Little Mice VS. Little Men

Words By Carmen Macri, Ambar Ramirez and Tysen Romeo

 

We arrived at the quaint neighborhood of Whispering Oaks around 9 a.m. and were greeted by one of the many friendly residents. After a quick introduction and a few firm handshakes, we were escorted on a quick walk across A1A Beach Boulevard to Ocean Hammock Park Walkway.

The walkway is located on a city-owned, 18-acre parcel of wetlands and dunes leading directly to the beach, one of the few public accesses in the area. It is about one-third of a mile long, and the sights along the way are what make it so special. The walkway begins with an archway of lush trees that encapsulates you with foliage so thick, you are completely sheltered from the sun. Because the walkway is elevated high above the ground, the wildlife that inhabits the area underneath is protected, as are the residents. Built for and funded by the community, the boardwalk is a staple piece to the morning, afternoon and evening routines of many residents. Built over 14 years ago, the wooden boardwalk remains in near-perfect condition.

Tony and Joni Brown were sitting on one of the built-in benches with their 18-month-old mutt, Penny Lane. When we approached, we were immediately greeted by hellos and tail wags. The Browns moved to St. Augustine Beach a few years ago and chose this location solely for the boardwalk. They wanted to live in a quiet beach town with easy access to the ocean. That’s why when Tony caught wind of the plans to remove the boardwalk, he took matters into his own hands. He was not going to let a few entitled residents take away his perfect retirement. Tony helped create a “Save Beach Boardwalk in Ocean Hammock Park” petition which now has over 5,000 signatures. 

It all began when a blue house was built about six feet away from the boardwalk. The $3 million home was constructed by an “out-of-towner” in the Sea Colony neighborhood, one of the last remaining beachfront lots in St. Johns County. Despite the fact that the Microsoft executive and his wife appear to only use the home as a get-away and not as a full-time residence, they want to demolish the 14-year-old walkway and have a new one built elsewhere because of its proximity to their “vacation” home, though they chose to build on the lot knowing the boardwalk was there.

While Sea Colony has multiple private walkways to the beach, three residents of the neighborhood are considering pledging $600,000 to “relocate” the Ocean Hammock boardwalk. The wetlands below are home to some of Anastasia Island’s native wildlife, some of which are protected endangered species. Not only would the cost of rebuilding the boardwalk be directly taken from and paid for by surrounding residents’ tax money, but tearing up the boardwalk would cause havoc to the surrounding ecosystem. Building a ground-level concrete path (think big sidewalk) in its place would result in destroying the lush foliage that surrounds the area and putting the wildlife in danger.

After a 10-minute hike underneath the green canopy and above the moss-covered ponds, we reached the end of the boardwalk where we were met with blue skies and a breathtaking view of St. Augustine Beach. Jeremie Sherman’s puppies were the first to greet us. Sherman has been a part of the community for five years and specifically chose this location for the public boardwalk. Like most of the nearby residents, Sherman uses the boardwalk daily. 

“Our boardwalk is used by many residents and visitors with mobility issues,” Sherman expressed. “Having a concrete path without handrails and secure footholds creates danger to the people and liability for the city.”

We know what you’re thinking. How could anyone, let alone the members of the St. Augustine City Commission, even consider tearing down a safe, well-kept and popular boardwalk just because of “Mr. Blue House” (Campbell)? Well, not to stir the pot, but it’s interesting to note Sea Colony is also home to St. Augustine Mayor Don Samora, Vice Mayor Dylan Rumrell and U.S. Rep. Mike Waltz.

“The majority of the city commissioners live in Sea Colony, and although they deny a conflict of interest, I beg to differ,” Sherman explained. “The issue was never addressed until Mr. Campbell built a multi-family fourth residence as close to the boardwalk as legally permitted. He then offered the city money to offset the cost of tearing down the boardwalk. This is entitlement at its finest. The majority of the residents along the north border of Sea Colony bought or built their houses after the existence of the boardwalk. Seems they should have noticed it before they moved there.”

According to Sherman, another reason Sea Colony residents want to tear down the boardwalk is because of “privacy and security” after an issue involving vandalism in the neighborhood. Shortly after the incident, reports revealed the vandals did not come from the boardwalk but from inside Sea Colony. And as Sherman put it, if they are so worried about privacy, additional fencing and shrubbery would rectify the problem. (Or don’t build a house six feet away from a public boardwalk.)

After speaking with Sherman, we were introduced to Mary and Martin Zydell. Martin is Mary’s 90-year-old father who recently suffered a stroke and can no longer speak or walk on his own, so she wheels him down the boardwalk every day. Since he is no longer able to ride in a car, “strolling” down the boardwalk is his only way of being outdoors. Because the current boardwalk is elevated, it also gives Martin, who is in hospice care, a perfect view of the beach. Normally a very quiet man, Martin immediately lights up and communicates to the best of his ability when they are facing the ocean, Mary said.

