A dispute between Nassau County and Rayonier, the largest local property owner, over a land use agreement within a 24,000-acre development site known as the East Nassau Community Planning Area, which stretches from A1A in Yulee to the state line, is being waged in Tallahassee, where lawmakers decided Tuesday to give round one to the local government with a decision by the Appropriations Committee to strike language from proposed legislation that officials maintained would have shifted the financial obligation for funding parks and recreation from the developer to local taxpayers at an estimated cost of $25 million to $50 million.
State Senator Aaron Bean, a Republican who represents Nassau and part of Duval counties, filed the amendment to change the bill after being lobbied by County Commissioners who traveled to the state capitol last week and this week to petition lawmakers about a "very bad" public policy.
While Bean was able to persuade his colleagues to change the bill, he recognized in remarks that the dispute had soured the Public Private Partnership and he'd be "buying fancy coffee" to help broker a peace treaty between local government and Rayonier.
"No one likes to put their dirty laundry out for everybody to see," said Bean.
Today the state House of Representatives is scheduled to hear companion bill HB 697. Representative Cord Byrd, a Republication from Neptune Beach who represents Nassau County, filed an amendment to delete language that, officials maintained, would relieve Rayonier from funding requirements for recreation. He, too, was lobbied by commissioners to make the change.
County Attorney Michael Mullin, who spoke to the committee from the public podium, according to a live stream of the discussion on the state senate website (flsenate.gov) and insisted that Rayonier, through its subsidiary Raydient Places + Properties, slipped language into the bill that would have "eviscerated" the local agreement that was years in the making.
"Why? Why would they do that?" he said.
Mullin maintained that the company sought relief from their financial obligations to provide public parks and public facilities for indoor, outdoor recreational, cultural, and educational uses through the legislature.
Mullin said the county lobbyist discovered the change in a bill on impact fees and brought it to his attention earlier this month. The amendment to SB 324 was filed Jan. 26 by Associated Industries of Florida (AIF). While county officials insist Rayonier and Raydient are behind the proposed legislation, company officials have not publicly acknowledged an association with AIF. In a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper last week, Raydient said it wanted to "Set the Record Straight" and called for fair treatment amid, shifting costs, and "inequitable burden."
According to Mullin, the dispute between the county and Raydient started about four months ago and, in his opinion, negotiations should be taking place in Nassau County and not in Tallahassee.
"Not here," he said. "It's not necessary."
Mullin said the county had a scheduled meeting this month with Raydient to try to work things out, but the company failed to show up on Feb. 12, claiming they wanted a mutually agreed upon agenda that would not discuss funding.
The county also invited officials from the ENCPA's Stewardship District, a private governing body approved by the legislature last year with support from Bean, Byrd and the County Commission. But they didn't show up either, according to Mullin.
East Nassau Stewardship District lawyer Craig Wrathell, president and partner of Wrathell, Hunt & Associates in Boca Raton, said by email Tuesday that the district "remains committed" to a "civics facilities study" requested by the County Commission last year in September to consider "future facility needs."
HB 324 Sponsor, Senator Dana Young, a Republican from Tampa, said the bill is "good public policy" because it applies "equal protection" for large-scale development in sector plans that require advanced land use planning, and small-scale development outside of a sector plan. The ENCPA is a designated sector plan.
Young also called for impact fees to be imposed no earlier than when a building permit is issued and to have a rational and specified reason to collect and spend the money.
Young said she expects the bill to come back to the senate and, for now, she would let the will of her colleagues "reign." She also said she understood that Bean, whose brother-in-law Robert Bradley chairs the senate Appropriations Committee, was in "a very difficult position."
Gary Hunter, a property rights lawyer for the Florida Chamber, said he represented Rayonier last year in its quest for the Stewardship District, and in comments from the podium, announced that the bill doesn't reverse any part of the local agreement or relieve the company from any of its financial obligations.
"It's not intended to do that," he said. "This is good, basic public policy."
Whatever the proposed legislation was intended to do, it has created a deep divide between Nassau County and Rayonier-a company that could have been described, until recently, as the government's 'best corporate friend.' At a Feb. 16 board meeting, officials said the relationship may be irretrievably broken and commissioners began plotting revenge by directing staff to find ways to hurt Raydient's development efforts within the ENCPA, which will topple an expansive pine forest around I-95 and US 17 for a mix of residential, commercial, industrial, resort, and conservation land. Ideas included raising the property rate to 10 mills within the district, eliminating a 12 percent property tax discount to fund public roads, and dissolving the ENCPA altogether.
At a meeting in chambers Feb. 23, after the board wrapped up its first week of lobbying in Tallahassee, commissioners took Rayonier to task, calling the proposed legislation a betrayal by a company they had long considered to be a partner.
While Commissioner Danny Leeper called the company "deceitful," Commissioner Justin Taylor summed it up this way: "I think like many of you I'm still trying to pull the knife out of my back."