At a St. Johns County Commission meeting earlier this year, the owners of the newly renovated Oak Bridge Golf Course asked the Commission for a slew of variances that would materially alter the landscape of A1A in Ponte Vedra Beach.
In place of six holes of golf just off A1A, the property owners want the County to approve up to 330 age-restricted single-family and multi-family units, nursing/memory care facilities and 15,000 square feet of commercial space, all adjacent to the Sawgrass Village shopping center. The owners also want the right to construct buildings longer and taller than currently allowed, plus the right to construct flat roofed structures, effectively permitting the construction of five-story buildings. And to top it off, the owners — who are actively seeking developers for the property — want the flexibility to put the buildings just about anywhere on the property, notwithstanding the proximity of several homes, apartments and A1A.
The rationale is obvious. The property is much more marketable — and valuable — with the variances in place. However, there is a price for the rest of Ponte Vedra Beach. Sawgrass Players Club, whose members overwhelmingly voted to support the new owners’ plans, received a beautifully renovated golf and tennis club and a promise that the 300+ new residents and countless vendors and visitors would access the property not from Sawgrass Players Club’s private road, but rather via A1A, where traffic and traffic accidents are already issues. It’s a win-win for the new property owners and Sawgrass Players Club; it’s another source of pain for those who live on and drive A1A every day. The result is a divided Ponte Vedra Beach reflecting the age-old Florida split between the interests of gated and non-gated communities.
The owners were represented by an attorney at the commission meeting. She was quick to reference setbacks and buffers between the proposed 58-foot tall structures and adjacent neighborhoods. She also cited hotels (Sawgrass Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn) and certain office buildings that are located on or adjacent to Sawgrass Village shopping center as examples of other buildings receiving height variances. To a few sneers, the attorney tried to sell the idea that 55-year-olds don’t drive that much and that 300 of the proposed residences had already been approved by a county plan originating from the 1970s. She explained these points without providing context, however.
First, the hotels and office buildings used as examples of present variances are set far back of A1A (see attached aerial view). They also don’t block the views of neighboring residences. Second, the attorney did not have traffic, storm water, environmental or hurricane preparedness studies for the requested development parameters. Third, a recent modification to the development plan states affirmatively that the new owners want permission to put the tallest and longest of the proposed buildings just 80 feet off of A1A, when similar buildings in Sawgrass Village are more than three times as far away from A1A. And finally, the attorney could not assure the commissioners that the proposed setbacks would protect the views of adjacent homeowners or that vast areas of current green space would not become parking lots. Indeed, the recent plan modifications show between 270 to 280 parking spaces spread throughout the subject parcel.
To their credit, the commissioners recognized the foregoing faults at the January meeting, but provided a lifeline to the owners of Oak Bridge by promising a future opportunity to provide more specifics. That opportunity is scheduled for May 15 at another public meeting. The question is “Why?” The owners of Oak Bridge are not the developers, and they bought the property knowing what restrictions were placed upon it. It is not the community’s obligation to make a property owner’s investment more valuable or marketable. If variances are necessary, make the actual developer of the property apply for them. Let the developer explain his or her ideas to the community. It’s the only way to assure that the plans so carefully put in place by the community to protect their neighborhoods are upheld in a manner agreeable to the community.