Last week, Ponte Vedra Corporation (PVC) filed a “motion to lift abatement” concerning its Vista Tranquila development application on the Outpost property, which ultimately means the company is proceeding with litigation over the property dispute with St. Johns County.
According to PVC attorney Amy Boulris, the Gate subsidiary is suing St. Johns County because she said the county has refused to offer PVC an administrative interpretation on the organization’s proposed residential development — a 66-home subdivision planned to be built on the 99- acre conservation property known as the Outpost.
PVC, Boulris said, wants to know if its proposal aligns with the county’s current comprehensive plan before taking the matter to the Planning and Zoning Agency (PZA) and Board of County Commissioners (BCC). Boulris explained that the county tried to alter its comprehensive plan last spring before providing PVC with an administrative interpretation. Now, she said the county believes it doesn’t owe PVC a formal interpretation at all, which is why PVC is proceeding with litigation.
Boulris said going to court is a necessary step because the county is refusing to make a fundamental decision that will enable PVC to intelligently plan its property.
“It’s normal and customary to go in first and ask the county commission to make a decision on where the outer boundaries of development can be,” she explained. “A land owner can then intelligently plan a site plan proposal and then have that decided.”
Save Guana Now, a group that opposes PVC’s planned development, is working to protect The Outpost (located at the end of Neck Road and adjacent to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve) from being rezoned into a residential area.
According to Boulris, Save Guana Now is arguing that PVC’s proposed residential zone sits on conservation land that cannot be developed for environmental reasons. However, Boulris suggested that Save Guana Now members are predominantly immediate neighbors to the Outpost who are using environmentalism as a pretext to prevent PVC from building homes near their neighborhood.
“Now that they have their homes with the views they like,” she asserted, “all of a sudden they read the comp. plan very differently, and they travel on an oversimplification that is not accurate.”
Boulris also said it’s “just objectively true” that Save Guana Now members who live near the Outpost are violating their own principles.
“If they feel that strongly [about the environment], they should all demolish their homes, restore their land to the natural condition it was in and move out,” she said. “To put the mantle of ‘environmentalist’ over them is a little obnoxious.”
Nicole Crosby, co-founder of Save Guana Now and a Neck Road resident, said the claim her group wants to use the Outpost as its own private greenway is “fallacious,” “insane” and an “ad hominem attack.”
“I’d be happy to show an entire list of 565 names of people who have written us and said, ‘Please put me on your list, I’m interested, I want to fight this,’” said Crosby. “When you have an email list, by law the person has to contact you and give you permission. That’s 565 people, when you consider there are 130 houses on that road to the development. There’s just no way, the numbers just don’t add up that it can only be immediate neighbors.”
Crosby said this is a Northeast Florida issue and the idea that Save Guana Now members are primarily concerned with preserving a nice view in front of their homes is “wishful thinking” on the part of Boulris.
Arguing that the conservation label establishes a complete ban on development is a “gross oversimplification,” Boulris insisted, because the word “conservation” is a conditional term under the county’s current comp. plan. Boulris contended that the boundaries of conservation on the Outpost are approximate and “are to be refined later based on actual field studies.”
After a field study, Boulris said experts can determine the boundary of the “conservation” designation by creating a detailed map showing the specific areas that are subject to environmental protection laws. Next, PVC can design a site plan for the property based on regulations that would be approved at a public hearing, but Boulris said St. Johns County isn’t responding to their inquiries, so litigation is her client’s best course of action.
“They want to deny that we even have the right to ask,” she said. “The code says the county administrator shall answer this kind of question and so the county’s ironic position is, ‘We don’t owe you an answer because we might have to refer to the comp plan.’”
PVC attorney suggests county officials sympathize with Save Guana Now
Boulris speculated that the county isn’t being fair to her client because some members of its planning staff might be sympathetic toward Save Guana Now. Some government officials, she added, “have their personal view of things,” and they don’t always execute their duties because they “can’t help their personal bias.”
Additionally, the PVC attorney referred to Save Guana Now as a “special interest group” that is promoting falsehoods to serve their special interest of stymying the proposed Outpost development.
“The county can’t change the rules on the fly just because a special interest group comes along and doesn’t want a particular piece of property next to them developed because now they like the neighborhood the way it is,” she said. “That’s not how it works.”
Meanwhile, Crosby claimed Gate Petroleum is peddling several false statements. One, Crosby said, was a written statement alleging the entire 99-acre Outpost property has never been in conservation – which conflicts with St. Johns County’s determination. Another false statement, she said, was that the Outpost harbors no significant animal species or habitats.
“The habitat and species survey that Gate provided the county was not independent,” Crosby claimed. “It was commissioned by Gate who bought and paid for the survey’s conclusions. And in fact, interestingly, the slogan of the company who prepared the report is ‘our science, your success.’ It’s not an independent environmental firm, it was a bought-and-paid-for firm.”
Regarding PVC’s lawsuit, Save Guana Now attorney Jane West said in a released statement that the company is trying to circumvent the law and avoid a public hearing by filing its recent motion and going to court.
“This is a strongly-worded motion that reflects the desperation of a party that isn’t getting its way,” West said in the statement. “Obviously, they are not pleased with the county’s position on the matter and instead of accepting the common-sense rules that apply to everyone else and going to a public hearing, they are digging in their heels over a footnote that hardly provides the free-wheeling escape from the comprehensive plan that they are seeking.”
Boulris, however, believes Save Guana Now is misrepresenting her client.
“That’s what the Save Guana people are trying to peddle,” she said. “We’re not trying to avoid a public hearing process, we’re not trying to do an end run around the county commission, we’ve only come to court at all because we’re being blocked.”
According to West, the judge is allowing both parties to pursue a hearing under the current comprehensive plan, but PVC has been trying unsuccessfully to force a determination that the county “did not feel was appropriate or warranted.” As a result, West believes PVC is running back to the court instead of engaging the public.
“The notion that St. Johns County staff is somehow acting defiantly in pursuit of some hidden agenda is nonsensical,” she said. “Ponte Vedra Corporation has never had an issue obtaining variances or land use changes in the past – but here, they simply refuse to accept that they have to play by the same rules that every other property owner in the county is subject to.”
According to St. Johns County, a hearing is scheduled for Jan. 18 that will allow all parties to explain their position to the court.