The St. Johns County Planning and Zoning Agency (PZA) last Thursday unanimously recommended approval of zoning and land use changes that would allow Alta Mar Holdings LLC to sell six holes of the Oak Bridge Club golf course for development into an age restricted residential community (55+) up to 330 units and four acres of commercial uses with a maximum of 15,000 square feet.
The PZA specifically recommended approval of Alta Mar’s requests for changes to the Caballos del Mar Development of Regional Impact (DRI) and Players Club at Sawgrass Planned Unit Development (PUD), which would allow the property owners to allocate existing, vested development rights to the golf course. Alta Mar’s plans will go before the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners for final deliberation on Jan. 16, 2018.
“A great result, not just for our team, but for the entire community,” said David Miller of Alta Mar Holdings LLC, the owner of the Oak Bridge Club, following the Dec. 7 PZA hearing in St. Augustine. “A lot of people didn’t give us a snowball’s chance in you know where of getting this to this point.”
David Miller and his partner and cousin Jeff Miller purchased the mortgage note for the Oak Bridge Club in 2014 after the club’s former operator went into default. They initially believed a buyer would purchase the course but soon learned its condition would make that difficult. Couple that with the nosedive of the golf industry, said David Miller, and no buyer emerged. They foreclosed on the golf course in late 2015 and faced the reality that the club was losing $55,000 a month.
The Millers hired Jacksonville-based engineering firm Prosser to determine which parcels of the property were developable and set a plan in motion to raise capital. The plan? Sell the course’s back 40 acres, with 23 of those acres to be developed, and reduce the course’s holes from 18 to 12.
Two of the proposed parcels of land (A1 and A2) would be developed for an age restricted community (55+). Parcel A1 would be for single-story residences (maximum building height of 24 feet), while building on Parcel A2 would be capped at three stories (maximum height of 58 feet). David Miller has said Vicar’s Landing is interested in that property to expand upon its senior living community.
According to the plan, a third parcel (Parcel B) along A1A would be developed for either 15,000 square feet of commercial/civic space or additional residences. David Miller has noted that the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach is interested in this property.
The Oak Bridge owners said the property abutting Oak Bridge, Water Oak and Cypress Creek known as Parcel C would not be developed and would be used for retention ponds and green space. Parcel D, which abuts Bridgewater Island, would also be used for green space and would serve as a buffer, they added.
The Sawgrass Players Club Master HOA Board asked the Millers to invest in the club as an act of good faith. The property owners consequently redeveloped the clubhouse, tennis courts, driving range and more at the tune of $2.5 million. The board then mandated that $2 million from the potential sale of the property go into escrow and be deployed into the remaining 12 holes of the course.
This is the plan and agreement the HOA board ultimately agreed to, as well as the residents within the community encompassing 1,800 homes. In February 2017, these residents voted three-to-one to lift a restriction on the 23 developable acres of the course that required they remain a golf course until 2023. The vote allowed the land to be sold, in exchange for a deed restriction that would guarantee the 100 other acres of the course remain a golf course until 2057.
“I think the crux of this project is it’s a win, win, win situation for the vast majority of constituents,” said David Miller. “The alternative is grim and dire. I think that’s why we’ve had such an abundance of support.”
Reaction at the PZA hearing
Sawgrass Players Club President Gerry Klingman kicked off public comment, expressing his support for the Oak Bridge plans. He said over 72 percent of the community responded to the vote in February, which is the largest turnout it’s had for such an initiative. Of the 72 percent, he said 75 percent approved lifting the restriction.
“The whole community was involved,” commented Klingman. “We definitely feel it is a win win for the Sawgrass Players Club, and we feel it’s going to enhance all of our property.”
Much of the opposition, meanwhile, said the potential development will increase traffic. Resident Michael Burns cited the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization’s (TPO) recent study that revealed a rather gloomy forecast for traffic conditions in Ponte Vedra/Palm Valley and said this development will only make it worse. Burns also disputed Alta Mar’s argument that residents of an age restricted or senior community will drive less; he said the older he gets, the more trips he takes and the more people that will visit him. Others expanded upon this argument and said staff of the community would also add to the traffic.
In response, Alta Mar attorney Ellen Avery-Smith said the master developer of the Caballos del Mar DRI has mitigation for traffic impact that dates to 1975.
“We are seeking to add 330 residential units and four acres of commercial from the existing, vested, mitigated development rights in the Caballos del Mar DRI,” she explained. “That’s the legal position we have.”
David Miller added that because the community would be age restricted, residents in that demographic are not likely to be travelling at peak hours. Linda Householder, whose property abuts the Oak Bridge golf course, said she’s worried about access to and from the project.
“They’re going to have to do a U-turn, either go south or do a U-turn to go north,” she said.
Avery-Smith said there will be at least one access driveway from A1A to the property. She also said the HOA Board is considering a perpetual easement over a portion of the site that would create a legal access to Sawgrass Village Drive. The attorney noted that the Millers are negotiating with the Sawgrass Village Association to do so.
A few other residents of adjacent communities such as Hidden Oaks also expressed concerns over their property values.
Ponte Vedra Central Park
Ponte Vedra resident and local realtor Cindey Nordman attended the hearing on behalf of the Ponte Vedra Central Park initiative, a grassroots fundraising campaign to purchase the 40 acres of the Oak Bridge Club and turn it into a public park.
Nordman said the organization was incorporated in May, received its tax-exempt status in June and has every intention to preserve the land. In previous conversations with the Recorder, Nordman and fellow organization leader Jake Bestic said Ponte Vedra needs such a park.
“Our town is severely lacking in open green space, public playgrounds, ball fields, exercise paths, that kind of thing, and we're not lacking in population and we're not lacking in automobile traffic,” said Bestic. “I just think it's up to us to decide, citizens of this community, what the best use of the land is. I cannot see or envision an instance where a 55+ community adds any benefits to our local community.”
During the PZA hearing, David Miller said he will maintain a dialogue with the community park representatives, even with the zoning change, if they can raise the funds in the necessary timeframe to purchase the property.
Bestic and Nordman noted that their organization needs more funding to ultimately pay for the land. They said they also need more volunteers and help in spreading awareness about their campaign. Those interested in donating to the Ponte Vedra Central Park initiative or learning more can visit www.PVcentralPark.com.
PZA Board deliberation
PZA Board member Dr. David Rice first expressed his support of the project, saying he doesn’t recall an applicant who has completed more due diligence than the Millers. He also reiterated Avery-Smith’s argument that the traffic generated by the development has already been paid and mitigated for due to the vested development rights. As a result, he said the board doesn’t have legal standing to vote the plan down due to traffic.
Board chair Jeffrey Martin also called the project a win-win.
“It’s either residential units that are age restricted and therefore less impactful than traditional residential, or you get a piece of property that’s falling into blithe, which is not going to be good for anyone, especially in Ponte Vedra,” he said.
Board member Jon Woodard responded to the property value concerns of adjacent properties and said he understands it but without seeing a study that spells out that potential impact, he can’t “put a lot of weight into” it.
After each board member expressed their support of the project and voted accordingly, David Miller said it was a rewarding feeling to see his efforts pay off.
“It has nothing to do with monetary feeling,” he said. “It’s that government still works in America. It’s that community government still works. HOAs still do what’s best for that community. And you can get a result like this. That’s encouraging for our country and our county.”