“Dad and I use the boardwalk several times a week, especially on the weekends and when the weather is good,” she explained. “Since dad is now only able to move around using a wheelchair, this boardwalk is an integral part of his ability to see the beach. Visiting the beach is one of the reasons that he moved to St. Augustine in the first place.”

Mary moved to St. Augustine beach in 2017, and during her time here, she has been able to work closely with a group of environmentalists on Anastasia Island. The group studies the endangered Anastasia Beach Mice by tracking their movements, breeding patterns, feeding patterns, etc. 

“I hope that the city will consider the views of all of their constituents, but more importantly,  do everything they can to reduce the impact on our local wildlife, as this is one of the few natural areas left in the immediate beach area,” Mary explained. “I personally feel that if the paths are at ground level, with the heavy foot traffic that will follow, it will inhibit the natural movement of the property’s wild residents. In addition, many people will feel free to move around the entire property, making it much more difficult to reduce damage to the natural area as well as contain and collect the trash that people bring in.”

Before the elevated walkways, there had been issues of water moccasins and rattlesnakes attacking residents and pets. In the span of just one month in 2014, three St. Augustine Beach residents’ dogs died from snake bites. According to a News4Jax report, residents had pleaded with the city for an elevated walkway through the dunes. If the city proceeds with the plans to tear down the Ocean Hammock boardwalk and create a ground-level pathway, potentially dangerous wildlife encounters would become a recurring event. 

We spoke with another resident of the area, Jim LeClare, who voiced his frustration with the boardwalk fiasco. 

“Many residents are angry, especially as Sea Colony extends one of their multiple private elevated boardwalks to the beach while proposing the public get relegated to grade-level paths,” LeClare said.

It’s important to note that while the informal proposal to tear down the boardwalk is coming from Sea Colony residents, it is the Florida taxpayers, Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program (FRDAP) and Florida Communities Trust (FCT) that get the final say. Undine George is a board member on the City Commission of St. Augustine Beach and cannot “wholeheartedly” support the idea of tearing down the boardwalk. As someone who manages public resources, George knows it is the responsibility of public officials to make decisions that are in the best interests of the greater community, rather than personal preferences or opinions of a select few.

“There is already so much distrust in government, and for a local government like St. Augustine Beach to prioritize the personal preference of such a small minority over the voices of such a huge majority, and without any evidence of a benefit to the greater public, would be a travesty,” George stated. 

As we began our trek back to the main road, reflecting on the protests made by the community, we bumped into Doug Gibson and his 2-year-old dog, Apollo. Gibson and Apollo are regulars on the boardwalk, using it up to three times a day. It was during their afternoon walk when Gibson shared some shocking news regarding a city commission meeting held last spring. It was the first meeting that the boardwalk removal was proposed with a representative of Sea Colony saying he didn’t want this to become a battle between the residents of Sea Colony and the “little people.” But little did he know, those “little people” would not be ignored. 

Not only would tearing down the boardwalk destroy the unique ecosystem surrounding the area, but it would also destroy a community staple that means a great deal to the residents of Anastasia Island. 

While there are a handful of people in favor of relocating the boardwalk, there are over 5,000 residents against it. 

In an effort to hear both sides of the story, we reached out to St. Augustine Beach Mayor Don Samora and Vice Mayor Dylan Rumrell. Rumrell was unavailable to comment, but after a few back-and-forth emails, we were able to set up a phone call with Samora. It was during this phone call that the mayor shed some light on his side of the story, as well as the city’s role. 

“Ocean Hammock Park is a beautiful, 18-acre oceanfront park that the city saved from development that was slated to be a couple hundred homes and some oceanfront condos,” Samora explained. 

In order to fund the park, the city took it to a referendum where taxpayers had the chance to vote to pay for the park through taxpayer bonds. For the rest of the funding, the city purchased the park with grant money from the Florida Communities Trust. But to even get the green flag to continue plans for development, the city had to submit a park management plan. 

Within the park management plan, there are multiple phases. Currently, the park is in phase two of development, which is the addition of amenities like bathrooms, picnic tables and small walking trails for the community to enjoy the whole property. Phase three is the part of development that has yet to be determined.   

There had been talk of building an additional central walkway, pavilions and an observation tower which would also bring in more traffic to the park (and possibly endanger the local wildlife) which is when Mr. Blue House and other Sea Colony residents informally proposed tearing down the current boardwalk in order to protect their “security and privacy.” But during a City Commission meeting held in February, a new option arose giving the city the chance not to go through with phase three at all. 

“That’s where the city is looking at all options. We want to get this right,” Samora shared. “This park will outlive me and the other commissioners. It’s gonna be a park for my children, my grandchildren, and we wanna make sure we do it right. And that’s why we’re taking our time and considering every option.”

Hopefully, the city commission of St. Augustine Beach listens to the majority of its residents to keep the current boardwalk intact and scratch phase three completely. Considering the addition of a cement walkway would still heavily interfere with the surrounding habitat and wildlife, it appears avoiding the conflict completely would be in their best interest.

For more information on the “Save Beach Boardwalk in Ocean Hammock Park” petition, click here.

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