Ponte Vedra Beaches Coalition hosts forum for County Commission candidates

Candidates share views on county’s growth, beaches and financial future


Growth and development, economic stability and beach restoration were the main topics discussed Monday, May 21 at a forum hosted by the Ponte Vedra Beaches Coalition for County Commission candidates.

Held at the Ponte Vedra Beach Branch Library, the debate provided candidates the opportunity to share their platforms with local voters, as well as their positions on key issues. Candidates in attendance included District 4 contenders Erika Alba (R), Jeremiah Blocker (R), Nicholas “Mike” Dudynskay (R), Andrew Evener (R) and Dick Williams (R); as well as District 2 incumbent Jeb Smith (R), who is currently unopposed in his bid for reelection. District 4 candidate Catherine Hawkinson Guevarra (D), however, was not in attendance.


Growth and development

One topic the candidates were asked to share their perspectives on was the growth and development of St. Johns County.

“Right now, we have a residential to commercial split of 87 to 13 percent,” said Alba, a political law attorney. “This is just not working. We are paralyzed by our residential growth because we don’t have the commercial growth to offset that. A balanced community needs about 35 percent commercial, versus 65 percent residential. We are upside-down.”

Dudynskay, the principal consultant for Max+Friends, LLC, agreed that the county needs to recruit more businesses, and contended that he was the only candidate with the knowledge and experience to do so.

“I’ve talked to 50 of my friends who are CEOs, who are entrepreneurs and venture capitalists,” he said. “Each one of them said, ‘You are the ideal location. … You have low construction costs, you have a low cost of living, tax rates are good, the environment’s perfect, you have great schools.’ There’s no reason why we can’t be a hub for this kind of generation for ‘next economy’ developments, but it takes the right person to be able to talk to these people. I live in that space.”

While the candidates all seemed to concur that an increase in commercial development is needed throughout the county, Evener — a former member of the St. Johns County Affordable Housing Advisory Committee — took the matter even further, proposing a halt on residential development altogether.

“I am the only candidate that is pledging a moratorium on approving new housing developments,” he said. “We have thousands of homes that have already been approved that we haven’t even cleared land for yet, and we just keep approving more, and more and more, and we can’t even handle what we have.”

Blocker, a military veteran and lawyer, also expressed the concern that too many residential developments were being “rubber-stamped” for approval by the county, but Williams — a former volunteer on the county’s Planning and Zoning Agency — disagreed with that assessment, pointing out that developments are often required to be changed before receiving approval.

“I can tell you, in the nine years I spent on Planning and Zoning, I spent countless hours reviewing development code, working with the applicant to make sure that the best use of that land, for the benefit of the county, was what we did,” the retired businessman said. “I’ve also spent, I can’t even begin to number the hundreds of hours of meeting with the residents. … I took it upon myself to meet with them, answer their questions and often explain the process, but it is a long and arduous process.”


Economic stability

Candidates were also asked whether they would support a property or sales tax increase to help alleviate St. Johns County’s financial woes.

For Smith, who is both a farmer and a pastor, the answer was simple: “No, no, no taxes.”

Likewise, Dudynskay, Alba and Blocker all agreed that the county should exercise caution when it comes to tax increases, and that its focus should instead be on increasing commercial development, with Blocker also stressing the importance of fiscal responsibility and accountability.

“We have revenue coming into the county,” he said. “We need to make sure we use those dollars effectively and efficiently.”

Williams, however, said he felt the decision regarding a sales tax increase should be left up to the voters, provided the county could establish a clear need for the additional revenue and a “clearly-defined and limited” use for the money. He also added that any new sales tax would need to be phased out after a certain period of time, which he clarified with the Recorder to be 10 years.

Evener agreed that the voters should have a say in whether their taxes are increased, stating, “We need to make sure there is complete transparency with where all of our money is spent in government.”          


Beach restoration

Of all the topics discussed, one stood out as a key issue for voters: the beaches. With many residents who either live along or simply enjoy visiting the beach, the Ponte Vedra community has been devastated by the impacts of erosion, and at Monday’s forum, it was clear that the issue could be a determining factor for many voters.

“St. Johns County is one of the few counties on the Atlantic Coast that does not have a sustainable beach management program,” said Williams on the topic. “There’s been some things done every year … but there is not an agency-level attention to this problem, and it’s time we do that.”

Williams said he would support raising the bed tax by 1 percent to fund such a program, and Evener also expressed support for the increase, adding that the county should also “go after FEMA” for disaster relief funds related to Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

Blocker and Alba preferred the idea of obtaining state and federal funding for the project over a tax increase, with Alba suggesting the possible reallocation of current bed tax revenue. Smith reiterated his general opposition to raising taxes and expressed doubt that the tax revenue would be enough to fund the project anyway.

Dudynskay, meanwhile, said he was in favor of creating a beach renourishment program, but not until the county could afford the project.

“It’s no question (beach renourishment) has to be done, but do we want to go into debt to do that?” he asked. “That’s my question, because we do not have the extra money to do it right now.”

The next County Commission debate will take place July 16 at 5:30 p.m. at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.