Inching closer to approving some form of the 57-acre Serenity Seaside Resort proposed for Eastpoint, county commissioners Tuesday afternoon decided to drive a harder bargain with the developers.
Following a lengthy public hearing marked by support among business leaders, and opposition from neighbors, commissioners voted unanimously to take up the matter of the planned unit development (PUD) in two months.
This hearing, at the end of July, will follow a period during which county planning staff, and County Attorney Michael Shuler, have had a chance to go over some new, and more concrete terms, with developers Craig and Lindlee Dermody.
Commissioner Ricky Jones, in a motion seconded by Smokey Parish, asked the developers to consider adding a workforce housing component to the PUD, which is a zoning option that allows for a mixed use development that varies from the strict terms of the existing residential and commercial zoning.
“I would like for you to consider a portion from sales, to be put in a trust to allow for workforce housing in Franklin County,” said Jones. “I would like for you to consider that going forward from today. We as a county need to address this issue.”
Shuler advised that adding such a component would call for tabling the existing PUD. “We would have to determine whether the workforce housing would be embedded within the existing development, or a percentage of sales donated to the land trust controlled by the county,” said Shuler.
In his second, Parrish stressed that he was not prepared to make a decision, and needed a clearer idea of how the project would be buffered from neighbors nearby, and how the access road on Begonia Street would be designed, and at whose cost.
“I don’t feel like I’ve got the information I need to make a decision today,” said Parrish. “It’s hard to make a decision and say we'll work it out on the back end.”
He said he needed more details on what would be done with Begonia Street, which the developers have said would be the main entrance to the resort.
“Who’s going to pay for it? I think the developers should,” Parrish said, noting that an access road for emergency vehicles, on to South Bayshore Drive, needs to be better understood, as to whether it will be gated, and how and when it will be used.
“These are some issues that need to be looked at,” he said. “Something’s got to be done for this road too.”
The issue of access to South Bayshore Drive was a key concern among many voiced by a group of neighbors who spoke out against the PUD.
“Can you image the congestion everywhere? I am convinced all the traffic will flow through South Bay Shore,” said Laverne Holman, representing the group. “This was not intended as main thoroughfare shortcut to St. George Island. Now there is a service road on the map. We want no roads connecting our street to the project.”
Holman said the area where the project will be is not suitable for “a commercial tourist resort,” arguing that it will flood the area with upwards of 200 additional cars on weekends, holidays and in the summer.
“The right kind in the right place would be appropriate. Our residential neighborhood is not the place for a tourist resort,” she said. “No one would want their permanent homestead in a tourist resort. If we wanted to live in Destin, we would be there. We don’t want or need a Destin resort here.
“We should not be forced to be exposed to a commercial tourist resort in our residential neighborhood,” she said. “Residents on South Bay Shore have invested in nice homes. They should be respected and not be ignored.
“We were here first,” Holman reiterated twice, with emphasis. “We do not want this resort anywhere near us. It will all benefit the developers, and not Eastpoint.”
But several longtime local businessmen, including furniture store owner Tom Tiffin, insurance agency head Denise Butler, and Eastpoint water and sewer district chair Joyce Estes, argued that there would be plenty of benefit flowing into Eastpoint from the project.
“This is not 1977, it is 2019 and we are no longer forgotten,” said Butler, noting how different life was when she moved her family here more than 40 years ago.
“This is an opportunity for Eastpoint, we need a piece of the pie,” she said. “I am speaking out for this because I think it’s the right thing to do. Change is coming and these folks have demonstrated to me and other people” a commitment to listen.
Butler said she knows of business colleagues who support the project, but are afraid of retaliation. “I hope it will be the beginning of wonderful things for my hometown,” she said.
Estes, who also has lived here for more than four decades, said she was speaking “for the silent majority” and ticked off a list of projects that the county has voted down over the years that could have spelled economic growth.
“We need sustainable development. The developer is trying to work with us,” she said.
On behalf of her role as chair of the water and sewer district she noted that it had given its “conditional acceptance” to the project, provided that the developers pay for an air vac engineering review that ensures there is enough vacuum sewers to accept the maximum daily flows without hindering existing customers or overburdening the system.
She said the developer would have to pay for any additional vacuum pumps, and that all impact fees either be paid upfront, or secured with an irrevocable bond that will ensure the costs can be covered to finish the infrastructure.
“Tourism is one of our answers,” Estes said. “Tourists come for our seafood and our pristine environment, but change is a necessity and a fact. We need to keep fighting and protecting our river, but we must have new ideas to sustain our people. We need to look to the future for the families and young people of this county.”
Tiffin, who moved to St. George Island 40 years ago, one of the first waves of residents, related how there was a current of fear when Helen Spohrer won a vote that allowed rental houses on the island.
“It was a defining moment, and it’s responsible for what we have today,” he said. “It didn’t ruin the island or the Plantation.”
Tiffin said he and his family have worked hard to help remedy many of the persistent problems, such as domestic violence, that affect Eastpoint.
