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Environmentally Sensitive Lands Fund: How Are We Doing?

Botched purchases and more. Gone are the grants and partnerships that underwrote purchases like Princess Place Preserve. Gone too is the wisdom and expertise that once guided land purchases.

By Toby Tobin
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Palm Coast, FL – October 11, 2010 – Flagler County points proudly to its Environmentally Sensitive Lands program. After all, the program is responsible for some pretty impressive county acquisitions since its beginning in 1989 and voter supported extensions in 2002 and 2008. Recently botched purchases with hints of cronyism cast a shadow on the program.
An impressive list of fund purchases over the years rightfully claim credit for much of the "quality of life" that so many individuals and businesses point to when asked, "why did you choose Palm Coast and Flagler County?" Invariably, the answer includes a statement about the quality of life here.
Flagler's Environmentally Sensitive Lands Purchases

Property

Year

ESL Funds Spent

Other Funding

Source

Acreage

Bings Landing Park

1989

$1,005,024

 

 

7

Lake Disston Access

1990

$50,729

 

 

2

Haw Creek Preserve

1990

$1,121,194

$436,925

SJRWMD

1,015

Betty Steflik Preserve Phase I

1990

$808,967

 

 

218

Washington Oaks Addition

1993

$49,900

$586,900

FDEP

11

Princess Place Preserve

1993

$1,738,647

$2,909,736

P-2000 and SJRWMD

1,500

River to Sea Preserve

1993

$0

$8,383,473

P-2000

90

Betty Steflik Preserve Phase II

1999

$0

$83,626

 

105

Lehigh Rail Trail

2001

$0

$282,800

FDEP

200

Palm Coast Linear Park

2001

$1,465,000

$5,935,000

City of Palm Coast

51

Palm Coast Linear Park Addition

2002

$192,000

$768,000

City of Palm Coast

5

Shell Bluff

2005

$1,000,000

 

 

90

Malacompra Oceanfront Addition

2006

$0

$3,414,500

Florida Forever

5

Mulberry Branch

2007

$1,200,000

$800,000

City of Palm Coast

60

Bull Creek Fish Camp

2007

$1,800,000

 

 

28

Public Lands "D"

2007

$0

$0

Donation by Ginn Corp.

1,000

Long's Landing

2008

$1,365,000

$3,135,000

City of Palm Coast (applied for grants)

9

Moody Homesite

2008

$950,000

$2,350,000

Charitable Land Donation

3.5

Harbor Island

2008

$425,000

$425,000

FDEP

 

Bay Drive Park Addition

2009

$5,850,000

 

 

13

Bings Landing Addition

2009

$1,500,000

 

 

2.5

Sweetbottom

2009

$2,498,430

 

 

97

Pellicer Flats

2010

 $2,750,000 to $4,500,000

 

 

 980

TOTAL

 

 $25,769,891 to $27,519,891

$29,510,860 

 

5,333 

Source: Flagler County (Pellicer Flats added)
Many of the early program successes were underwritten by grants and partnerships. Committed staff actively sought partners willing to provide additional monies, which leveraged the programs own funds. The most recent four purchases had no partners. And two of these four purchases reveal a lack of both wisdom and fiscal diligence.

Pellicer Flats

The most recent purchase was Pellicer Flats where millions were wasted to "save" land which didn't need saving. The purchase price, several times the assessed value, was justified by an unproven assumption that the property could become a valuable Wetlands Mitigation Bank in the future. An expert on the subject of mitigation banks reportedly offered to help county staff evaluate that alternative. Staff chose not to use the offered resource. They also failed to supply a business plan to support the mitigation bank assumptions.
And who was the Pellicer Flats seller? It was none other than real estate developer Ginn-LA (Bobby Ginn and financial partner Lubert-Adler); the same company that recently defaulted on a hanger lease at the airport leaving the county stuck with hefty mortgage payments on a multi-million dollar building and no tenant. It's also the same company currently appealing a county decision against a request to change Ginn's Ocean Hammock Development Order. Although the County Board of Supervisors denied the request, it had been wholeheartedly supported by county staff (a fact that will likely work in Ginn's favor at the appeal).

