During the golden days of the Great Housing Boom, St. Johns County was a sweet spot in Northeast Florida. It offered good schools, a life seemingly cosseted from crime and other urban problems, as well as a short commute to Jacksonville jobs. For housing developers, the county presented thousands of acres of undeveloped real estate in picturesque settings and a dependably development-friendly County Commission.
Indeed, commissioners approved 147 new development projects out of 149 presented to them in 2003. As Folio Weekly reported in our 2004 story, “Choking on It,” real estate developers and companies that work with them spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep that development-friendly County Commission in office. In 2004, the development community provided most of the $111,120 war chest for District 5 incumbent James Bryant. In 2006, District 2 candidate Karen Stern raised $197,815 and District 4 Commissioner Bruce Maguire raised $145,534 for their campaigns.
Eventually, it backfired. A voter revolt booted those pro-development commissioners from office despite their big war chests. Developer-bashing candidate Tom Manuel beat Maguire with only $15,790 in contributions, and Ron Sanchez eked out a win over Stern with only $12,920. Then, the housing market collapsed.
In the 2012 St. Johns County Commission elections, however, there’s a resurgent interest brewing. Developers are again pouring money into the commission elections in a move seen as an effort to regain a pro-development majority. It’s not the $100,000 bank they funded in 2004, but public records show developers and their cohorts are lining up strings of $500 donations for select candidates.
It’s a critical time. County commissioners have more power to make land-use decisions than they’ve had in the past 43 years. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature removed state oversight of growth management and planning when they dismantled the state Department of Community Affairs last year.
“There are small signs real estate is making a slight comeback,” said Clara Cowan, president of the Seaside Homeowners Association in Ponte Vedra, who has been a quality of life advocate for many years. “Without regulation and oversight, developers are going to have a field day if they can get up and going.”
District incumbent Cyndi Stevenson agrees that growth management has become a local responsibility. “I think the state is lowering the bar. They are changing the law and putting more pressure on local government,” she said. With people desperate for any sign of economic life, she said she fears the state will make rash decisions. “If our economy isn’t strong, the state will sell us off piece by piece,” she said. “I’m a native Floridian. I’ve seen that happen.”
This election cycle, developers aren’t just contributing dollars directly to candidates or through special interest organizations. They appear to have one of their own running for office. Rachael Bennett is listed as the senior vice president of Hutson Companies in filings last updated in January 2012 on the Florida Division of Corporations website. She is also listed as the vice president or as an officer in 22 other companies affiliated with Hutson. The company is one of the largest landowners and developers in St. Johns County. Hutson’s Elkton Green in southern St. Johns is a 10,000-acre swath of agriculture and timberland that would have been prime for master development in the housing boom. (Bennett is listed as Priscilla L. Bennett in corporate and property records, but she is known and running for office under her nickname, Rachael.)
Bennett says she resigned from Hutson when she decided to run for the County Commission seat, and she started a consulting firm in February. Elkton Green is one of the major clients of her new firm Cogito. Still, some voters like Cowan question whom Bennett will represent if elected and if she has indeed separated from Hutson.
Out of curiosity, a call to Hutson on July 24 produced a voicemail recording that said to press “12” to reach Rachael Bennett; a woman who answered said Bennett had just stepped into a meeting and she would give her a message to call. Bennett later said she was at the company on business for Elkton Green. “It still says that? They haven’t changed the voicemail,” she said of the recording. “I haven’t worked there since January.”
There is no question that Bennett’s campaign to unseat District 5 incumbent Ken Bryan is funded by development dollars. He’s raised $18,780 in contributions, mostly with $100 donations from individuals and a handful of $500 donations from large companies and several developers. By contrast, almost all of the $57,195 that Bennett has collected is from development sources, including $6,000 donated to her campaign from Hutson-affiliated companies and $500 donated directly from Nancy Hutson.
This race will probably be decided by Republican voters in a closed Aug. 14 primary. By filing as a non-party-affiliated candidate, frequent Republican commission candidate Randy Brunson limited the primary to the Republican runoff. He’ll face the winner in November.
Bennett welcomed the business community support. She said she understands county land development code from government and business angles. She worked as a planner in the county’s zoning and development services division before taking a job as planner for the engineering firm England-Thims & Miller and then a position as senior vice president of land development for Hutson. She also said the development community supports her because she’s not automatically anti-growth. “That whole evil developer thing is really old-hat,” she said.
In addition to funding Bennett’s campaign, developer dollars also support District 1 incumbent Stevenson. She’s held office since 2004 and said she has voted for development projects. Stevenson said she tried to secure additional conservation lands, dedicated road rights-of-way, land for schools and dollars for road improvements before voting for projects. “I have a track record of pragmatic decisions,” she said. “I’m not the Great Satan.”
Although other current commissioners like Ron Sanchez promised not to take development dollars, Stevenson has accepted developer contributions in all three of her campaigns. In this election cycle, she’s received money from Hutson Companies affiliates, real estate attorney John Metcalf, Alterra Group in Jacksonville, Nocatee-related companies including the Sonoc Company LLC, The PARC Group and the Winn-Dixie Davis family, who originally owned more than 10,000 acres of what is now Nocatee. Of the $37,820 that Stevenson has raised, $3,100 is from Hutson-affiliated companies alone.
But for Stevenson, dollars don’t buy votes.
“I don’t consult my donor list when I make decisions,” she said.
Real estate and land-use attorney Metcalf has contributed $250 to Stevenson and $500 to Bennett so far this campaign season. He said that it’s logical that an industry regulated by the County Commission which had to secure approval for projects would donate to commission candidates.
“It makes common sense. It isn’t to buy somebody. It’s to get somebody elected who’s going to be a reasonable person,” he said. “They are going to decide whether or not you can use your land.”
Commmissioner Sanchez said he understands that land owners and developers depend on County Commission decisions for their livelihood, but he doesn’t want to go back to the good old days. “I can understand that it is their business and their right politically to try to take control of things,” he said. “I don’t want to go back to where the County Commission is controlled by developers.”
Susan Cooper E