The commission will vote on the proposal during a future meeting.
After listening to comments from about 20 members of the community, Flagler County Commissioners during a workshop Jan. 7 opted to look at a new option for relocating and rebuilding the Captain's BBQ restaurant building within the county-owned Bings Landing park on the Intracoastal Waterway.
The commissioners did not make a decision during the workshop, but agreed they wanted more details about the new option they were considering, referred to as "option four" by county staff during the workshop.
Option four would involve replacing the current Captain's building with a new one built on the site of the current pavilion building at the end of the parking area. That location would replace another, more central proposed relocation site within Bings that the commission had OK'd 3-2 in November, with extensive public criticism from locals concerned about the proposal's impact on the park or county tax dollars, before deciding to revisit the issue.
Commissioner Dave Sullivan said toward the end of the Jan. 7 workshop that he was interested in option four. Other commissioners said they agreed and wanted to see it during a future meeting.
Commissioner Joe Mullins turned to the audience at the workshop and asked how many people would be OK with option four. Most people raised their hands.
Michael Goodman, who co-owns the restaurant along with Chris Herrera, said he didn't object.
"It's alright with me. It's going to cost me more money, but if that puts it to rest, I'm OK with option four," he said.
Option four would mean building the new structure on pilings, Goodman said, while the location previously under consideration would not have needed them.
The lease controversy
The County Commission, on Nov. 19, 2018, voted 3-2 to approve a new lease that would have let Captain's BBQ build a new building, at the restaurant's own expense of up to $1 million, near the middle of Bings Landing. The current county-owned building, which has had structural problems and which the county is contractually obligated to maintain, would then be demolished.
The new building, upon completion, would have become county property, and the county would have been responsible for handling parking and sewer/septic concerns, while the restaurant would have assumed responsibility for building maintenance. The restaurant's rent would have risen from the current $750 a month to $1,000 a month.
But the proposal generated pushback from residents who said they saw it as a bid to expand the restaurant, at potential cost to the park itself, while allowing it to pay below-market rent.
After newly elected Commissioner Joe Mullins took his seat on the board and the members of the public held a protest against the proposed Captain's lease, the County Commission opted to meet in workshop Jan. 7 to reconsider its previous 3-2 vote.
The workshop, held at 9 a.m., drew about 60 members of the public.
People who addressed the commission during the public comment period were divided, with some favoring the lease that was approved in November and some opposing any expansion or relocation of the restaurant within the park.
Most didn't address "option four" or other options County Administrator Craig Coffey presented near the beginning of the workshop, but some said they liked it more than the previously approved lease.
"This park has a special meaning to the community, and, as we have learned, many others outside the local community," said Hammock resident Dennis Clark. "It's a community park where folks bring their children; it is not a place for a large restaurant and a bar."
Clark said he thought that the relocation proposed in the November lease would turn the park into a parking lot for the restaurant.
Other residents also said they objected to the restaurant's proposal to expand its seating to 150 — the number of seats that would let it get a liquor license at reduced expense so that it could serve alcoholic beverages aside from beer and wine.
Jorge Gutierrez, president of the Flagler Chamber, said the Chamber supports the proposed relocation of Captain's BBQ, and that if the county takes any action that requires shutting down the restaurant, that would set a bad precedent for relations between the county and private business.
Garry Lubi, chairman of the chamber's economic alliance, also was supportive of the proposal to relocate the restaurant. "The owners of Captain's BBQ are both good corporate citizens and community citizens," he said. "They’re willing to invest $1 million into this facility and give it to the county."
Gutierrez and Lubi didn't address option four, but resident Abby Romaine said it looked like would be a good compromise — a "win-win."
"It creates a solution where we’re not taking down any trees, where the archeological disruption is not really an issue … and also we can enable the business to continue," she said.
The county's dilemma
The county's handling of the proposed Captain's BBQ lease at Bings Landing angered a portion of the population.
County Commissioners often use workshops to discuss potentially controversial public business and give the public a chance to weigh in before a commission vote is scheduled, but the commission didn't workshop the proposed Captain's BBQ lease before voting on it during a Nov. 19 meeting, where it had been placed on the consent agenda.
In public comments before the commission, residents repeatedly said the process had not been transparent enough.
Some residents who attended the Nov. 19 meeting to oppose the lease proposal or to ask the commission to delay its vote noted that the Nov. 19 meeting was the very last one before Mullins would be be sworn in to replace outgoing commissioner Nate McLaughlin, who was a supporter of the new lease proposal.
Mullins has repeatedly criticized County Administrator Craig Coffey's handling of the Captain's BBQ issue, and did so again Jan. 7.
"We’re here today because of lack of transparency, a rushed process," he said during the workshop. "I think this process has hurt a business; it’s definitely affected trust in county government."
Coffey said that the county had limited options with Captain's: The county is contractually responsible for maintaining the building in usable condition for the restaurant. The current building has problems that are not easy to repair, and continually bandaging the building without a larger renovation process could become a large, ongoing expense.
At the same time, if the county were to shut down the building for a larger-scale renovation, or completely rebuild it in place, that would mean putting Captain's BBQ out of business for however long the construction takes — breaching the lease and inviting a lawsuit.
The building was also built decades ago and doesn't meet current code. If the county's spending on the renovation process grew to equal at least 50% of the property's value, the county would then be required to bring the entire building up to code.
The county could also be liable for any financial losses to the restaurant that result from the restaurant being out of the public eye for a lengthy period because of a county-caused closure.
"So, the option of trying to repair it in place is fraught with these dollar exposures," County Attorney Al Hadeed said. "If the restaurant were to be replaced, you have a duty under the law to mitigate the restaurant's damages."
That would ordinarily mean providing a comparable building nearby that the restaurant could use during the reconstruction process. But there isn't a building along that stretch of State Road A1A that is ready to accommodate a restaurant, Hadeed said.
Hadeed also added — addressing some residents' statements that Bings Landing should not be used for business purposes because it was bought with Environmentally Sensitive Lands funds — that although the county did use ESL money to buy the park in 1989, it did so in order to preserve Intracoastal boating access for the public, not to conserve habitat.
Rot and termite damage
An engineering firm hired by the county to evaluate the Captain's BBQ building found water intrusion and termite damage.
The rot is coming up through the floor, and the only way to fix it would be to remove the wood floor system and rebuild it, Mike Navarra, of Universal Engineering, said at the Jan. 7 workshop.
Flagler County General Services Director Heidi Petito said that some of the building was built below grade.
The county installed a new floor system years ago, but about four years after Captain's moved in, problems began: Floor tiles started coming loose, and there were problems near a drain in the kitchen.
The county's staff repaired those problems, believing they were standalone issue from splashes or mopping. But the problem areas grew larger, and one appeared in the middle of the dining room floor. Portions of the floor started to sag. At one point, a toilet fell through the floor.
The county checked the building more thoroughly and found water damage.
The building's current siding is also oriented-strand board, or OSB, which is not approved for uncovered outdoor use: Water degrades it, Navarra said. It could be replaced with a more appropriate material, but pulling off the siding will likely also expose more rotted wood that would also need replacement, Navarra said.
The building also needs a new roof.
When the county and the restaurant's owners came together on the new lease that was approved in November, Coffey said, “We didn’t view it as a controversial, 'Should we have a restaurant in our park or not.’ ... We desired to avoid the shutdown [of the restaurant], or a county lease violation as the owner. ... We were excited about the additional investment in our public facility."