St Johns, FL
Next Tuesday, the St Johns County Commission will take up a very significant change to county land development concurrency. The proposed change is highly detailed and very technical. It was developed by a committee, composed mostly of developer representatives, working over the last 14 months in what many feel is an attempt to quickly ram through a bailout for developers and transfer their obligations for road and school improvements to the tax-payers.
Based on a change in Florida law in 2011, the state legislature has created the imperative for communities to look very closely at how they fund transportation and school impacts from new developments. Now, many previously negotiated and approved developments are rushing to the St Johns County commission to have their agreements modified. In every instance to date, they have sought a waiver of large amounts of previously agreed to costs for impacts of their development dedicated for roads and schools improvements. One attorney went so far as to tell the county commission that state law demanded the commission modify her client’s agreement the day it was presented to the St Johns County Commission. The attorney purposelessly misrepresented state law and neglected to tell the commission the alternative was to revoke the original development agreement and start over.
Land development is a necessary component for a healthy county economy, but we must as a community, find the best solution to address this change in state law. At this point, the only ones at the table are the developers and their voice is being heard, but the process has been closed to the regular tax-payer. As a rule we should be determining the most fair and equitable way to comply with state law, a way that is not one sided for either the tax-payer or the developer. This change in state law should not be used as a way for one side to get all the benefits at the expense of the other. The legislature put protections in the law so that it would not be used to transfer risk from private developers to taxpayers. It is up to the county commission to ensure the taxpayer’s interests are adequately protected. To date, that does not seem to be occurring.
Early in 2013, a concurrency committee was suggested and organized by Commissioner Rachael Bennett. Currently Commissioner Bennett owns a consulting firm in which the only declared client is the largest entitled developer in St Johns County and would directly benefit, in an amount approaching $100 million dollars, from any one-sided change to land development concurrency. Additionally, and probably no coincidence, the person selected to lead this Concurrency Committee is John Metcalf who is an attorney representing that same developer.
Based on the committee’s suggested changes it appears the focus has been to represent only the land developer’s interest, with little to no public input and no town hall style workshops so that regular tax-payer can participate in the process. The suggested solutions favor less impact fees and transportation impacts being paid by land developers, with the costs of the impacts to roads and schools being shifted on taxpayers and paid with toll roads, mobility fees, sales tax increases and gas tax increases.
This latest proposed change to county land development concurrency is nothing but a transfer of land developer obligations of several hundred million dollars in transportation and school impacts to the tax-payers of St. Johns County. The St Johns County Commission and staff seem all too willing to use the issue to create a budget “crisis” to make you believe all will be lost if you do not vote for a sales tax increase or go along with toll roads or higher school taxes. There are many ways to address the issue, but you have heard none of them. The St Johns County Commission was elected to represent you and it now appears to be only representing developer interests by supporting this enormous transfer of obligations to the tax-payers.
It is high time the St Johns County administration and the St Johns County Commission stop treating the tax-payers as their chattel and start being honest and upfront on issues of such major importance.
It is time for an open, deliberative and extended debate involving all stakeholders in St Johns County, not just the land developers. As Commissioner Stevenson points out “it is only a penny and every other county is doing it.” Of course, if you want to pay a higher sales tax and higher property taxes (20-30% higher) so developers can make more profits, then just ignore this issue and vote for the (400 million dollar over 20 years) sales tax increase in November.