THE FIGHT TO KEEP A DEVELOPER FROM PAVING PARADISE IN JACKSONVILLE

Whether or not the increased traffic and environmental degradation that years of unmitigated (and sometimes unfinished) development have wrought upon the rural Northeast Jacksonville neighborhood of Oceanway lay solely at Steve Leggett’s feet,
the developer certainly bore the brunt of the fallout at a community town hall meeting in early February. And he never saw it coming.

Just a week earlier, everything had been business as usual for Leggett’s Signature Land Inc. The company was moving unopposed through the process of preparing a new 790-home planned unit development called Edwards Creek Preserve on 395 acres of marshlands and planted pine off a small, two-lane artery called Boney Road. Leggett knows this process well. He’s developed in this area before. His consultants had checked all the boxes, done all the studies, crunched all the numbers, and readied the proposal for easy approval by the Jacksonville Planning Commission — the nine-member body responsible for making recommendations to the City Council on all rezoning proposals.

Business as usual. Until it wasn’t.

In late January, shortly after an all-too-familiar, bright-orange “notice of proposal to rezone” sign was posted on Boney Road, a Facebook group calling itself Stop Boney Road Development began serving as a sort of sounding board for the neighborhood angst stirred by the havoc similar projects had wreaked in the past. They’d moved to a rural area, away from zero lot lines and congested roads, on purpose, and they didn’t want to lose their peace and quiet so some developer could make a quick buck.

“Zoned Rural means big yards, country Living quiet roads, goats, chickens horses, rabbits, dogs running around in the yard with the kids,” one commenter wrote.

Many group members posted pictures of what they called “rural living.” Some posted photo albums of “new home” signs planted in front of unfinished subdivisions. Still others posted pictures of wildlife in the area, asking, “Do you want to see this change?”

Even so, the Planning Commission had recommended the proposal, and the group now had just a week before the City Council was scheduled to vote on the rezoning. So they took advantage of a city guideline that allows for a community hearing before such rezonings, and called one.

There, at that Feb. 5 town hall, Leggett’s consultants took their shot at assuaging the increasingly vocal opposition’s concerns. 

It didn’t go well.

Several hundred people crammed into a local community center that Monday night. They listened — patiently at times, not so much at others — to Signature Land attorney T.R. Hainline describe Leggett’s plans. They voiced concerns about traffic, about school overcrowding, about the potential harm to a relatively pristine creek system connected to the St. Johns River. They audibly scoffed when Hainline said Signature would pay the city $2 million in mobility fees for the project, money that must be spent to improve roads in the immediate area. (“Two million won’t pave a parking lot,” one resident said.) And they lodged a barrage of insults at Leggett himself, including assertions that his avarice was tarnishing the memory of his father, former city councilman and parkway namesake Max Leggett.

“This development, sir, is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” Oceanway resident and public school teacher Marci McCosh told him.

After the meeting, Leggett was red-faced and agitated. He admitted he’d been blindsided. “I’ve already spent over $100,000 to get the facts,” he said. He didn’t understand why they were blaming him for things outside of his control, things beyond the scope of this one new development that he’d poured so much effort into. “These are city problems, not Steve Leggett problems.”

Perhaps, but they’d just become Steve Leggett problems.


In this part of Northeast Florida, narrow creeks and tributaries seem to jut out in every direction like the branches of a black mangrove. Talbot Island State Park, the Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park, and the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve are all within paddling distance. The area’s proximity to protected lands has done much to shelter its beauty, but that charm is also a draw for homebuilders.

There’s a long, storied history of unfettered, unrestricted and encouraged suburban sprawl in Jacksonville. It shouldn’t be too hard to forget, oh, say, a decade ago, when cookie-cutter craftsman homes on square, treeless lots, with views of retention ponds and highway-noise-obstructing walls were popping up all over Northeast Florida. A bloated housing market pushed these planned developments onto increasingly rural landscapes, long ignored because of a costly rezoning process.

The returns promised by the delusions of the housing bubble led developers to this marshy enclave in North Jacksonville. All the big boys came to town: D.R. Horton, KB Homes, D.D. Ware, Mastercraft. The allure of a larger residential population even brought big retailers like Walmart to the Northside’s $300 million, 425-acre mixed-use project, River City Marketplace.

Though some residents appreciated no longer having to drive a half-hour to the closest shopping destination — Regency Square Mall back then — many old-timers felt Oceanway was not fit for this type of transformation. As the population increased, roads like Alta Drive and schools like New Berlin Elementary, both constructed to serve the area’s sparse population, creaked and buckled under the ever-intensifying pressure.

Shane Williams, co-chair of the opposition to the Edwards Creek Preserve project, says that during the boom years, residents who voiced concerns about sprawl were mostly drowned out by those touting the economic benefits of development: jobs, increased property values, Walmart.

“I wish I knew what I know now,” he says. Things changed drastically in this part of Jacksonville in the years before the bust. Now, with that recession in the rearview, he adds, they’ve started ramping up again. “It’s just exploding, and it’s getting out of control.”

Williams, though he’s called the Edwards Creek project a “reckless development,” concedes that the community itself appears “well-planned.” Still, he says, “the location, the timing, it’s all just too much.”


