During a public listening session on Tuesday, Jan. 25, the St. Johns County Commissioners had an opportunity to hear from residents regarding the abundant growth currently under way. And one theme appeared to dominate: many want the ongoing development checked.
The county auditorium was filled to capacity, with nearly every seat taken. And when it came time for public comment, so many queued up to have their three minutes at the mic that the workshop lasted for four hours.
Speakers cited a host of impacts wrought by the accelerated pace of new development, particularly its effect on infrastructure, the environment, the school system and traffic flow.
“One of the things that we’re hearing here today is a lot of different concerns from a lot of different folks,” said Katherine Sanborn of Ponte Vedra Beach. “I think it’s safe to say that many if not the majority, perhaps the vast majority, of folks in St. Johns County, residents, don’t want to see a lot more development.”
Her comment drew applause from the assembly.
“It seems to me that we have almost uncontrollable growth right now, and because it’s happened so rapidly, it may be a good idea to be able to address some of these varied concerns, to have a pause,” she continued.
Other residents of the Ponte Vedra area also weighed in.
Anna Logan of Nocatee showed photos of ground water turning a wooded area near her home into as swamp. Brian Anderson, also of Nocatee, pointed out that traffic has significantly increased on Palm Valley Road and that area sidewalks were not adequate. Glen Landers of Ponte Vedra asked that the county take the impacts of climate change and sea level rise into consideration as it addresses growth.
Between 2010 and 2020, the county’s population grew by 44%, from 190,039 to 273,425. The inflow of new residents has resulted in a housing shortage, resulting in people paying more than the asking price for homes on the market.
The growth has posed challenges not just with regard to transportation, but for law enforcement and fire rescue. It’s also had an impact on utilities, parks and recreation, waterway access, libraries and solid waste.
Though growth is happening throughout the county, the northwest and Nocatee are seeing an especially high amount of residential development.
And, as many new homes have been built, there is a potential for many more. Of the 137,153 planned unit development residential units approved over the past 50 years, only 75,480 have been built, leaving 61,673 yet to come.
As motorists have noticed, this surge in growth has affected traffic.
Phong Nguyen, the county’s transportation development manager, reported that, based on existing traffic, 18 roadway segments are deficient, eight critically so. The estimated cost of improving these roads is about $191 million.
To improve county roads alone – as opposed to state roads – available funding falls about $140 million short of what is needed.
One of the problems with funding results from a delay between when a development is approved and when it is built.
Impact fees imposed upon construction are supposed to fund road construction to mitigate the impact of the resulting increase in traffic. But if construction is delayed – sometimes for decades – the fee remains the same even when inflation during that period means the cost of roadway improvements is higher.
The commission was not able to take action at the meeting as it was a workshop.