and nation. As an Opportunity Zone, capital investment in the project would bring with it lucrative savings, which increase over time, on capital gains taxes.
Lidless Dermody said units would be built by First Choice Builders, owned by Bryce Ward, as well as Peeler Construction out of Lake City, and local sub-contractors.
She said Serenity would provide affordable hotel accommodations, as well as government revenues from bed taxes and ad valorem property taxes. Short-term jobs would be created by construction, and long-term jobs would be sustained in maintenance, housekeeping and property management, she said.
A 10-000 square-foot center with catering kitchen, for both community gatherings as well as small corporate meetings and retreats, would be built as well, Lindlee Dermody said.
In his introduction, County Planner Mark Curenton told P & Z that as a “site specific zoning category, (a PUD) allows for people to do innovative techniques that are not necessarily covered in existing zoning categories.
“It allows the county and the developer to work together,” he said. “The county would give them more density and they would give the county something else, such as greater environmental protection, greater setbacks, whatever the county decides is appropriate.”
He said the hotel would include a coffee shop, and other amenities such as a laundry to service the accommodations, but there would be no retail sales outlets or professional offices allowed under terms of the proposed PUD.
“It’s up to y’all to make a recommendation whether you all think the tradeoffs proposed are good tradeoffs and would be a benefit to the county or not,” Curenton said. “You sort of negotiate what’s in it.”
Tradeoffs the developers stressed would benefit the county would be that 40 of the 57 acres would be dedicated as green space and recreational space, all roads and patios would be permeable, all units would be on Eastpoint water and sewer, and stormwater management practices, mandated by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, would decrease groundwater runoff into the bay.
“No developer wants to go into a project without knowing the environmental issues. That’s the first thing you take into consideration,” said Lindlee Dermody.
Environmental engineer Dan Garlick said terms of the PUD stand in contrast to the “uncontrolled development” found on St. George Island and other areas, where he said wetlands can be incorporated into a site plan, and eventually lost.
“You don’t have to protect wetlands, you can make wetlands part of the lots,” he said.
Garlick said Serenity has a stormwater plan that uses undeveloped space to hold runoff and trap unwanted material. “You end up using more area that could remain vegetated, and these are really good soils for stormwater treatment,” he said. “This site is going to take care of itself, that’s what you get in a PUD. You don’t get it on St. George Island.”
Noise, traffic and density all concerns
While most of the immediate neighbors were opposed to the current plans, the audience appeared mixed in their views, many arguing Serenity would bring much-needed economic growth to the area.
First to speak was Eastpoint Fire Chief George Pruett, also an Eastpoint businessman, who asked whether each of the single-family homes would pay the annual MSBU fees of $52 per unit, and if so, the cost to the department for adding additional firefighting responsibilities would be on the plus side.
“It would actually generate quite a bit of revenue,” he said, adding the department currently handles about 300 medical-related calls a year.
“It would not be an undue burden for us,” he said. “I for one believe Eastpoint is due some development, something worthy of being shown. I think these people have spent a lot of money to come down here, they have a constitutional right to reap some benefits from their effort.
“It (development) is going to happen anyway, you might as well get used to it,” Pruett said. “It will be a benefit for all of us.”
Eastpoint resident Tom Loughridge stressed that more than two-thirds of the county continue to make their livings directly from the fishing industry, and cited data for seafood landings that indicated millions of dollars in income continues to be reaped.
He said he liked that Serenity would offer permeable surfaces, but “roofs are not permeable, at least I hope not. We’re looking at 106 different roofs.”
Loughridge said development along the coast continues to pour harmful runoff into the river and bay, which impacts this nursery for marine life, leading to loss of habitat and species.
Jeanne Dail, who lives nearby to proposed project, said she not opposed to “nice development,” but to its density.
“They could do up to a 50-room motel, it would be beautiful. We need something like that,” she said, noting that conservation lands surround the development. “If they would abide by the comp plan, we wouldn’t be here tight.”
The Dermodys argued the project was firmly in keeping with the comp plan’s goals for open space, and getting rid of septic systems in favor of sewer. Garlick said the developers could pursue a zoning change allowed for such sewage conversions, that if approved, would allow them to nearly triple the number of residential units, to 141.
“The cost to put in sewer and water is a half-million dollars,” said Craig Dermody. “We want to do it because it’s the right thing to do for the estuary and the environment.”
Dail and others, including Elaine Kozlowsky, who lives across the street from Serenity, said the fact that South Bayshore is a scenic route, where thru trucks are forbidden, must be taken into account.
“Even though they’re having a 50 foot buffer, you can’t tell me runoff is not going to go into the estuary itself,” said Dail.
She said Jennifer Harper, director of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, which borders Serenity, has told her she is inquiring whether the land could be bought by state monies to be preserved.
Kozlowsky read a letter from longtime P & Z member Larry Perryman opposed to the project, citing long-standing concerns about drainage, as well as the fact that the county lacks a code enforcement officer who would hold the developer’s feet to the fire in the event they do not comply.
Another neighbor, Tony Partington, echoed concerns about traffic on South Bayshore, and that the development would add to the existing burden on law enforcement and emergency response. He said he has called state officials to see whether the land has significant historical, cultural or archeological significance.
He said the housing stock created would not be affordable by most local working people. “How are you going to feed your family on if you’re paying 40 percent of your income to a mortgage?” he said. “There’s no question Eastpoint has a rough go of things. It’s been very difficult for us as an entity to help these people who need housing here.
“We’re trying to find creative and new ways to help these people,” said Partington, chairman of the Habitat for Humanity board. “I question whether or not these houses, as nice as they may be, are an answer for those people in FEMA trailers and tents.”
Lavern Holman, who also lives on South Bayshore, said “nothing has changed in a year on Bayshore. We still live on a Florida scenic highway. We still live on a county road that can’t handle any more traffic. It has become a race track.”
“I’m strongly opposed to any connection of this to South Bayshore,” she said, noting that she was “100 percent for the hotel. After all we are in the tourist business.”
Lauren Luberto, a homeowner in Los Brisas, said she believes the single-family homes will be bought by investors and used as rental property, further worsening congestion.
“I bought my house in a quiet peaceful neighborhood. I feel this is too much,” she said. “Fifty-six homes located 600 feet from my home, there’s going to be noise.
Eastpoint resident Tammy Flagg noted that there have been several failed subdivisions on this land. “I think it’s important to say no to this. I’m vehemently against this,” she said. It is moderately priced for people in my income level but for people in Eastpoint, it doesn’t come close.
“We don’t need a developer to come in and builds houses that are that close together,” she said.
Hank Kozlowsky said making an exception to allow this level of density will set a precedent that will be difficult to undo.
“Every exception you make sets a precedent for the next person in line,” he said. “They are asking you to step into a quagmire that I can assure you, you will never come out of unscathed.”
He said much more study is needed before a determination can be made that the existing infrastructure can handle it.
“Who is going to determine the growth and development of Franklin County?” he asked. “Will be elected representatives and citizens or be dictated by the whims of out of town developers? That’s the choice they are asking you to make and I ask that you choose wisely.”
Eastpoint resident Denise Butler spoke in favor of the project, noting that “this was never proposed as affordable housing. It’s proposed to give an option for very expensive and getting more expensive homes, for people who still want to come here and enjoy our bay and enjoy way of life.
“It’s time for us to have some real frank discussions what we want our community to look like,” she said. “We all really love this place and want to see it done right.”