Ponte Vedra Corporation (PVC) Attorney Lynn Pappas said she expects to receive the next round of comments and guidance from St. Johns County staff on the company’s Vista Tranquila application by the end of July.
The company submitted its responses to the county’s review of its controversial development project June 30. The Gate Petroleum subsidiary has asked the county to review the responses and make its next move within 30 days, which could include deciding if the application is ready to go before the Planning and Zoning Agency and Board of County Commissioners. The county conducted its review of the project and sent its comments to PVC in late February 2017.
PVC is proposing to rezone 99 acres of Conservation property known as The Outpost from Open Rural to Planned Unit Development to build a subdivision there known as Vista Tranquila. The Outpost property is located at the end of Neck Road and adjacent to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR).
Most notable in its responses to the county is PVC’s plan to remove 11 lots from the subdivision, resulting in a total of 66 homes. The company says it will also consolidate plans for an east and west park into one centralized neighborhood park and provide required upland buffers in the northern and western sections of the property. Among several other revisions, PVC plans to provide a minimum 30-foot buffer and 20-foot water quality treatment swale along the eastern perimeter of the property, as well as increased building setbacks within the Guana Lake Edge.
“It’s a voluminous response,” said Pappas. “All of that is supplying additional material which supports the land plan as well as changes we felt were appropriate and improved the plan based on what we received from the county in their comments.”
Jane West, an attorney representing the residents living along Neck Road who have formed the nonprofit group Save Guana Now to fight the development, believes the company’s responses are anything but voluminous.
“It might be large in quantity,” said West. “But in terms of the quality of the changes I saw, they were nominal at best.”
West emphasized that the “elephant in the room” is that the property in question is designated on the St. Johns County future land use map as Conservation, and that the company needs a comprehensive plan amendment to change the designation. The county has consistently asked that the application be accompanied by this amendment.
“This is a peninsula that juts out into one of the most pristine, natural areas in our county,” said West. “Of course it’s designated Conservation. Why would we not adhere to what our planners put on the map and what has been on the map for two decades, just to accommodate another housing development?”
Pappas and PVC have continued to argue that a plan amendment is not required to process the application. They say the land use designation is conditional and requires future boundary adjustments based on environmental field surveys. They also argue the county has consistently approved such boundary adjustments in the past, determining that development on non-jurisdictional portions of such property may be developed consistent with the surrounding property, which in the case of Outpost is Residential C.
This debate has been ongoing for several years. PVC filed a lawsuit against the county in September 2016, asking the court to force the county to act on its PUD application, which the company said was not addressed within the typical time frame. The lawsuit charged that county officials failed to process requests dating back to 2013 for a routine administrative interpretation regarding the limits of the Conservation designation of The Outpost.
After hearing from both parties in April, Judge Michael Traynor decided to stay the case, sending it back through the normal county process. Pappas said Traynor also told PVC to work with the county to establish a timeframe to respond to the county’s February comments. Pappas noted that they didn’t want to respond to the comments until receiving such direction from Traynor at the hearing in April. She said the company’s June 30 responses were submitted well within the timeframe agreed upon with the county, adding that they were sent almost two months earlier than the deadline established by the code.
In those responses, PVC states that the compatibility of its PUD design is environmentally superior to the existing Neck Road development due to its lower residential density, required central water and sewer connections and increased buffers, among other reasons.
Nicole Crosby, co-founder of Save Guana Now and a Neck Road resident, said this claim is laughable. She referenced a memo written by GTMNERR Manager Dr. Mike Shirley in May in which he cites concerns over the development’s impact on the reserve’s water quality. Save Guana Now and a handful of environmental organizations that have pledged their support for Crosby’s group, including the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, argue Vista Tranquila will also adversely impact migrating birds and species of concern in the area, and contribute pollution to the reserve and additional traffic on Neck Road.
In its responses, PVC states that the PUD’s stormwater and water treatment systems will provide protections for the environment beyond those implemented in most of the existing Neck Road residential areas. PVC also claims that traffic will not exceed the county’s Minor Collector threshold of 2,000 vehicles per day to Mickler Road.
Crosby acknowledges that traffic will slightly reduce with 11 less homes, but overall, not much for her has changed.
“We’re really looking at the exact same problem,” said Crosby, who noted that the next Save Guana Now meeting is July 26 at 7 p.m. at Mickler’s Landing Beach. “The fact that they made other, what they would consider concessions, didn’t surprise me either because they’re trying to make the project appear less unattractive. It’s still basically 76 acres of uplands that are going to have complete habitat destruction.”
Pappas disagrees, remarking that it’s easy to say PVC’s recent responses seem minimal, when she believes they’re quite substantive and meaningful. Regardless, she said the ball is now in the hands of the county.
“It stands exactly where it needs to stand,” she said. “The county commission needs to vote on their position with respect to the language of their comprehensive plan.”
As of now, PZA and BCC hearings on this debate have yet to be scheduled.