Emotions were on high Tuesday evening when the Palm Coast City Council convened at City Hall. The proceedings marked the first of Palm Coast’s two monthly council meetings, where the public is given the chance to weigh in on proposed measures and resolutions before they’re voted on. On Tuesday, that right was exercised with great enthusiasm.
After the meeting commenced and the Pledge of Allegiance was recited, the floor was first opened to public comment. The first two speakers raised concern with pedestrian and cyclist safety on Cimmaron Drive, an issue which also came up at the previous meeting on April 20th. The next group of speakers were a mixed bag, ranging from advocates for a new swimming and aquatics center to those calling for a new company to handle the city’s recycling program. From there several residents took the stand to weigh in on the proposed closure of Slow Way, with opinions given from multiple people on both sides of the issue.
Mayor Milissa Holland addressed Cimmaron Drive first, stating that proceedings were underway in determining what sort of response the issues on the road might get. Not much of substance was revealed regarding Slow Way, and Holland assured concerned residents it would be addressed more in the future.
From there, the Proclamations portion of the evening went underway. The month of May was proclaimed to two national causes: water safety and historical preservation. Council members Eddie Branquinho and Nick Klufas spoke to each topic, respectively.
With both proclamations in the books, the Resolutions section of the meeting began. Right off the bat, an air of competitiveness and even hostility passed over the room. Attendees came with strong feelings particularly on the first two measures: the citywide mask mandate, and the proposed pickleball facility.
Agenda Item 4 on the evening was a full revocation of last year’s citywide mask mandate. The council discussed conversations with the county health department and emergency operations center, with whom they coordinated the best time to loosen the mandate initially put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19.
It became quite clear early in the discussion that about half the room was highly mask-conscientious, and the other half was eager to see the mandate go. Though Mayor Holland and Councilman Branquinho made a point to promote their own experiences receiving a COVID vaccine, one speaker in the public comments section suggested the vaccines could trigger severe health problems, and likened mask mandates to fascism.
Shortly after public comments closed, Councilman Klufas offered up a strong rebuke to the less mask-inclined crowd: “If the biggest request that we’ve ever been made, and to feel repressed that we’ve been asked to wear a piece of cloth to potentially protect your fellow resident…if you feel that’s the biggest oppression of your rights in your life, it’s potentially an opportunity to look back and realize you haven’t been that repressed in your life.” Klufas’s remark drew a loud applause from the masked section of the room. There was a slight back and forth between the two sides, before Branquinho quickly ended the exchange and called for a vote. The council struck down the mask mandate unanimously.
Following was Resolution 5, easily the most contentious of the evening: pickleball courts. A whopping 25 different residents took the podium in the public comments allotment, offering up a variety of different opinions on Palm Coast’s multimillion dollar proposed court construction. Several were advocates of the idea, hailing from local tennis and racquet communities around town. Also offering up support, via prerecorded message from Madrid, Spain, was Reilly Opelka. Opelka is a world-renowned tennis player who himself hails from Palm Coast. The proposed facilities would become the Reilly Opelka Racquet Center, and Palm Coast’s current tennis facility is to become the Reilly Opelka Tennis Center.
At times during the public comments, relations between residents and the council became quite heated. Nick DeSantis, a concerned speaker with no relation Governor Ron, was to-the-point about his concerns: “Are you all out of your mind?” Holland was quick to remind DeSantis of policies against disorderly conduct, and from there the interaction cooled down. On his way out, however, DeSantis vowed to work to keep any council members in favor of the courts from ever being re-elected.
Several out of the anti-courts crowd attended with the Flagler Liberty Coalition, a conservative activist group founded last year in response to the local government’s COVID-19 response. One member, Mark Phillips, cited personal experience seeing sparsely-used tennis courts as things are now, and used it to demonstrate why he saw new facilities as unwarranted.
Another attendee, Bob Paffrath, was more pointed still. Paffrath and Holland spent a good portion of Paffrath’s speaking slot talking over one another. His main point when he was able to speak alone, was that new athletic facilities would be better suited for football, which he recounted were already crowded on existing fields.
One of the more pragmatic opponents of the courts was Alan Lowe, former mayoral candidate and current city council hopeful. Lowe came prepared with figures he claimed would put the cost of maintaining the courts at a higher number than was currently anticipated. In his remarks, he reassessed the predicted $5.6 million dollar construction price as being closer to $7.5 million under current prices, and brought up the unaccounted cost of treating clay courts with water to prevent cracking. If all courts were clay, water treatment would ring up a bill of $34.4 million annually, Lowe claimed. His solution? Start with four to six courts at a cost under half a million to gage cost of upkeep in a less risky scenario.
While opposition to the courts came out in spades Tuesday evening, there was also a considerable turnout from those who supported the project. Opelka’s father was a light-hearted presence when he took the stand to voice his excitement. Also speaking in favor of pickleball was Walker Douglas, a sales agent at Douglas Property & Development and Young Executives Committee Chair on Flagler Tiger Bay Club’s Board of Directors.
