“What does the county want to be when it grows up?”
— Sarah Owen, Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns County
With the flick of a gavel, the St. Johns County Board of Commissioners could approve the addition of a nearly 1,000-unit development in a rural part of one of the fastest-growing counties in the country this month.
That could have detrimental environmental impacts for the south end of the county and Pellicer Creek, environmental advocates say, in addition to adding stress on already overcrowded schools, spread-thin fire services, and roads meant for rural communities.
If approved, Kings Grant would house 999 units, a 120-bed medical facility, a 260-bed assisted living facility, 130,000 square feet of commercial space and 200 hotel rooms on 772 acres on the northwest corner of the area of the interchange of S.R. 206 and I-95.
Matanzas Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon says it’s a dangerous place for some of Florida’s delicate waterways to have hundreds of people added into the mix.
“If you had to put a pin on any area in St. Johns County that is the worst place, environmentally speaking, to put a development like this, I would argue you could put a pin there and be 100 percent correct,” he says.
The Matanzas River and Crescent Lake watersheds touch the property, which sits 10 miles uphill from Pellicer Creek — this means, even with all precautions taken, urban runoff from any development there will eventually drain to Pellicer Creek, Armingeon says.
The headwaters of any body of water is the most critical area of a water system because it feeds the waterway, including any pollution, and Kings Grant would sit in the headwaters of Pellicer Creek, Armingeon says.
Another issue for the developer is fire service. The closest existing fire stations to the property, which is proposed off an interstate exit whose main features are a Flying J truck stop and potato farms, are in Crescent Beach, near St. Augustine Shores on U.S. 1, and in Hastings.
Fire trucks coming from Crescent Beach would be slowed by railroad tracks and a drawbridge. And the St. Augustine Shores station also stands on the other side of tracks. Hastings, meanwhile, has one truck in operation. None is within five miles, and the Fire Rescue Department would not be able to meet response time goals to the development, and possibly slow service in the communities from where a truck might come, according to a staff analysis of the developer’s application.
That’s been the biggest sticking point for the developer with the Planning and Zoning Agency, which recommended denial of the project by a 4-3 vote in July. That vote was much closer after the developer added a medical facility and commercial space at the suggestion of county staff in December 2014, when it first applied.
“Staff is of the opinion the addition of the medical campus promotes a type of development in this area that is not found within several miles, and the medical campus has the potential to provide economic benefits to the County if developed,” the growth management department staff wrote in its analysis of the development.
But the list of infrastructure shortcomings in the area seems to be longer than potential economic benefits.
There’s no wastewater treatment plant in that part of the county, though the developer is slated to build one in phase three of the project, which could take up to 15 years to complete.
Most of the commercial development, the hospital, hotel and medical offices are also slated for phase three.
To its credit, the developer volunteered three acres to the county for a fire station, according to county documents, although the county does not have anywhere near the funds to pay for a new fire station, especially after commissioners denied putting a sales tax referendum on the ballot to help balance the budget this summer.
Required impact fees, which the developer may agree to pay up front, would cover only 25 percent of a new fire station, according to county documents.
Plus, nearby Pedro Menendez High School is already at capacity, and the St. Johns County School District’s shortage of seats across the county is well-documented. School district staff says they are two schools behind now, with population growth expected to continue to well outpace funding for construction and renovation projects.
It remains unclear what direction the commission, which has approved enough developments to place St. Johns among the fastest-growing counties in the nation, will go with Kings Grant.
Commission Chair Rachael Bennett’s relationship with area developers has been called into question in the past, because she has served as senior vice president for prominent landowner in St. Johns County and development firm Hutson Companies until her election in 2012. Before that, she worked for the engineering firm England, Thims & Miller, the same firm that’s designing Kings Grant.
Thomas Ingram, who represents the developer at County Commission meetings, cites the medical facility, which will serve an “aging population,” and increased job opportunities for the southern part of the county in his defense of the project and says the county’s comprehensive plan had slated this area for future development 25 years ago.
“We have worked very hard with the County to propose a planned community that addresses the community’s need for services, infrastructure and environmental protection. There is a great deal of detail in all of this that is difficult to capture in a news story, but the needs for services, infrastructure and environmental protection are all being addressed,” he wrote in an email.
Sarah Owen, who has been following St. Johns County development closely for the Florida Wildlife Federation, says she’s worried about the precedent approving such a development in rural south St. Johns would set.
Kings Grant would have 13 houses within an acre, and if approved, she says, it’s likely more development would be proposed in the area at that density, making it much more difficult for the county to deny later projects after this one is approved. In its analysis, county staff calls Kings Grant a potential “catalyst for future development.”
“Our position is, this is not the right time,” Owen says. “In the northwest section of the county, you’ve created a boondoggle. Near [State Road] 206, we have the potato capital of Florida, timberlands for wood production and also as a wild natural habitat. We need to talk about how we can protect this. We should get together with the landowner, others and develop a plan for how we should develop this part of the county. One landowner shouldn’t be able to set the precedent,” she says.
“We’ve got issues today, do we want more tomorrow?”
The vote on Kings Grant has hit several delays, the latest coming after developers submitted an updated economic study on the Friday afternoon before a Tuesday meeting, violating the county’s Neighborhood Bill of Rights, which requires 15 days between the introduction of new and significant economic information and a commission vote.
The vote is now expected to come before the commission at the Tuesday, Sept. 15 meeting.