“Me and my family have fought poverty tooth and nail,” he said. “There is no long-term plan, the people are starving. We got to help the people of Eastpoint.
“if these folks can get people to come across the bridge from the island, there is a possibility for another defining moment for the history of this county,” Tiffin said.
More commercial, less residential
The hearing opened with Shuler holding aloft a large stack of emails that commissioners have received on the project. He noted the rules that would govern the hearing, which turned out to be decidedly well-mannered given the strong feelings on either side.
Lindlee Dermody handled the developers’ presentation, with her husband seated quietly with Dan Garlick, the project’s environmental engineer, who handled several of the more technical questions.
Dermody stressed that over 18 months, after several revisions, she and her husband had arrived at a proect that is “feasible for us to do as developers and also an asset to Eastpoint as well.”
She said that since getting the go-ahead for the public hearing from the commissioners a few months ago, they had made changes that included scaling back, from 57 to 44, the number of single-family residential homes, each beginning at 1,200 square feet on a 6,000 square foot lot.
“That will leave 40 of the 56 acres to be set aside for green space, recreation and conservation,” Dermody said. “So we can leave a very large buffer in all of our wetlands untouched. It allows us to cluster the homes closer together, (which) allows for more of an easy living type of community. Seniors, young couples, a lot of buyers don’t want an acre of land to take care of.”
She said the owners would provide lawn care, a swimming pool and a community center on site. The homes would be built by Bryce Ward’s First Choice Homebuilders and other local home builders that he might select.
The Old Florida style hotel has been expanded to include 40 rooms in the main building and 60 bungalows, ranging in size from 425 to 600 square feet, to be phased in, beginning with a group of 15.
“We’ll build as it gains in popularity around the U.S., that we’re there and open for business,” Dermody said.
She said the project would begin with completing the swimming pool, and fitness center, coffee shop, sundry shop and meeting room of 10,000 square feet, all open to public. She said the project forecasts 30 fulltime employees, ranging from professional hotel management to reservation clerks and cleaning services.
The lake, a little over five acres, will be available for paddle boarding and other non-motorized uses.
Dermody stressed that there will be a wetlands buffer that backs up to Los Brisas, but that the nearest neighbor “won’t see us and we won't see Los Brisas.
“We’re going to protect our wetlands,” she said. “Our commercial is self-contained and we will not be butting up to any residential except our own.”
Dermody said the project would have “no direct impact” on the Apalachicola National Estaurine Research Reserve, and there would be no entranced or exit on to South Bay Shore, only a dirt road that will serve as an emergency exit.
A key part of her presentation was that under existing zoning, the developers could do 47 mobile homes, on septic tanks, which they are not doing. “On 10 acres of commercial, we could do various other things that wouldn’t have as positive an impact,” said Dermody.
She said putting in three units per acre, with the conceivably could do since they are hooking up with Eastpoint water and sewer, would mean as many as 141 single family homes plus the hotel. Shuler noted that while wetlands could be included in lot size, each must be a buildable lot, so it was not clear the current zoning would allow as many units as she said.
She said they learned only after falling in love with the project that the land is an opportunity zone, offering generous tax incentives to investors, meant to spur long-term economic development. “That just happened to be a bonus we found out later,” Dermody said.
In her questioning, Jeanne Dail, a leader of the opposition, took issue with County Planner Mark Curenton’s assertion that the project was completely in compliance with the comprehensive plan.
“They keep telling you they’re abiding by the comp plan, but they’re not abiding by (the terms of it being an) aquatic preserve,” said Dail. “Because this is a scenic byway it states that it needs to be zoned at the lowest possible density.”
She also noted that the sheriff has said more law enforcement might be needed to address the additional population. Dail also requested that the PUD stipulate that the homes on the site be for long-term rentals only, and that there be no kitchens in the bungalows.
What the commissioners will eventually decide remains to be seen, but it is clear there is strong support for the hotel, and an appetite for compromise.
“I said from the beginning I’m in favor of the hotel,” said Parrish. “I’m not saying I’m for or against the project. There are some people who don’t want anything on the property. We have to find a happy medium where some people can live with this stuff.”
Commissioner Bert Boldt said that “all Florida counties are created equal but they do not have to be the same. We have an opportunity to really have a system of planned urban development.
“As we consider this I’d like to see a real drill down and supportive information. I think we’re moving forward and you’ve gotten tremendous counsel today,” he said. “My position is more data, more research and be specific.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley voiced likely support.
“We need some affordable stuff (that) don’t have to be in that area. It don’t have to be on that property but I want it close,” he said. “It’s not our job to hold them (the developers) up a whole year.
“What I see is something’s going to come there. Something coming sooner or later, something going to happen. You got to deal with it. Some people don’t like this, some people like it,” he said. “Aint nobody ever bought no land for other people to look at.
“It’s going to happen one day. You can’t keep putting it off, putting it off,” Lockley said. “It’s a sticky situation. If they’re in compliance, I’ve got to go along with them.”