Elected officials give update on issues


Members of the community had an opportunity to hear directly from elected leaders Friday, May 19, during the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast. The event was held at Embassy Suites by Hilton St. Augustine Beach Oceanfront Resort.

Panelists included state Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, County Commissioner Christian Whitehurst, St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Sikes-Kline and St. Augustine Beach Mayor Don Samora. State Sen. Travis Hutson was invited but could not attend.

Whitehurst said that, among the county’s many needs, none is greater than transportation and infrastructure. Protection for natural environmental resources and workforce housing were also top concerns.

Addressing housing, Whitehurst emphasized that members of an “essential workforce” — he mentioned nurses, firefighters, law enforcement and teachers — need a place to live. For many workers, the costs of housing and rent in St. Johns County are prohibitive.

Whitehurst said that, three days before this year’s legislative session, the county held a transportation summit where staff laid out the county’s needs before Hutson, Stevenson and U.S. Rep. John Rutherford.

The effort bore fruit. This year, with elected officials going to bat for the county, the Legislature provided $59 million for transportation and coastal protection.

About $15 million of that would go toward an extension of County Road 2209 to International Golf parkway from Silverleaf Parkway. This route, when complete, would take pressure off U.S. 1 and I-95.

According to Whitehurst, the county also received $25 million to construct an engineered beach with a vegetative dune system at North Ponte Vedra Beach to protect it from coastal storms.

He said he is sometimes asked why the county keeps putting sand back on the beach only to have it washed away. His response: The financial impact of not renourishing the beach would be in the millions, in part due to lost property values and mitigation of saltwater intrusion into freshwater areas.

Funding has also been allocated to the county for a change at the intersection of U.S. 1 and County Road 210A to eliminate a high-risk railroad crossing. The state has committed $6 million and that makes the county eligible to apply for a $22 million Federal Railroad Crossing Elimination Grant.

Another $6 million will fund improvements to State Road A1A intersections.

“Anybody who travels along A1A understands that the road has been congested for many, many years,” Whitehurst said. “These intersection improvements will certainly improve traffic flow through and around that area.”

In addition, $2 million will go to reconstruction and signalization of the intersection of Pine Island Road and U.S. 1.

Sikes-Kline reminded attendees that St. Augustine City Manager John Regan will retire June 2. He and his replacement, David Birchim, were in attendance at the Chamber breakfast.

Sikes-Kline also addressed homelessness and panhandling in the city. She assured attendees that St. Augustine is trying to address the problem, though in some cases its hands are tied.

“It’s a deeply rooted problem in our society right now,” she said.

She said the city is working on creating a drop-in center that would give homeless people a place to go.

The city is also looking at the possibility of creating an area of affordable housing off Holmes Boulevard.

Samora spoke about short-term rentals in his city and the possibility of putting utilities underground.

Stevenson described newly passed legislation that requires golf cart operators under the age of 18 to have a learner’s permit or driver’s license when on public roads. Those over 18 will also need some form of photo ID, though they won’t need a driver’s license.

She listed some other actions taken during this year’s session: increased funding for education, increased parental choice opportunities through voucher systems, increased health care funding and more than $250 million for affordable housing programs.

In addition, she noted that the state allocated $4 billion to hurricane recovery.