In a unanimous 5-0 decision, the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners voted Tuesday to approve Alta Mar Holdings LLC’s proposed development plans for the back 40 acres of the Oak Bridge Club at Sawgrass’ golf course.
The public turned out in full force for the May 15 meeting, with representatives from the Sawgrass Players Club, Vicar’s Landing and the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach there to support the plan, and representatives from the Hidden Oaks subdivision and some local businesses there to oppose it. With those in favor of the development seated on the left and those opposed on the right, the tension was palpable.
“Realistically, we’re all here because we all have an economically unviable, 140-acre golf course embedded in one of the most prestigious communities inside Ponte Vedra Beach,” Alta Mar’s David Miller said. “The course desperately needs $2 million, that isn’t rebutted, and the improvements need to come from a yes vote and the subsequent sale of the most logical and least impactful portion of the course.”
Alta Mar’s plan to sell off six holes of the Oak Bridge golf course — converting it from a total of 18 to 12 holes — for commercial and age-restricted residential development has been a subject of local controversy for the past two years. Although it received majority support from the surrounding Sawgrass Players Club community, concerns were raised by others — particularly those living in the neighboring Hidden Oaks subdivision.
“The loss of view, the construction noise, the increased traffic congestion and the decreased property values are of significant concern to my clients,” said Jane West, Hidden Oaks’ legal counsel. “We respectfully request that (the board) deny this application.”
Responding to the opposition’s concerns, however, Alta Mar’s legal counsel, Ellen Avery-Smith, countered that the company had made multiple concessions to lessen the development’s adverse impacts, including increasing buffering and property line setbacks, as well as removing the parking waivers it had originally requested.
“We have done everything that we could possibly think of to mitigate the impact of this development and make it compatible with the surrounding community,” she said.
Indeed, West confirmed that representatives of Hidden Oaks and Alta Mar had met recently to negotiate and reached a handshake deal, but that deal ultimately fell through when it was presented to the Hidden Oaks residents.
“When it comes to decisions of where you put your head down to sleep, the community that you live in, where your kids grow up, the view that you look at every single morning when you have your cup of coffee, it’s just not that easy to get a room full of people to agree on what that is worth and how to save it,” West said.
After hours of presentations and public comment, Miller announced in his final statement that he would make one last concession and decrease the number of residential units he was requesting from 330 to 280 units — a move which Commissioner Jay Morris praised.
“Of all the emails I’ve gotten, one of the biggest (issues) has been density, so I really appreciate you taking it down those 50 units,” Morris said. “People who totally aren’t happy with 330 aren’t going to be happy with 280, but that is over a 15 percent reduction … and I appreciate your willingness to do that.”
Pointing to a similar situation surrounding the failed Baymeadows Golf Club in Jacksonville, Morris went on to say that, although he sympathized with those who might experience a resultant decrease in property value, he felt it was best for the overall community that the development be allowed to go forward.
“People are going to lose real estate value, in my opinion, far more if that golf course goes under,” Morris said, adding, “I’m voting for this.”
In apparent agreement, the other four commissioners followed suit and voted in favor of the development. For Miller, the unanimity of their decision was meaningful.
“Greater Ponte Vedra and TPC won, and 5-0 is just an ultimate validation that it’s the best thing for the community,” Miller said. “I really appreciate the commissioners taking into consideration everything that was presented before them … and there are going to be some affected parties, but that’s America. Our supporters outnumbered the detractors probably 7-1 and ruled the day, and that’s how it should work in America.”