The back-and-forth battle over the land use of the Outpost property has finally made some headway.
The litigation between Ponte Vedra Corporation (PVC) and St. Johns County took a turn Dec. 11, 2018, when Judge Michael Traynor of the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court denied PVC’s motion for a Partial Summary Judgement. This essentially means the county cannot modify the Outpost’s designation of “conservation” without there being a public hearing first.
PVC is seeking to build a 66-home residential community called Vista Tranquila on the 99-acre conservation property known as the Outpost, which is located at the end of Neck Road and adjacent to the GTM Reserve. The nonprofit environmental advocacy group Save Guana Now opposes the development and says the ruling is the “single most positive development” it’s had since starting the group two and a half years ago. Interestingly enough, PVC is also pleased.
As of 1983, Gate Petroleum owns Ponte Vedra Corporation. Drew Frick, president of Gate Lands, maintains that the purpose of PVC’s litigation was simply looking for clarification as to where the boundaries of conservation lay within the county’s Future Land Use Comprehensive Plan.
“We are pleased with (the outcome),” Frick said. “The court has required the county to process our PUD (Planned Unit Development) under the existing laws. Which is what we wanted and it’s requiring a hearing on this issue.”
Nicole Crosby, co-founder of Save Gauna Now, said that if PVC wanted a hearing, the company could have called for one at any time. Instead, she said the corporation was looking to circumvent that to change the land from conservation without public input in order to develop it.
“So, even though our organization is not a party to the litigation, I feel like we have a sizable role in it,” Crosby said. “That’s why they are trying so hard to not have public hearings. We think it’s because the efforts we've been making with raising awareness, getting people (involved) and raising donations.”
Save Guana Now has received its fair share of attention on the matter. It is currently endorsed by Defenders of Wildlife, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Sierra Club, the North Florida Land Trust and the Audubon Society. Crosby said it has supporters not just on Neck Road (which backs up to the Outpost), but in St. Augustine, Fernandina Beach, Jacksonville and Gainesville. The nonprofit believes that any development of the 99-acre Outpost property would cause significant environmental damage to the reserve, which surrounds 97 percent of it.
“Those (endorsements) have been giving us clout,” Crosby said. “The PVC has tried to depict us as NIMBY (Not In My Backyard). So, in other words, they are saying that we are people that only care about what is going on in our backyards as opposed to caring about the environment.”
PVC adamantly denies that the reason for the litigation was intended to circumvent a hearing process.
“That is blatantly false,” said Misty Skipper, vice president of marketing and communications for Gate.
According to Skipper, PVC was just following the proper channels as outlined by the county to determine the land use boundaries.
This “threshold” decision about land use boundaries needed to be determined before they could proceed," Frick said.
“We have wanted a hearing on this matter from the get-go,” he said. “We thought the appropriate way to do that is through an Administrative Interpretation.
The litigation was simply a way to force the hand of the county toward making that decision, he said.
“People say the property is in conservation, it's not,” Frick said. “That’s what we're seeking an interpretation of. No one has made that interpretation. Staff can't make it, only the County Commission can make it and the judge has now said they have to make it in the PUD process.”
Jane West, the attorney for Save Guana Now, released a statement regarding the ruling saying, “It is encouraging that PVC has expressed such enthusiasm to work with the county after years of battling the issue of whether an Administrative Interpretation of the Comprehensive Plan was appropriate. It is not, according to Judge Traynor's denial of PVC's Motion for Summary Judgment. We interpret PVC's ‘pleased’ response with the ruling to mean that they will refrain from wasting more taxpayer dollars with an appeal."
Crosby said that if PVC wanted to dispute a change with the conservation designation, the company could have filed for it 18 years ago — in 2000 when the Outpost was labeled as conservation by the county.
“Ponte Vedra Corp knew that their land was being made conservation,” she said. “They had an opportunity to protest it, they did not. Why? Because ever since then they have been able to pay conservation taxes on it. They only want the property to be conservation when it’s convenient for them.”
Whether or not PVC will appeal or seek a land use change from the Board of County Commissioners is undetermined. Frick said PVC is, “still evaluating all of (their) options.”
As for the hearings? Crosby said she is looking forward to them.
“We would bring busloads of people to go and show how much support we have,” Crosby said.