What the county attorney, legal staff, and three prior county commissioners, representing District 3, had been unable to negotiate after 38 property owners sued St Johns County on August 26, 2005; newly elected County Commission Vice-Chairman Bill McClure accomplished in two days — saving the county millions in litigation fees.
Facing a pre-trial hearing already set for January 10 before Circuit Court Judge Patti A Christensen, the homeowners in the case of Robert and Linnie Jordan, et al. vs. St. Johns County et al., Case No. CA05-0694, reached an accord before the drama of a three to four-week trial ran up an estimated $2.5 million in legal expenses for each side.
“I live at Crescent Beach and have been visiting since 1974, so I am well aware of the conflict with families who own property along SR-A1A in St Johns County, north of Marineland,” McClure told Historic City News this morning. “When the former commission enacted a moratorium that precluded any construction on their oceanfront land and the county refused to continue repairs to the sixteen-foot wide roadway to their property, they felt that they had no option but to sue.”
McClure told Historic City News editor Michael Gold that he was a bit surprised and couldn’t understand why some “common sense” understanding could not have been reached to address the homeowner’s legitimate concerns in well over seven years.
The decision for the county to impose the moratorium and to stop the road maintenance occurred while County Commissioner Ben Rich held the District 3 seat. Since that time, Commissioners Mark P. Miner, and Miner’s stand-in, Ray Quinn, held the seat that McClure holds today; including most of the coastal land from Marineland north to St Augustine Beach.
“I took this up on my own initiative since I can empathize with so many of those affected,” McClure said. “When I saw the court date looming, and the potential for millions of dollars to be wasted on litigation, I called County Attorney Patrick McCormack and asked for a full briefing.”
Before McClure interceded, the other commissioners acquiesced to his participation in the negotiations, since the lawsuit emanated from his district. Daytona Beach attorney John J. Upchurch acted as mediator for the parties — St Johns County was represented by attorney Stephen B Gallagher from Jacksonville, and, the homeowners were represented by attorney Thomas E Warner from West Palm Beach.
“About 20 of the residents attended the first day of mediation, January 8, at the Hilton St Augustine Historic Bayfront,” McClure reported. “From about 18 points of contention, we were able to hammer out the essence of the settlement before we went home the first night.”
McClure explained three main points that stuck in the minds of those south-east county residents who felt abandoned by everyone they encountered at the county.
First, the residents along the shoreline paid taxes on assessments of +$600,000 before the county’s moratorium. In addition to the county assessments, these properties are located in a municipal service district, similar to Ponte Vedra Beach; they pay an additional assessment beyond those taxes paid by homeowners in other parts of the county. As taxpayers, the homeowners wanted an accounting of how the MTSU funds were being used if they weren’t being used to repair and maintain their roads.
Next, the residents do not want to abandon their land or be forced to sell the land to the county. The consensus from the mediation, according to McClure, was that if the roadway could be restored and maintained, the values lost under the moratorium could be recovered in time by the property owners.
Finally, the moratorium, to the residents, seemed overreaching and unnecessary and prevented them from enjoying the benefit of normal appreciation of their property’s value — as evidenced by the substantial reduction in assessed values.
McClure told the four other commissioners of the success of the mediation and his hopes for renewed value to the homeowners in his district during a “shade” meeting yesterday.
“I needed to restore unity in the community,” McClure said of the plight of his neighbors. “As we look for ways to pay for previously deferred maintenance and other costs countywide, the increased taxable value from these properties will be a significant plus for the budget.”