A local citizens’ group is opposing a land use change that would allow a developer to build a major hotel and conference center on Coastal Highway (A1A) in Vilano Beach.
An overflow crowd of more than 200 residents streamed into a meeting room at the Seranata Beach Club July 13 to hear Save Our Vilano representatives describe the proposed project and detail their objections. It was a far cry from the 30 or so people organizers say they expected.
“We only had a week to get the word out and there weren’t very many of us doing it,” Save Our Vilano member Bill Nesbitt said. “When 200-plus folks showed up we were flabbergasted – and very grateful that so many felt as we do about this incursion into our residential community.”
According to the presentation – which was delivered by Nesbitt and the group’s attorney, Jane West – the proposed WaterMarke Beachcomber project would construct a hotel and bed and breakfast with 130 rooms, 70 beach villa timeshares and 80,000 square feet of commercial space for a conference center, beach club, restaurants and office buildings on a 43-acre parcel of land at 3657 Coastal Highway, approximately 1.5 miles north of the Vilano Publix.
Constructing such a large commercial facility would require a future land use modification, changing the property’s current Residential C designation to one that allows commercial development. Such a change, Save Our Vilano members say, would have far-reaching consequences.
“This would set a terrible precedent,” Nesbitt told meeting attendees, noting that traffic estimates project the development would add 150 cars an hour during peak periods to A1A traffic. “If this is approved, the land will be commercial now and forever, even if this plan falls through.”
Residents also expressed concern that if developers secure the necessary land use modification and zoning approvals, they may decide to build some other type of commercial development allowed by that zoning designation – anything from a truck stop to a convenience store – or dispose of it altogether, without further approval required from the county.
“There is no obligation for the developer to stick around (once they get the approval),” Nesbitt warned. “The day they get approval, they can turn around, flip it and sell it to someone who may not abide by all the promises they made.”
Calls to the St. Johns County Planning & Zoning Agency seeking comment and confirmation were not returned by press time.
Several Save Our Vilano members stressed that the group is not attempting to stop all development on the property, but simply trying to protect the residential character of their neighborhood. Such a large development situated at one of the narrowest points on A1A, they contend, would cause significant environmental impacts to an area that has already seen extensive beach erosion.
“It’s not that the group is against development,” Steering Committee Member Margaret Rocker said. “We just believe that this final pristine land on a narrow barrier island needs to be preserved.”
Attorney West agreed. “It is about stopping irresponsible development that is not compatible with the surrounding environment,” she said.
Save Our Vilano members questioned why the county would want to make a major land use modification to create a private hotel/commercial development that would be in direct competition with the nearby Vilano Town Center, the refurbishment of which was funded by taxpayer dollars.
“Some of the county people say we need more (commercial development),” Nesbitt said. “Well, for goodness sake, you’re not using what you’ve got now! I think it’s specious to say we need this for the good of the county.”
West concurred. “(Vilano Town Center) is supposed to be your commercial hub,” she said, “and it’s not there yet. Why on earth would you take our taxpayer dollars and divert them towards the approval of a competing commercial project when we haven’t finished a publicly funded commercial project? Why create that inherent competition and possibly create the failure of something we are already funding with our tax dollars?”
Save Our Vilano members encouraged those in attendance to contact county commissioners and members of the Planning and Zoning Agency board to voice their opposition to the land use change prior to the Aug. 4 PZA board meeting, at which the land use change is expected to be considered.
“You have a right to have a voice as to what the county’s growth pattern looks like,” West said. “(St. Johns County) is such an amazing gem: We have the best school system in the entire state of Florida and these pristine reserves. We want to balance that.”
West also expressed her concern about the county making changes to its comprehensive plan to benefit a private developer.
“The county has invested considerable time in developing its comprehensive plan,” she said, “and when you deviate from that plan at the request of a private developer, it’s not always in the public interest.”