In This Climate?! Small Islands, Big Fight

The beginning of the quarantine back in 2020 was a perfect storm for people starting to pay attention to the things, big and small, that they found to be important: from how to grow corn properly to protest movements across the nation. On a local level that storm threw down a lightning bolt right in the heart of Jacksonville Beach.

During our collective containment inside of our homes, a big fight began about a few small islands that any Jacksonville resident has probably passed dozens of times. Blink at the right moment and you could easily miss these tiny islands just north of the Arthur N. Sollee Bridge where J. Turner Butler Boulevard crosses the Intracoastal Waterway, The Small Islands, as they came to be known, would end up at the center of a big fight.

A sign appeared one day, as if it were a perfectly placed omen for the outrage that was to come. It was a “for sale” sign, complete with proposed development plans. The company behind the sale was offering the islands to be divided into lots and have single family homes built on them. These weren’t just any houses you would see in the countless developments across North Florida. The plans called for extravagant McMansions with private helipads, for, y’know, parking your helicopter because if you’re going to buy an island, you might as well have a helicopter.

At a time when most people were focusing on staying healthy and keeping food on the table, this proposal struck a nerve, especially with the locals. A large social media movement began protesting the development of the islands that rise gently above the salt water marshes of the Intracoastal. Residents of the Beaches and environmental activists alike were furious with the developers. Some protesters took it so far to publicly disclose the names and contact information of the individuals involved. Mostly the discourse remained civil and centered on the unique nature of the islands and the breakneck pace of development in the area. The activists’ campaign worked and organizations with the power to stop the situation took notice.

As quickly as they could, our local defenders of nature stepped up in a big way. The North Florida Land Trust announced they would seek the funds needed to purchase the Small Islands and protect them from development forever. The NFLT struck a deal with the property owners that if they could come up with the money within a year, the developers would sell the land to the Trust at a discounted price. In July of 2022, NFLT closed on the first phase of the purchase, saving 28 acres of land. In December, NFLT acquired an additional 252 acres and announced that the chain of islands and the surrounding marsh would become River Branch Islands Preserve. The money to complete the mission was provided by local donors and with the help of the newly formed River Branch Islands Preserve Foundation. Unfortunately, two acres within the area were sold by the developers before the one-year deadline had expired.

Too often fights like this end up with the underdogs fighting for the environment losing and the big guys on the side of development winning. But not this time. What residents and NFLT have accomplished is astounding: 280 acres of marshlands and several forested islands are safe from bulldozers and helicopters. And the people of Jacksonville Beach feel safer knowing the protected marshlands will continue to buffer storm surges without fear of pieces of McMansions flying through the air.


About Joseph Guiffre