Sweetbottom Plantation

Sweetbottom represents 97 acres bordering Bulow Creek, east of Old Kings Road S and west of John Anderson. The $2,498,430 purchase price exceeded the assessed value by approximately $900,000. Worse; after the transaction closed, it was discovered that the county had no access to the property. It turns out an undocumented easement that would provide access to the property went through the Flagler Beach Polo Club, a private, gated community. Staff and Polo Club residents are reportedly trying to negotiate an alternative access. If and until they succeed, the only way the county can get to their $2.5M purchase is by helicopter.
And who was the Sweetbottom seller? It was Lighthouse Development (Rich Smith). In an earlier dealing with Smith, Flagler County constructed a road at the airport reportedly to provide access to Smith's storage buildings there. According to a county source, Smith was to reimburse the county the $158,000 construction cost; money which came from the county's General Fund, not the airport's Enterprise Fund. The money remains unpaid. A repayment agreement is said to be in the works for presentation to the County Board of Commissioners at their next meeting.
The Bings Landing Addition is primarily to provide additional parking for users of the park. The primary reason for the Bay Drive Park Addition was to allow alleviation of an existing drainage issue.
Voters gave their support to the 20-year extension of the Environmentally Sensitive Lands program which is funded by a quarter mill tax. Within two years, the program, by pledging the dedicated future tax receipts to support a bond issue, has already spent roughly three quarters of their 20-year funding source.
And some people still don't understand what's behind the Tea Party movement.
Updated 10-20-2010:  A reader sent me an anonymous note with an inclosure of a properly recorded easement for access to the newly acquired county land. The easement was recorded on 10-23-2009, the same date as the deed of sale recording. What this means is that the easement did not exist nor was it recorded at the time the landowners of Flagler Beach Polo Club West purchased their properties. At the time of their purchase, the property was reportedly represented to them by the developer as a "private gated community."
Also enclosed with anonymous's note was a copy of a letter sent to Polo Club West property owners by Flagler County's Environmental Planner, Tim Telfer. The letter was dated 3-8-2010, nearly 5 months after the Environmentally Sensitive Lands purchase. The letter opens, "I am writing to you today to make you aware of the County's recent purchase of the Sweetbottom Plantation subdivision and adjoining conservation lands."
It appears that the easement negotiation and recording was not a completely transparent event. At least some Polo Club West residents are reportedly not pleased.
reader comments
Reply to Richard
Posted by Toby
Nov 16, 2013, 3:23 pm
With regards to the Sweetbottom purchase, I have updated the commentary to give further clarification.

With regards to Pellicer Flats, I stand by my original commentary.
1.) It was inappropriate to enter into negotiations with the Ginn organization at this time.
2.) The price was simply too high. The mitigation bank was a major element in Staff's selling the price to Commissioners.
3.) The land will VERY likely remain forever wild. From a practical standpoint, it is simply undevelopable.
Reply to Jack
Posted by Toby
Nov 16, 2013, 3:23 pm
Reply to Jack
I am a property owner and voter. What other qualifications do you think are necessary in order to pass judgment on the Commissioner's actions? I am not alone in my opinion of the Pellicer Flats purchase. Many community leaders with whom I've spoken agree. In fact it was their comments that initiated my further investigation.

I fail to see how this commentary could be construed as Ginn bashing. Ginn is hardly mentioned and not in a bad light. Ginn, meaning Ginn-LA, meaning Lubert-Adler represented by Reynolds did the deal. The very same parties were involved in the airport hanger lease that left the County owing $2M. It's also the same parties with whom the County is currently in an adversarial position regarding the NOPC appeal. I do not think the County should have been negotiating such a large deal with them at this time.

The land use experts with whom I spoke do not believe that the property could ever be developed. There are simply too many environmental obstacles; too expensive and impractical to overcome.

Hammock Beach is an exceptional property. That community will prosper. Anybody who is fortunate to live there is rightfully proud. Yes, Bobby is gone (operationally). But Lubert-Adler and their various operational partners remain. So too do the several Ginn-LA communities (nearly all of them) less fortunate than Hammock Beach.

History will be written by the facts. My role is to tell the story as it unfolds. And this story is terribly relevant to thousands of people who purchased Bobby's dream.
Reply to Larry
Posted by Toby
Nov 16, 2013, 3:23 pm
Where could you have gotten the idea I was against the Tea Party? I'm a Tea Party fan and a Libertarian leaning registered Republican.
Lost it
Posted by Larry
Oct 27, 2010, 10:17 pm
This article has really put this entire site in perspective. You're now pimping for "Community Leaders"? What happened to you?
The lack of leveraging over the past two years is due to the Florida Legislature's shut down of the Florida Forever program. Every source listed on that chart receives funding from Florida Forever. Toby, google it, pick up a phone, do your homework.
Clearly you have something against Ginn and more recently for the Tea Party.
And you wonder why John Stewart is getting rich making fun of the Tea Party.
Sensitive lands committee
Posted by Richard Hamilton
Oct 27, 2010, 6:35 am
Hey Toby, There's a vacancy. Why don't you apply
Let it go
Posted by Jack Johnson
Oct 21, 2010, 4:51 pm
I like your Blog but enough of the Ginn bashing, as an owner in HB I am sick and tired of you taking pot shots at Mr. Ginn, the reality is he is gone, he is going to spend a lot of time in the courts and I resent your continual guilt by association articles.

