Traffic issue roils Eastpoint’s Serenity project
A high-profile mixed-use development in Eastpoint, approved by the county in July 2019, has met with a wrinkle.
The hitch came at the county commission’s Feb. 21 meeting when commissioners were asked to reckon with changes to the terms of the planned unit development that will govern the proposed 56-acre Serenity Seaside Resort.
The resort is slated to be constructed on land north of where South Bayshore Drive intersects with Island Drive, not far from where Eastpoint meets the Bryant Patton Bridge on to the island.
Changes to the internal configuration of the PUD, mainly the proposed 100-unit hotel, met with no opposition. Developer Craig Dermody told commissioners that plans now are to gather those rooms into a one free-standing hotel, rather than the initial plan to create a 40-unit hotel and 60 bungalows, each 450 square feet on 600-square-foot spaces.
Plans for the 44 1,350-square-foot homes to be built on 6,000-square-foot single-family residential lots remain unchanged.
What’s new here is that the developer wants to change the resort’s main entrance to South Bayshore Drive, based on a recommendation from the Florida Department of Transportation that rejected Serenity’s initial plan to put it on Island Drive.
“When we went forward with the development, we went in front of FDOT and they denied us access to the original entrance on Island Drive,” Dermody said. “This was not our decision, we liked the Island Drive entrance but we can’t have that.
“Their reason was basically safety issues,” he said. “I have exhausted everything financially and emotionally, I tried everything to get it on Island Drive.”
Dermody said FDOT felt the Island Drive entrance was too close to an existing crosswalk and to the Y intersection where traffic veers either north to Eastpoint or south to the island, as well as to an adjacent neighbor to the north of the property.
“You have to be 440 feet away,” he said. “They suggested we move around the corner to South Bayshore Drive.”
In advance of the flurry of opposition from South Bayshore residents who opposed the project from start, largely based on traffic issues, Dermody argued to commissioners that the new entrance is the most viable option.
“We came up with something that is feasible to us and the community,” he said, noting that South Bayshore, also known as County Road 65 is 35 mph, and that its main use, other than by residents who live there, is as the most direct route from Apalachicola to the island.
He said there already exists a precedent for commercial access to South Bayshore, only one of which has a crosswalk and a stop sign.
Dermody said that the road’s designation as a National Scenic Byway, because it meets historical, cultural or recreational characteristics, actually encourages traffic. “It’s a nice designation but it really doesn’t have any effects legally,” he said.
Commissioner Ricky Jones, in whose district Serenity would be located, indicated his support for the changes from the outset. He said he liked that there would be more public, green space on the site, as the hotel is consolidated and the residences placed in the northwest corner and around the lake.
“We’ve met with the TDC and the chamber and hotel management companies and talked to tourists, and it seems to be that everybody is behind the idea of making it one building,” Dermody said. “There’s a need for a hotel that can host events and conferences; there is no venue that can handle that.”
He said in addition to the site being within an Opportunity Zone, a designation intended to spur investment by granting tax breaks, Serenity will provide employment to 60 to 80 people, and offer young people a chance to launch a career in hospitality.
“We’re trying to address the needs of the community,” Dermody said. “We will be among the largest payers of the bed tax. It will be beneficial for the entire community in a positive way.”
Speaking for himself, and not on behalf of the Eastpoint Civic Association, which has yet to weigh in on the revised proposal, Eastpoint businessman Rex Pennycuff urged commissioners to do what they can to influence Google and other digital direction programs to use Serenity’s Island Drive address to direct traffic down that thoroughfare and not along the South Bayshore Drive shortcut.
“That would be the most beneficial,” he said. “Encourage the Island Drive address to channel as much traffic down there as possible.”
Laverne Holman, a Bayshore Drive resident, led a group of neighbors, as well as some Apalachicola residents, in voicing strong opposition to the change.
She said that four years ago, when the PUD was granted, “we were assured there would not be any connection. We were told there would be 100 feet of landscaping and you won’t see any buildings.
“That has all changed now,” Holman said. “Now they want to go back on their word. This is wrong, outrageous and unacceptable. It’s time the property owners on South Bayshore Drive be given consideration. “It does not need more problem issues for an entrance into a commercial resort.”
She stressed that there had not been a traffic study done, that more county road maintenance would be required, and that ditches would be affected by the traffic. “This is not a commercial road but a narrow county road,” Holman said. “This road has become a race track, it cannot absorb the additional traffic to and from this resort.”
Dermody said that all trucks would be routed to Serenity via Begonia Street, but both he and consultant Dan Garlick said Begonia would not work as a main entrance point.
Other speakers spoke out as well, including Apalachicola’s Pete Whitesell, who said that the promise to create high-paying jobs was a mirage. “They’ll be short-lived, and the developers may bring in their own crews,” he said. “The results will be too much crime, a destroyed local neighborhood and more stress on the bay.”
Eastpoint resident Cliff Butler spoke in favor, arguing that he has watched as South Bayshore’s size has doubled over the years. “During that time I’m not seeing any problem with additional traffic,” he said. “None of us like more traffic but that’s a fact of life.”
Jones emerged as a chief proponent of the revised project, arguing that a key reason for granting the PUD in 2019 was to prevent the sprawl of what could have been mobile homes on the site.
“We were getting away from horrible zoning,” he said.
He took issue with those who argued that Serenity would harm the bay, noting that he and his family and others have been keenly aware of those issues for generations.
“I grew up in that industry, that is not something lost to me,” Jones said. “We didn’t discuss it from afar, we didn’t use it as a mechanism to make others do what we want them to do.”
He said Eastpoint’s role in the county is to allow for greater density, and that the developers are doing what they can to protect wetlands and preserve green space.
“We have to give them access somewhere,” Jones said. “Or that is an unreasonable stance for us to make.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley, who ultimately was the lone no vote on a motion by Jessica Ward to table the matter, spoke strongly in favor as well.
“You got to give access to a property. What is their big fuss about?” Lockley said. “The people done everything they’ve been asked.
“To throw the thing out, that wouldn’t be right,” he said. “Change is going to come.”
While not voicing direct opposition to the PUD revisions, Ward, along with Cheryl Sanders and Ottrie Amison each raised questions as to whether all steps had been taken to prevent greater stress on South Bayshore traffic.
“We know we got a road here that’s already a pain in the neck,” said Amison. “Are we sure we’ve exhausted everything with FDOT? I would recommend we exhaust everything before we decide to add to a problem we already have.
“We’re the ones who are going to have to maintain it in the future,” he said.
County Planner Mark Curenton said that while there had been no requirement that Serenity do a traffic study, he had recommended one but the developers chose not to pursue one.
“I don’t have numbers on what impact this would have on the level of service,” he said.
In making her motion, Ward agreed to continue the hearing to Tuesday, March 21 at 10 a.m., during which time she wants to have FDOT officials provide more information on their thinking.
“I do not want to approve this, I do not want to deny this,” she said. “FDOT owes us more information.
“I also find it ironic they (FDOT) are trying to make it on a county road rather than a state road,” Ward said. “Let’s see if we can get someone from FDOT to talk to this board to make sure we exhausted all our resources.”
There is already a problem with the traffic on Island Drive. No traffic light at Highway 98 and Island Drive creates a backup on a regular basis. The “Y” has one stop sign coming from Highway 98, and the traffic pouring off the bridge also creates a backup. I can’t imagine the stress the increased volume of traffic would cause if the new location of the entrance was placed on the lower Magnolia Bluff would be. Put the danged entrance on Highway 98 and put up that needed traffic light that people have begged for at Highway 98 and Island Drive.