Historic City News was watching when St Johns County commissioners returned from lunch to take on the most controversial item on today’s agenda — a vote to approve or deny the transmittal of a Comprehensive Plan amendment; which, in the end, they voted to do neither.
As St Augustine attorney George McClure, who represents Anderson Columbia, Inc., the owner of about 607 acres of land located within the northwest part of the County, approached the podium, he quipped that he “didn’t plan to win any popularity contest” today — and, as the public and commissioners discussed his request, it became clear that he wouldn’t.
At times, during the two-hours spent on the transmittal hearing, it was not clear whether the commissioners were more put off by the Anderson request, itself — or, the way that a new law has neutered their ability to have much say in whether or not the request should move ahead.
“Why am I even here?” asked Commissioner Ken Bryan; a question echoed by Jay Morris and Ron Sanchez.
Bryan, who failed in his bid for re-election, used the opportunity to forecast “greedy developers in Tallahassee, where cash is king” using the legislature to get around local development restrictions to build high-rise condominiums along St Johns County’s beaches.
Bryan was critical of Rachael Bennett during his campaign — she is the woman who defeated him. Bennett has been financially supported with numerous campaign donations in the maximum amount allowed by law from some of Jacksonville’s largest developers, land planners, engineers and real estate attorneys.
“I am saddened to think what will happen next,” Bryan said of the situation; even though he won’t have to deal with it since he won’t be on the governing body for more than three or four more weeks.
The areas adjacent to the Switzerland site, as it is known, are currently undeveloped. Because the property meets four specific definitions in a special law, that some are saying was written just for this piece of property, it is entitled to be transmitted to Tallahassee within 180 days of the application — unless the commission can show specific, clear and convincing evidence that approval will be “detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of County residents”.
The man who farms the timber on the property for the owner gave testimony that he believes residential development of the land should be approved for them “just like it is for everybody else”. Last year some of the timber was lost to a fire. “The same people that are here today complaining that you aren’t protecting them from the development,” the farmer said, “will be back here complaining when you don’t protect them from the smoke and flames of a woods fire.”
Transmittal of the proposed comprehensive plan amendment, as an “agricultural enclave”, and, as such, presumed not to result in urban sprawl, seemed inevitable; although six members of the public did speak against it. No one other than the owner’s attorney and timber farmer spoke in favor of the request.
Staff continued to note that there is a substantial existing inventory of approved housing units available within this area.
The Aberdeen is approved for 2,018 residential units, Durbin Crossing for 2,498 units, and RiverTown is approved for 4,500 units.
Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson said she remembered a former county commissioner who told her that sometimes the business of the county made him feel “unclean”. She went on to say that the new law was created by state legislators outside the county and that she didn’t like it. “It feels dirty,” Stevenson said. She also called the process “underhanded” and instructed County Attorney Patrick McCormack to investigate further. Stevenson says the statute was changed for this specific property and may not be constitutional.
During her comments, Stevenson said that the action was inappropriate and that she was saddened to have to deal with. “Bad things happen in Tallahassee during economic downturns,” Stevenson observed.
Saying that the application, originally filed in 2009, has been “cloudy from the beginning”, McCormack suggested the following choices for commissioners:
• Approve on findings
• Approve without findings
• *Take no action (will be transmitted by operation of law)
• Approve under protest or with comments
• Deny with an order including specific reasons (more legal exposure)
The vote was unanimous, 4-0, to take no action.