Some Ponte Vedra Beach residents are rejoicing this week after the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) unanimously decided Tuesday, June 5 to take the first step toward the creation of a Municipal Service Taxing Unit (MSTU) or a Municipal Service Benefit Unit (MSBU) for the restoration of the area’s beaches.
“I see no way not to do this — to initiate this process,” Commissioner Jay Morris said at the BCC meeting.
Although the 5-0 decision did not officially approve an MSTU/BU, it did set the process in motion by directing the county to survey property owners in Ponte Vedra Beach as to whether they would support a special assessment to cover the “start-up costs” of a beach restoration project, totaling about $1.2 million.
“As we know, the community in Ponte Vedra Beach has experienced extreme erosion along their coastline following Hurricane Irma and the nor’easters that followed,” said Damon Douglas, project manager for the county. “We have been hearing from them, answering questions and listening for the past several months, and they have requested that we begin the process for putting together some kind of local funding mechanism to help them with a potential future beach restoration project.”
While one resident questioned the commissioners on how much money taxpayers who do not live on the beach would be required to contribute, several others expressed their support for the creation of an assessment to restore the beaches, including Ponte Vedra Beach resident Lori Moffett, who spoke on behalf of Save Ponte Vedra Beach Inc.
“We are very encouraged by the steps that you’re taking today,” Moffett said. “We simply want what you’ve done for South Ponte Vedra. We want to create our own municipal district to eventually get an engineer on board and hired and the beach restored.”
On December 19, the County Commission voted to approve the creation of MSTUs for the restoration of Vilano Beach and South Ponte Vedra Beach. As of yet, however, there is still no county-approved plan for Ponte Vedra Beach proper, and that is what Save Ponte Vedra Beach ultimately hopes to change.
According to a study performed by coastal engineering firm Olsen Associates, Ponte Vedra Beach has lost 135 feet of coastline since 1970. As St. Johns County’s beaches are a key component of what draws tourists and homebuyers to the area, a failure to maintain them could be devastating for the county, Moffett contended.
“At the moment, as you probably know, property values in Ponte Vedra are spiraling downward, and the only thing that will reverse that trend is a renourished, wider beach,” she said. “Otherwise, we’re looking at a downward spiraling of property values to come, and that has dire consequences financially for the whole county.”
Recently, Save Ponte Vedra Beach conducted its own survey to gauge the support throughout the Ponte Vedra community for an assessment to fund beach renourishment. Out of the more than 600 people surveyed, the organization reported that about 91 percent responded favorably to the idea.
While many local property owners may support an assessment, however, Commissioner Jimmy Johns expressed frustration over the lack of details that had been provided to the BCC.
“I’m looking for ways to get government out of peoples’ way so that they can protect their property, but if we have to participate in this process, then we need to clearly convey what the expectations are before running down this path,” he said.
Commissioners Jeb Smith and Paul Waldron echoed Smith’s concerns regarding the lack of information and costs. Morris, however, contended that more details couldn’t be obtained until a survey had been conducted.
“We can sit here and analyze this until the cows come home or the beaches are gone,” he said. “Let’s start the process. … If we sit here and argue about this, nothing’s going to take place.”
In addition to an MSTU or MSBU, another possible local source of funding that supporters of the Save Ponte Vedra Beach initiative are hoping to secure is a proposed 1-percent increase (from 4 to 5 percent) in St. Johns County’s bed tax. Currently under county consideration, the tax increase could potentially yield more than $2 million annually for beach renourishment if approved by the BCC. According to county officials, however, the date for the board’s final vote on that matter is still pending.
Still, while the question of local funding remains uncertain, beachgoers and property owners may soon find some relief at the federal level. On June 6, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2018, which, if passed by the Senate, would include $15 million for beach renourishment in St. Johns County.
“The House passage of the Water Resources Development Act is a significant step toward vital investment in our nation’s ports and waterways, as well as protecting our communities against natural disasters like we saw last year in Jacksonville with Hurricane Irma,” Rep. John Rutherford (R-FL) said in a statement released last week. “This bill contains several important provisions that will invest in Northeast Florida, and I am proud to have voted in favor of it. I commend my colleagues in the House for recognizing the need to strengthen our water infrastructure and look forward to working with them in the future to further improve our communities.”