The DRIEST Beach in the World

September 20, 2017
12 mins read

Oceanfront lots on Amelia Island represent some of the most attractive and valuable real estate in the Southeast, with parcels typically selling for almost $1 million, sometimes more. Yet the lots in American Beach, situated between two high-end resorts and gated communities on the barrier island’s waterfront, list for half that price or less. It sounds like one of the greatest real estate investment opportunities in the region—and that may actually be the case—yet something is holding back land value. Most people with knowledge of the area and the situation agree that public services—principally, water and sewer services—are the main reason for lagging property values. Given American Beach’s location and history, however, the cause and solution to this dilemma comprise a complicated story.

When Carlton Jones’ stately three-story vacation home caught fire on a damp and breezy morning in early January last year, Jones was actually in luck. Location is very important in real estate and, being a block from the ocean and the state’s tallest sand dune lend Jones’ house obvious cachet, but its proximity to something even scarcer in American Beach is arguably the reason for the home’s survival: a fire hydrant.

Jones and his family had already left to return to their home in Jacksonville when neighbors sounded the alarm at 9:19 a.m. Crews from Nassau County Fire Station 20, which is a half-mile away on S.R. A1A First Coast Highway, arrived within five minutes. Firefighters pulled water hoses into the house but were forced to evacuate and regroup. Dozens of firefighters from Fernandina Beach, and Nassau and Duval counties were called to help.

According to the incident report issued by the chief’s office, a truck equipped with aerial apparatus was used to dump water from above, onto the house. While that effort would eventually help extinguish the blaze, it could not save sections of all three levels and a large chunk of the roof from collapse.

Reporters arrived. House fires with big flames are typically front-page news and lead local newscasts. But this fire, which substantially destroyed Jones’ home and caused more than a million dollars in damage, attracted attention for other reasons, as well.

Jones is a well-known real estate developer and pastor in Jacksonville. And American Beach is a historic community, established in 1935 as a coastal playground for African Americans who couldn’t share the beach with white people during legalized racial segregation under statutes and sanctions known as Jim Crow laws.

So when Jones’ house went up in flames, people paid attention.

“I heard from many, many people locally and across the country who were happy to learn that my family was safe and also that no other homes in this historic community were hurt by the fire,” he said. “It could have easily spread.”

The nearby tree canopy is 100 years old; behind Jones’ house is a dune with a small, brittle maritime forest. Jones, who’s owned the house for 15 years, told Folio Weekly that the fire was started due to problems with electrical equipment in the attic. He’s sensitive to the fragile conditions of his home’s natural surroundings.

“If you had a lightning strike, this area could have a serious fire,” he said.

In American Beach, fire protection—as well as water and sewer services—are important issues. That’s because public utilities are scarce.

Most property owners maintain private wells and septic systems, with setback restrictions on where they can be located. There is a fire station nearby, but there aren’t many hydrants near houses.

Jones has one close by his house on Gregg Street near Burney Road, where the county has utility lines for water and sewer service. Osprey Village, an upscale assisted living facility, and Burney Park, with its restroom and shower pavilion, are both located along the roadway and tie into the public service. Jones’ house and those of his closest neighbors also connect to utilities. Their houses are voluminous dwellings with values in the seven figures because they’re not limited in square footage or the size of a well and septic tank.

Yet Jones said the additional fire crews called to his home were asked to bring water. “I also heard the water pressure was low,” he said.

There is no mention of an inadequate water supply in the county report on Jones’ house fire and Assistant Fire Chief Scott Hemmingway said he doesn’t recall any problems with water pressure. But for years, county officials have been looking for ways to improve fire safety at American Beach, as well as water and sewer services and, with it, economic development.

In 2013, Nassau County paid Jacksonville company GAI Engineering, Planning & Environmental Consulting $10,000 to study how to provide reliable public water service for potable water, sewage collection and fire protection. The study considered various options and determined that the cost to provide the services to 319 lots was $1.1 million for water and $2.2 million for sewer. Under the proposal, property owners would each pay $26,144, including a one-time payment of $8,869 and a 15-year annual assessment fee of $1,151.

“This undertaking would provide a safe and reliable water and sewer system, provide fire protection, improve the health and welfare of the new community, and promote economic growth in the area,” according to the report. “American Beach residents will be able to abandon their existing private wells and septic tanks and benefit from a reliable and quality water supply system that eliminates sewage seepage into the ground and groundwater.”