When public comment ended, the issue went to the council for deliberation. First up was Branquinho, who stressed to attendees that it was a difficult decision for him. Though he didn’t reveal what his imminent vote would be, the District 4 representative made note of some projected economic upsides to having a facility that could host tournaments.
Nick Klufas likened the courts to a bike path that not every resident may use, demonstrating the objective community value he saw in spite of pickleball being viewed as a ‘niche activity’. Supporters for the courts quickly saw themselves up two to none.
Milissa Holland was brief with her remarks, but she recounted the time before the Indian Trails Sports Complex was built, thinking of it as a less than ideal time for Palm Coast’s recreation. Things are now looking very good for those who wanted the courts.
In an act of more direct representation, Victor Barbosa made his personal criteria very simple: more public speakers were against the courts than for them, and therefore so was he.
Ed Danko was less than appalled by the pickleball courts, but was skeptical that the council had enough information to make an educated decision. The newly elected District 1 councilman made a motion to table the vote so a survey could be taken for further public opinion, and research could be done to follow up on Alan Lowe’s concerns. Danko’s motion was seconded by Barbosa, but did not find the third vote needed to delay the final decision.
When Danko’s motion was struck down, a group consisting of most of Flagler Liberty Coalition’s attendees erupted in disgust, one member yelling out, “The Queen has spoken” at Holland. Nevertheless, order was restored and a vote was taken. Holland, Klufas, and Branquinho were the majority, while Danko and Barbosa were the dissent. The courts were approved.
Commotion in City Hall
Drawing the most commotion of the night, a large portion of the room stood up to leave. Phillips walked toward Milissa Holland’s seat at the bench, clearly intent on having a word with the mayor. He was then stopped by a deputy and, after a brief conversation, went to join his group in the parking lot. A release by the Flagler Liberty Coalition states that Phillips was under the impression the meeting had been adjourned, and that then was the opportunity to talk about the vote with Holland. No further action from deputies on-scene was taken.
Outside City Hall, the Coalition were grouped together to discuss what they considered such an unfortunate outcome. “They’ve decided to ram through a pickleball stadium for six million dollars and change for the first phase of it,” said a visibly disgusted Paffrath. “They don’t even care to stop for a minute and find out what the total impact on this whole project’s gonna be in the long term for our community. It’s reasonable to stop for a second and find out everything there is to find out about this.” As to what the decision’s motivating factor was, Paffrath had a hunch: “I’m very curious as to what kind of kickbacks who’s getting, the three people that voted yes.”
In the aftermath of the exchange, the council unanimously condemned what some members labeled ‘intimidation’. It was clear Phillips’ approaching of the bench was assumed by some to be more confrontational than how the FLC explained it.
On the defeat of his motion to table and the ruckus that then ensued, Ed Danko told AskFlagler: “I’m certainly disappointed that we didn’t table this motion on the racquetball/pickleball center. I would’ve liked to have more input from the public, I thought that a survey would’ve been a great way to get that input. I also would like us to take that list of 25 capitol improvement projects from parks and recreation, and prioritize them. Right now they’re not, so they picked one. But unfortunately there’s 24 other ones there, and I really think we need to prioritize.”
Eddie Branquinho, who issued a scathing rebuke of the anti-court activists’ conduct, was exasperated with policy deliberation going down similar paths as of late. He did, however, reject the earlier-floated idea of seeing members of the group barred from premises. “If they comport themselves in proper way, they’re just like everybody else. Any citizen’s got the right to speak and say their peace without a problem. They should be allowed to do that, as long as they do it respectfully. Which, unfortunately, didn’t happen tonight.”
Victor Barbosa tried to see a positive side to things: “People are getting more involved, and that’s what I have been working on. Now we just need to remind them to do it respectfully.”
Despite being easily the talking points of the night, the pickleball courts and the mask mandate were not the only the only items on Tuesday’s agenda. The council also discussed planned apartment buildings off of Colbert Lane, and heard from a supervising member of the development firm. Further, AdventHealth’s zoning application for a new hospital on Palm Coast Parkway were considered, and passed with a unanimous 5-0 vote. The 100-bed facility will start construction in September just east of Bridgehaven Drive near O’Reilly Auto Parts.
The council’s last topic of discussion was the debate surrounding commercial vehicles parked in residents’ driveways. Robert McDonald, an attendee who spoke on multiple occasions during the meeting, reiterated the importance of deciding the issue with expedience, and entered into the conversation the security of the city’s new poll from vote manipulation. City manager Matt Morton elaborated on measure the city had taken to identify and throw out repeat votes, including measures to identify instances via IP address.
The meeting closed with commiseration between the council, Morton, and city attorney Bill Reischmann on the regrettable interactions following the pickleball vote. Morton likened Flagler Liberty Coalition to a wannabe mafia, and Klufas and Branquinho advised residents to take caution in the company they keep. Holland and Klufas were escorted to their cars by Flagler Sheriff’s Deputies, but by then all from the FLC had long departed the scene.