In 1990, a triangular parcel of one hundred acres of waterfront St. Johns County land was designated conservation. Privately owned but almost entirely surrounded by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Guana Wildlife Management Area, the cutout was dubbed the “Outpost,” and it remains as idyllic as the refuge around it.
Now, the property owners intend to develop 66 homes on the land—and the St. Johns County Planning & Zoning Agency just might let them.
The owners in question are Ponte Vedra Corp. and its parent company, GATE Petroleum. PVC now claims that the conservation designation was erroneous. Concerned citizens disagree and have stepped up to form the initiative Save Guana Now. The activists hope to deter St. Johns County Commissioners from rezoning 74 of the Outpost’s upland acres as residential and thus green-lighting PVC’s development plans. Naturally, the members of Save Guana Now are prepared for a fight.
According to the initiative’s website, Save Guana Now believes the proposed development, Vista Tranquilla, would ‘punch a hole’ in the Guana preserve. Additionally, the advocacy group states that the development would likely cause polluted runoff to begin flowing directly into the Guana River.
Save Guana Now has been mobilizing since July 28, 2016, just a few weeks after PVC submitted its application to the county for a Planned Unit Development (PUD). It has also gone through the process of setting up a nonprofit corporation, created a website, distributed stickers and yard signs, and organized events to spread the message that overdevelopment is dangerous.
In the midst of legal action, a county judge had ruled that the Outpost’s designation could not be modified without a public hearing. The first of two scheduled meetings took place on Aug. 15 before the St. Johns County Planning & Zoning Agency. PVC reiterated its request to amend its land use and designate the Outpost as residential (Res A). Save Guana Now was there en force, with hundreds of supporters filling the county administration building. They wore white shirts in a show of opposition solidarity. Helping the initiative’s cause, a total of six experts—including an archaeologist, an ecologist and a hurricane evaluation specialist—argued the historical and environmental significance of the Outpost, and projected the negative impact of development. Two planners, a traffic expert and an attorney also presented their views.
The experts and 41 commentors spent an hour trying to convince the PZA to recommend denial of PVC’s application. Instead, the board voted 3-to-2 to recommend transmittal of the plan to the state.
Nicole Crosby, president and cofounder of Save Guana Now, said the vote was not a surprise considering the PZA board’s past history of pro-development voting—and the fact that members are politically appointed, not elected. She was heartened by a few facts, however. First, the County Commission has yet to rule, and can still uphold the conservation designation. Second, public opinion is opposed to redesignation and development of the Outpost. Finally, the first hearing saw an activist turnout of more than 400 people.
“The capacity of the room was 348,” Crosby told Folio Weekly, “and an official told the county attorney that 50 to 75 people were not allowed in by the fire marshal.” A monitor was installed in a separate room for the overflow. Crosby added, “The fire marshal told us it was the most people he had ever seen in his 26 years on the job.”
In the end, the County Commission has the final say on this matter, and that decision is expected to be announced at the next hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 17. If the Commission decides to approve transmittal to the state, the project would once again have to go through both the PZA and the Commission for final approval. If the commissioners deny PVC’s request, the development scheme ends there and then.
“I’m hopeful and optimistic that, on Sept. 17, the Board of County Commissioners’ vote will be the last vote on this issue, and the county commissioners will not vote to transmit to the state,” Crosby said. “That will in effect kill the project. If we don’t succeed, then we have to wait another two months for one last round of hearings—PZA in November and BOCC in December.”
Crosby recalled first learning of Ponte Vedra Corp.’s plan to build houses at the Outpost about five years ago. The original number it planned to build was more than 200. Yet, the company did not submit an application for a planned unit development to St. Johns County until July 11, 2016, by which point the number of houses had dropped to 77.
“My response was shock and anger. Everyone who knew about the Outpost property knew it to be conservation land, as it’s been for the past 29 years,” Crosby explained. “It never occurred to anyone that this designation could be changed.”
If the designation can be changed willy-nilly, Crosby mused rhetorically, then what’s the function of the county’s Future Land Use Map, which clearly marks the Outpost as designated conservation? This is a question many people are asking. Community members in the vicinity of the Outpost are outraged as well. As the proposal has progressed (and Save Guana Now has raised awareness), that outrage has spread across St. Johns County and beyond.
“I’ve learned that people are opposed to any conservation land being changed to residential, and that they are particularly opposed to the Outpost being changed due to its environmental sensitivity and location surrounded by the Reserve,” Crosby explained. “It’s important to note that there is no shortage of residential land available for people to build on in the area, so there’s simply no reason to sacrifice conservation land for this purpose. The application is purely profit-driven, it’s not due to a shortage of residential land.”
However, PVC argues that:
In the 1940s and 1950s, Stockton, Whatley & Davin (SWD) acquired land and created a master development plan for various land parcels in northeastern St. Johns County, then known collectively as the Guana Property. In 1958, phase one of development began with the construction of the Guana Dam, impounding the waters of the North River—or Tolomato River—and adjoining marshlands to create the 2,000 acre, nine and one-half-mile long Guana Lake. In the following years, utility, water and sewer facilities were developed to allow for platting and lot sales along the A1A portion of the property.
In the mid-1980s, GATE acquired these land assets from SWD and subsequently sold nearly 13,000 acres of Guana property to the state of Florida, making the creation of the GTMNERR possible. At the time, GATE retained two miles of oceanfront, one and three-quarter miles of Guana lakefront and the nearly 100-acre Outpost property for future low-density residential development. The private development of all the GATE retained lands was understood and agreed to at the time of the negotiations for the sale of 13,000 acres to the state.
For decades, the Outpost property has contained a lodge that is actively and continuously operated as a private, commercial hospitality venue (for events such as weddings and receptions) for up to 700 people. Today, Ponte Vedra Corporation is proposing a low-density, environmentally sensitive residential development on the non-wetlands portion of our privately owned land outside of the Guana boundaries. Guana will remain intact. Our proposal is simply seeking to develop our private property just as the numerous residents who are also adjacent to Guana have already been allowed to do.
Alternatively, Crosby argues that residents adjacent to Guana built on residential land, not conservation land. She added that this development proposal is really a Northeast Florida issue, not just a St. Johns County issue and certainly not just a Ponte Vedra issue. She says that to date, Save Guana Now has quite a bit of support, including that of six environmental groups (1000 Friends of Florida, Florida Wildlife Federation, North Florida Land Trust, Florida Audubon, Sierra Club NE Florida and Defenders of Wildlife NE Florida).
“We believe the benefits for keeping the Outpost in conservation far outweigh the benefits of development, and I think that will be very difficult to dispute,” Crosby said. “Since all plan amendments are legislative, the Board of County Commissioners can deny for any rational basis. If we don’t save it now, it will be gone forever.”
The next hearing in front of the St. Johns County Commissioners is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 17. For more information on this hearing, and to learn about ways to get involved in this effort, visit saveguananow.org.