Jones embraced the plan but realizes that the costs are prohibitive for many owners. He is president of Friends of American Beach, a nonprofit that raises money for local projects, such as American Beach Museum, which opened in a county building on Julia Street in 2015, as well as placing historical markers. He led an effort in 2016 to place a marker at 5466 Gregg St., once home to A.L. Lewis, president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and founder of American Beach. The organization is also focused on raising funds to restore Evans Rendezvous Club, a former oceanfront restaurant and club where jazz great Cab Calloway played and Hall of Fame baseball player Hank Aaron visited.

While efforts to preserve the community’s history are well-documented, less well known is the organization’s top priority to connect to Nassau Amelia Utilities, the county system.

“Water and sewer is our No. 1 issue,” said Jones.

Owners, who embrace the idea, rejected the plan due to cost.

Ruth Waters McKay, who worked at Jacksonville City Hall under three mayors before retiring, once led a delegation to Washington, D.C. seeking congressional support for the development of municipal services on American Beach. McKay said many property owners simply can’t afford the out-of-pocket expense.

“A lot of people are on fixed incomes,” she said, and cannot comply with the various requirements of the study’s recommendations. “At one time there was a big push there. It’s still a hot issue we haven’t been able to move on yet.”

Jones is rebuilding; the scaffolding that has surrounded his house since last year is expected to come down by the end of the summer. It’s been an extensive and lengthy project and first-time or casual visitors to American Beach may think a new house is under construction and perhaps the area is seeing a new wave of development.

And American Beach is indeed attracting some new residential construction and significant renovation projects. Dumpsters can be seen in front of neglected houses, many of which date back to the 1940s and 1950s; their state of disrepair is such that they could use an overhaul.

But development and redevelopment is coming at a much slower and more modest pace than what might be expected. As a general rule, American Beach has not seen the fortune that has come to the rest of Amelia Island, or even much new development since Abraham Lincoln Lewis purchased 200 acres of a pristine maritime forest with ocean frontage and sold lots to employees of his Afro-American Insurance Company as a vacation haven more than 80 years ago.

Longtime business consultant Bill Moore, who lives on Amelia Island and specializes in community planning, said large-scale developers can’t make money at American Beach under the current conditions. He has worked with the developers of Amelia Island Plantation Resort and directs the South Amelia Island Shore Stabilization Association, a special taxing district for property owners on Amelia Island’s south end that collects money to maintain and re-nourish local beaches. “The lack of water and sewer has limited development more than anything,” he said.

Nassau Amelia Utilities, owned and operated by Nassau County, provides potable water and a waste-water system to some 3,000 customers on the island, including a handful of houses on the south end of American Beach. Jones’ residence, which is tucked among a cluster of high-priced homes on the south end, also taps into NAU. The rest of American Beach must make do with well water and septic systems, or a very small utility provider that does not have to meet the same criteria as standard municipal providers.

Nassau Public Works Director Scott Herring said in an interview in July that the county continues to look for ways to ease the financial burden. In August, an employee was sent to an engineering conference to learn guidelines for new state and federal grants, including requirements and deadlines, and how to successfully complete paperwork from Tallahassee and Washington. While American Beach is just one of the projects under consideration, Herring said tying properties into the county system is important.

“The more wells you have, the greater the risk of contamination for septic tanks, especially older ones,” he said in a phone interview. “We think [the county supply] is a better environmental system.”

Herring said the county receives about five or six inquiries a year asking about connection fees. “The cost is high,” he said. “The big fees are running the lines.”

The Nassau Health Department handles inspections, only for those seeking to modify or install a new system, said Michael Godwin, Environmental Health Service Director of the Florida Department of Health in Nassau County.

At American Beach, the systems are old and the lot sizes are small, most 50-feet-by-100-feet. Godwin said septic systems must be five feet from the house and 75 feet from a private well. Where the neighbor has their system is also a factor.

“A bigger home needs a bigger septic system,” he said. “It’s hard to fit a bigger system under current lot sizes.”

He said property owners who want to build a bigger house that requires a bigger system (it’s based on the number of bedrooms and size of living space) can ask for a variance from the state. “They make a decision based on site evaluations, soil conditions, setbacks. Things like that,” he said.

Godwin said his office receives two or three variance requests each year from American Beach property owners, who typically work through a private company for a custom-engineered system that also requires an annual maintenance agreement. “They require continual inspection,” he said. “Our minimum is once a year.”

Water companies are regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection. At American Beach, this includes NAU and American Beach Villas, a small system that provides water to a transient motel on Gregg Street that was once a thriving vacation resort known as the Lewis Motel, after the community’s founder.

Russell Simpson, public liaison for the state’s northeast district of the Department of Environmental Protection, said monitoring is very limited for American Beach Villas and testing is done every five years. He said Bobby Dollison, who owns the property and lives onsite, provides his own water sample.

“We haven’t had any issues,” he said.