The sensitive lands purchase is great for Flagler and I applaud the forsight used by our commissioners to make this deal. I want developable land purchased, you are far from a developer and no better than commissioner peterson when he said the land was not developable...it most certainly is developable and would be, costing us the loss of a unique and highly sensitive land holding.

I live here, I know Mr. Ginn did many good and bad things, but at the end of the day the resort and the people who now work there along with my fellow members do not deserve to have you keep lumping us all into your trash talk.

If you hate Mr. Ginn then take it out on him, leave the rest of us to brag about what we have and enjoy here in the hammock, I for one am proud of what we have and am giving the new management team my support as they work to bring our club back.

I am sorry sir, but I do not think you are qualified to pass judgment on the commissioners actions, as I understand it the county paid for appraisals, the land in question was on the #1 desired purchase position for some 29 months and the environmental folks here in the area seemed very enthusiastic about the chance to get the land. With that said I do not understand why you cannot stop hating Ginn long enough to applaud our leaders for saving something very special.

I do not like your bias, mainly because I do not understand it, How much money do you make on advertiseing when you rake the muck? I am proud of what we have and I implore you to capture the positive as well as the negative.
Respectfully disagree Toby
Posted by Richard Hamilton
Oct 19, 2010, 10:05 pm
Dear Toby,
This is the first time I have posted here so let me start by saying that I appreciate all the valuable info on your website, and your insightful comments. However I have to take issue with you on the Environmentally Sensitive Land Purchases. I am a fairly new member of theSensitive Lands Advisory Committee. Having helped support the YES campaign I felt I should also offer my help deciding where it was spent and, for the record, I voted yes on three purchases and NO on Sweetbottom. You should also understand that the committee decides on the merits of proposed land but not on the price paid.
You are a bit brief in your description of the reasons for the Bay Drive and Bings landing addition. I would have not voted in favor if the only reasons were what you describe, but since you are not making an issue of them neither will I.
Pellicer Flats is almost 1000 acres of extremely sensitive land and marshland running from the northern boundary of Palm Coast and Longs Landing, up to the southern edge of Princess Place and other publicly owned land just south of it. The land has been a high priority acquisition target for many years but somehow the county let it slip by and it was acquired by a Ginn company a few years ago. I feel sick about that, but it happened God knows how, but we should not let any dislike of Ginn-LA stop us from properly preserving this property forever.
Although the price seems high for something that has a lot of wetlands on it, it also does have quite a bit of uplands and the county had appraisals done by 2 companies and a third party reviewer. I don’t know how they really value a unique parcel like this, but a mitigation bank was definitely NOT part of the valuation equation. It is gravy if it happens. In the end it comes down to what is the parcel worth to us to preserve and how much are the sellers willing to accept. The price agreed was the result of a lot of bargaining. I was not involved but I would be bragging if I thought I could have done any better. You also have to understand about the Spanish Land Grant status of the property, which apparently gives them much more leeway to fill in property which is under water now but not part of Longs Creek waterway.
So we’re going to pay a bit over $3 million to preserve 1000 acres of what most people agree is pristine environmentally sensitive land, and be able to have another entrance to Princess Place, hiking, riding, kayaking, fishing and other recreation. $1 million would have been better but it wasn’t going to happen. The mitigation bank is extra gravy if it happens, and we’ll pay some more only if it happens.
My advice was to do the deal NOW, unless anyone really thought they could preserve this land permanently through zoning and other restrictions. You know that doesn’t work Toby. Commissions change, and this property could also be annexed to Palm Coast (which would probably involuntary sweep in the Creek Course golf course at the same time). Better safe now than regret later what we might have prevented.
I agree with most of your comments about Sweetbottom, though the part adjacent to Bulow Creek is important to preserve (and already had conservation easements on most of it). Your understanding of the access is different from mine, though I have asked the county to confirm it. The deal approved by the commissioners allows for public access via the existing private roadway from dawn to dusk until such time as the county creates access either from the adjacent county property to the north, or via some other access strip. And the county will always have emergency access and secondary egress via the existing road. If that’s not what was recorded then someone’s head should roll.
Richard Hamilton

 
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Don "Toby" Tobin is a licensed real estate professional affiliated with Watson Realty Corp. Toby is a member of the Flagler County Association of Realtors®, the Florida Association of Realtors, Enterprise Flagler, Flagler Home Builders Association, and the National Association of Realtors.

GoToby.com proivdes real estate news, commentary, and analysis for Palm Coast and Flagler Country Florida, as well as Realtor® referrals and consultation to buyers, sellers, and developers.