FOUNTAIN OF CRONYISM?

Surrounded by some of the oldest structures in the country and within the borders of the nation’s purported oldest city, the Dow Museum property is at the center of a battle between developers and hardcore historic protectors.

A developer came in last year and started working on the property even before he had finalized the purchase in late 2014.

The nine structures in the Dow Museum tract will see many renovations and remodeling to provide a resort for up to 30 guests if developer David Corneal, who owns Old Island Hotels Inc., the new owner of the property, gets his way — rezoning the property and forming a planned unit development (PUD). The politics surrounding the proposal, which would allow a hotel with an “amphitheater” and other amenities, might be becoming just as historic as the city.

The property is currently zoned HP-1, the most restrictive when it comes to altering historic structures. Corneal wants the zoning changed in order to get PUD approval.

The half-block of structures was donated to the Museum of Arts and Sciences, in Daytona Beach, by Kenneth Dow, who started accumulating them in the late 1930s, with the understanding that the properties would always be preserved as a museum. The Daytona museum, however, sold the property last year to Corneal for $1.7 million.

Across the city of St. Augustine, residents have put out signs, many homemade, in their yards protesting the PUD, with the words DOW PUD crossed out with a red line. But committee votes thus far appear to show their efforts might be fruitless. Those arguing against the project at several lesser city committee meetings have walked away frustrated.

Still, they are undaunted. “We may have lost the battle, but we’re going to win the war,” says Ed Slavin, a historic preservation activist who has fought many wars, some successful, to preserve the historic character of the city.

But some sitting members on smaller city committees work for Corneal. And some former high-ranking city employees who are leading his fight for project approval work for Corneal. Two members of the Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) — a key committee when developers want to alter historic structures — had to recuse themselves because they are on Corneal’s payroll. One later resigned after continually having to recuse himself from important votes, Slavin says.

The issue still needs Planning & Zoning Board approval before it goes before the City Commission, which will have two public hearings, then make a final decision on the PUD. The first City Commission hearing is tentatively expected to be on July 27, with the second some time in August.

There are now eight structures, thanks to a piddling vote of 2-1 (because of the recusal of the other two members who work for Corneal) by the HARB that allowed demolition of what has always been called the “Carpenter’s House,” a two-story structure that stood for hundreds of years and was demolished a couple of days after the eroded board approved it, with no need to send their decision to the City Commission.

One of Corneal’s main representatives, Mark Knight, who was the city’s planning director for 16-and-a-half years, said during the meeting that his client just wanted to get it over with.

“We wanted them to go ahead and them to make a decision on the demolition,” Knight says in a telephone interview.

The swiftness of the actual demolition, despite, according to Slavin, a prior warning from the city attorney that the building should not be razed until a 30-day appeals period had passed, floored many opponents. Slavin has filed complaints with the state concerning the demolition.

Neither Corneal nor protesters are backing down, though Corneal seems to have won the first series of battles.

The biggest fight still is looming — whether to issue permits for the Planned Unit Development. According to his proposal, only the Carpenter’s House is to be razed, while the other eight buildings will be renovated. Several city boards seem to be approving Corneal’s requests at each and every turn.

Knight says Corneal’s plan would be better than other ideas. “Basically, the alternative plan is to rent them out on a monthly or nightly basis,” Knight says.

Knight says he sees no conflict of interest in his involvement. “I don’t see why. It’s just basic work. I am a land development planner.”

And he defends the decision to quickly tear down the Carpenter’s House after the architectural review board’s decision. “The Carpenter house has been demolished. We had got a permit from the city with the demolition. It was an unsafe structure at the time.”

Slavin says some city officials had requested Corneal wait 30 days because protesters had that amount of time to appeal, but Corneal had his contractors go to work within days, angering opponents.

Other concerns of those opposing the PUD include lack of adequate parking, as well as the noise that neighbors in the adjacent Lincolnville and another neighborhood, zoned HP-1, will endure. Corneal has parking available offsite where guests can park and use valet service to get to the Dow property, Knight says.

Meanwhile, various legal issues have continued to move the city’s decision-making dates back.

Currently, the next HARB meeting on the issue is expected to be July 16.

Aside from the politics, there have been at least several small skirmishes, according to both sides. Corneal accused someone of slashing tires on construction workers’ vehicles, though no police report was filed. Slavin says Corneal “stomach-bumped” him after accusing him of listening in on a conversation Corneal was having with several people just outside a door near the City Commission meeting room.

“Was I eavesdropping? I certainly was,” Slavin says. But he still called police and they told Corneal that if he wanted to have private conversations, go somewhere more private, according to Slavin.

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