In 2011, City Councilman Ray Holt, who represents Oceanway, fought side-by-side with residents to deny a rezoning proposal that would have brought a high-density apartment complex to Starrett Road, another small, rural artery. Holt says that during the housing boom, “the neighborhood changed.” Some 30,000 new homes were built in the area. Having come into office in 2007, just before the bust, he wasn’t in a position to do much about that.

When the opposition to Leggett’s Edwards Creek development hit the fan, Holt — who collected $500 from Signature Land in both of his City Council campaigns — took up the role of mediator. He wanted to bring the warring sides to the bargaining table. And he had an ideal perch from which to do so: the City Council’s Land Use and Zoning Committee, which he chairs.

Holt originally said he would seek a two-week deferment in order to give the two sides time to smooth over their differences. “It’s clear to me that we need some time for both sides to sit down together,” he told Folio Weekly following the Feb. 5 town hall meeting.

Leggett, however, wasn’t so keen on talking. “I’ve got the facts,” he told Folio Weekly after that town hall, “so I’m not really sure what there is to sit down and talk about.”

The facts, according to Leggett, are found in his 76-page rezoning proposal, which outlines all the work Signature Land’s team did to comply with the city’s requirements. There are the traffic studies, the ways the project addresses school concurrency guidelines, the findings of the environmental impact study, among other things. In Leggett’s view, the city has established certain obstacles for developers to clear. He cleared them. He did his due diligence — and sunk quite a bit of money into the project along the way. So what’s the problem?

Signature isn’t looking for any sort of break from the city, Hainline adds. He points out that even after the Edwards Creek Preserve project is approved, Leggett will still have to comply with elevated environmental standards and will keep more than 40 percent of the 395-acre parcel undeveloped. This isn’t development run amok.

Even so, St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman wants a more comprehensive inquiry into the project’s potential environmental ramifications before the City Council signs off. The proposed development’s density as well as its proximity to “an environmentally sensitive area” are “worrying,” Rinaman says. And she notes that with 790 homes, “you’re going to have a ton of fertilizers, pesticides, people washing their cars, all on a curb-and-gutter system that empties into those ponds.”

The ponds Rinaman is referring to are the multiple retention ponds in which the development’s storm water will be treated before being deposited into Edwards Creek, which is attached to the St. Johns River through a system of tributaries. Rinaman is concerned that the intensity of the new development, and the amount of runoff it will produce, threatens adjacent environmentally protected lands. At the very least, she says, this needs to be thoroughly and cautiously investigated.

“The state of Florida and the city of Jacksonville have put a lot of effort into protecting these lands,” Rinaman says. “There are higher levels of protection around these areas to protect them from degradation. I’m just not sure how you can meet these high standards with the high levels of density they are proposing.”

Rinaman also questions the urgency with which Signature and Leggett have tried to “fast-track” their proposal. “If you are confident you can meet these high standards, then what is the rush?” she asks. “Let’s sit down and bring all the interested parties to the table.”

Among those interested parties is The Florida Wildlife Federation, which sent a letter to the Planning Commission expressing its concerns about the adjacent Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve. Leggett’s proposed development, the letter says, conflicts with Pumpkin Hill Preserve’s plans to add land to the state’s parks system. In addition, 1,000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit that advocates for smart growth, weighed in as well, with a letter opposing the development because it has too many new homes.

Though many of development’s opponents are advocating on behalf of the Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve, the Timucuan Trail Parks Foundation — the preserve’s official friends group — has been relatively quiet. Maria D. Mark, executive director of TTPF, says that even if anything about the development were to potentially threaten the preserve, she has two reasons for believing it would ultimately be protected: One, interestingly enough, is that T.R. Hainline, the lawyer representing Leggett, is a TTPF board member. “T.R. has the insight and passion to see that the preserve is not put in jeopardy,” Mark says.

Reason two, Mark says, is Holt’s Feb. 5 promise to defer the proposal in his committee. “It seems like, with the deferment, the proposal will be on the slow track. I think we have time to get things worked out.” For now, she says, “neither the TTPF nor National Parks Service is taking a formal position.”

But promises, much like ecosystems, can be fragile.

 


Prior to the Feb. 18 Land Use and Zoning Committee meeting, Holt mediated a meeting between opposition rep Williams, Rinaman and Leggett. According to sources, no concessions were made and very little was accomplished — except that Holt withdrew his commitment to defer the proposal when it reaches his committee.

When Folio Weekly reached Holt for comment afterward, he said the intent of his promise was to give both sides a chance to sit down and hash things out, and since they’d done that, he wanted to “let the committee decide on deferment.” Holt did admit he felt his committee would be under “significant pressure from the community” to defer action on the proposal.

He was right.

Following Signature Land’s presentation and then a public comments session in which some 30 Oceanway residents voiced their concerns, the LUZ Committee put off its decision on the rezoning, citing a desire to hear more from the effected groups. The development has been stalled.

This was, for Oceanway residents, at least a temporary victory. But perhaps it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to forestall the creep of sprawl into their rural paradise forever, whether it’s Leggett or someone else doing
the building.

Weeks ago, at that town hall meeting when Oceanway residents drew their proverbial line in the sand, Signature attorney T.R. Hainline pointed to renderings of the proposed Edwards Creek Preserve development and prophesied what might be considered an uncomfortable truth. With developers pounding on their back door — and, for that matter, their front door, too — Hainline asked, “Do you want a master-planned community like this, or do you want something else?”

The print version of this story was published with the headline “Pave Paradise.”

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