His colleague Joni Petry, a DEP coordinator, said in a conference call with Simpson that the DEP does less testing for small systems that provide water to fewer than 25 people or 15 connections, such as the American Beach Villas. While a big service may test for chemicals, such as petrol and phosphates, the small companies (the DEP reps said there are hundreds in Florida) don’t offer extensive testing.

Dale Cole, of residential and commercial firm Cole Builders in Fernandina Beach, is building a multilevel deck on an oceanfront home in American Beach. Cole said he’s often asked about water and sewer systems. “I know there’s a guy down the road who’s got a system but I don’t know if he can help,” he said in an impromptu interview last month near his client’s house along Gregg Street.

“This is the ocean, people want a big, tall house where you can have everyone over and see the water,” he said. “But it’s not possible on a lot of these properties.”

Conditions also make it difficult to sell real estate, including oceanfront property.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the great-granddaughter of American Beach founder A.L. Lewis and the sister of MaVynee “The Beach Lady” Betsch, who protected the environment and one particular giant sand dune she christened ‘NaNa,’ is selling a vacant lot on the water. While there is strong interest in the land, she has not yet found a buyer. Cole, who lives in Virginia near D.C., said by phone she has plans to use the money from the sale to buy a house in the community further inland. The property is listed for $495,000.

“While I have deep, deep, family roots in American Beach … I have no intention of selling that property until I can get what it’s worth,” she said. “I’m sentimental but American Beach is a good investment. The values will go up and up.”

Her realtor Jack Shanklin said it’s a good deal.

“To live on Amelia Island? It’s amazing,” he said. “American Beach has taken a while to catch up with prices but I think it’s a wonderful place.”

Joyce Jefferson, president of the American Beach Property Owners Association, thinks so, too. Jefferson purchased her house on Lewis Street after retiring as an archivist for The Weather Channel in Atlanta two years ago. She had vacationed in the community for years, starting when she was a child.

“Homes are a prized possession for those who live here,” she said. But, she added, the community is blighted.

“Some people might take offense to that, but it’s true,” she said. “Go down any street. Take a look. Around the corner I can show you three [blighted] properties in a row.”

American Beach is a motley mix of ramshackle and abandoned buildings, modest and well-kept homes, and a smattering of million-dollar dwellings. For people who see the ocean, sand dunes, turtles and the public park that often plays host to music festivals, family reunions, bike tours and campers, it’s a head-scratching puzzle: Why haven’t developers overrun this beautiful place with condominium towers or blown-up beach homes?

Jefferson would like to see improvements, but she’s also concerned that polishing American Beach could potentially wipe away its history as an African-American enclave and create a high-end community with access restricted by the size of one’s bank account.

“I don’t want to see this island turn into another Hilton Head, with people putting up gates and locking out the public,” she said. “The average person should have access to the beach.”

Jefferson lives in a pretty, single-story home painted a beachy shade of salmon, with a porch and a sign that says ‘Joyce’s Place.’ She spoke to FW in an interview in her spacious living room, decorated with cushy sofas and family photos.

She understands that if utilities come to American Beach, it could bring about significant change, including widespread property sales. While many owners have long-standing connections to the community, most do not homestead, and she knows that. Of the 56 parcels on Lewis Street, there are 10 homestead properties, according to the Nassau County Property Appraiser.

“I don’t want to see condos on either side of us,” she said. “We want to keep it a family community. But I know money talks.”

Jefferson opens a photo album chronicling her family’s American Beach vacations through the years. There are many shots of smiling groups and an image of a sundries store, with a cactus painted near an entry that was shuttered long ago, along with many other businesses that once plied their trades on American Beach.

“We should have something now that sells food or ice cream. Something to enjoy at the beach,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a five-star restaurant.”

Realtor Sherri Rinker of Amelia Coastal Realty in Fernandina Beach is selling an ocean view lot on Lewis Street that’s zoned for business. “It could be a first-floor shop with a second-story apartment or a boutique hotel with fabulous ocean views,” she said. The property is listed for $385,000.

“I’ve got a woman from Augusta, Georgia who understands the value but her concern is price,” she said.

And utilities?

“The county has got to do something about utilities here,” said Rinker.

The property comes into view from the crest of a shrinking dune. The ocean sparkles in the background. It’s easy to imagine spending a weekend in a small hotel steps from the water, enjoying morning coffee or an evening glass of wine on the deck.

But does American Beach have enough foot traffic to support commercial business without being tied to a resort or a golf course? Rinker thinks so.

“If they could establish something that would get things rolling,” she mused.

UPDATE: At the September 18 Nassau County Commission meeting, the commissioners decided to put water and sewer for American Beach on its list of legislative priorities for the upcoming session.

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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