A Gate Petroleum subsidiary has filed a lawsuit against St. Johns County, asking the court to force the county to act on its planned unit development (PUD) application for “Vista Tranquila,” a 77-home development it wants to build on the Outpost property.
In the lawsuit, the Ponte Vedra Corporation (PVC) charges that county officials have failed to act for more than three years on its request for a routine administrative interpretation regarding the limits of the Conservation designation of the 99-acre property, which is located at the end of Neck Road and adjacent to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. After failing to receive a response to the request submitted in 2013, PVC filed a PUD zoning application in July 2016, which the lawsuit charges also has not been acted upon within the typical time frame.
“By refusing to process and/or by delaying the processing of PVC’s application for administrative interpretation and the Vista Tranquila PUD application,” the lawsuit states, “county staff has illegitimately imposed procedural barriers to PVC’s ability to seek any final agency action from the BOCC concerning development of the Outpost site under the current Comp Plan.”
The lawsuit asks the court to issue an injunction requiring the county to process the PUD application in a timely manner, interpret the property’s Conservation designation and declare that county staff violated PVC’s right to due process by delaying consideration of the project.
“This is not to get damages or monetary benefit,” Gate Petroleum Vice President Ken Wilson said. “It’s just to force them to act.”
In response to the proposed Vista Tranquila development, local residents have organized a group called “Save Guana Now.” Led by Neck Road residents Nicole Crosby and Gary Coulliette, the group says the Outpost property is home to wildlife and aims to prevent development on the property so it may be preserved.
“I think Ponte Vedra Corporation is behaving like a bully,” Crosby said. “They’ve filed a lawsuit to circumvent public process because they don’t like the laws on the books. We get emails every single day from people who are furious about how Ponte Vedra Corporation wants to destroy that land.”
PVC claims, however, that far from trying to circumvent the process, it is merely trying to move forward with a process the county has stymied. At issue is the property’s designation as Conservation land. According to the lawsuit, PVC states that the company always intended to develop the Outpost property, but a mapping error decades ago erroneously included the Outpost and surrounding homes as part of the Guana Preserve.
“The homes on Neck Road have the same labeling as our property,” Wilson said. “There was just a very poor mapping effort by somebody.”
While the Outpost is currently designated as Conservation land, PVC contends that in several other instances the county has determined that development on non-jurisdictional portions of such property may be developed consistent with the surrounding area, which in the case of the Outpost is Residential C. After submitting its request for administrative interpretation on the issue and receiving no response, PVC asserts that the county determined the Conservation designation was “inconclusive” and that development on the Outpost would require a Comprehensive Plan amendment.
In the lawsuit, PVC claims county officials publicly stated this determination without ever communicating with the company or giving it an opportunity to speak on the issue. The lawsuit also charges that county officials ruled on other Conservation properties during the period that PVC was waiting for a response to its 2013 request.
“The Outpost is the only Conservation-designated property in the county about which the county’s planning staff has contended that land use designation is too inconclusive to interpret or apply,” the lawsuit states.
When asked about Save Guana Now’s opposition to the Vista Tranquila project, Wilson disputed Save Guana Now’s contention that the property is rife with endangered wildlife, and suggested the group's opposition was motivated more by abutters’ desire to prevent additional homes from being built in their neighborhood.
“It doesn’t escape me that both (Crosby and Coulliette) live on Neck Road,” Wilson said. “It seems as though they got theirs and they don’t want anyone else to.”
Crosby, however, said the focus is on preservation. “We have faith in the county to represent the people and the law of the land, especially environmentally sensitive land.”
St. Johns County Communications Director Michael Ryan said the county was unable to comment on the facts of the case due to the pending litigation.
“The PUD application filed this summer is currently under review and the county will continue to process the request accordingly,” Ryan said. “But it’s safe to say the county may have a difference of opinion regarding the events and issues outlined in the suit.”