PZA recommends transmittal of Vilano hotel proposal

Board of County Commissioners scheduled to hear matter at Sept. 20 meeting


The St. Johns County Planning & Zoning Agency board voted 5 to 1 last week in favor of recommending that the Board of County Commissioners approve transmittal of a comprehensive plan amendment that would allow the construction of a hotel resort complex on Coastal Highway.

At the Aug. 4 meeting – attended by hundreds of residents who came to voice their opposition to the project – board members Jeffrey Martin, Brad Nelson, David Rice, Archie Wainwright and Jon Woodard voted to recommend transmittal of the requested zoning change, citing the jobs and tax revenue that would be generated by the project. Dick Williams was the lone board member to vote against the project, saying the size and scope of the proposed Watermarke resort was not compatible with the surrounding area.

“I’m not going to say yes if I’m not convinced it really belongs there,” said Williams, noting he had received hundreds of emails from Vilano Beach residents expressing their opposition to the project. “It’s not compatible in my mind.”

The Aug. 4 hearing on the issue began with a presentation by county Chief Planner Danielle Handy, who explained that a comprehensive plan amendment was necessary because the property in question – a 43-acre parcel located on Coastal Highway approximately 1.5 miles north of Vilano Town Center – is currently zoned residential C, which does not allow hotels or beach clubs. In order to build the proposed project, the property would have to be rezoned as residential D, which allows such facilities.

Handy detailed the county’s review of the proposed project – which included a review of its environmental and traffic impacts – and noted that, contrary to some residents’ fears, should the project be approved and later sold, the new owners would not be able to make any changes to the plan without seeking further county approval. She concluded by saying county staff recommended transmittal.

Project changes

Following Handy’s presentation the developer introduced some last-minute changes to the project in the form of a text amendment. Working from a photocopied page upon which text had been crossed out and handwritten changes inserted, attorney Ellen Avery-Smith said that in response to community concerns about population density and traffic, the developers had decided to scale back the project. While the initial proposal called for construction of a hotel with 130 rooms, 70 beach villas, a 39-slip marina and 80,000 square feet of ancillary resort facilities such as a spa, restaurant and fitness center, the revised proposal would call for 120 hotel rooms, 50 villas, and 70,000 square feet of ancillary resort facilities. The 39-slip marina would remain unchanged. In addition, the developers requested that in the event the resort wasn’t built, they would retain the right to build 79 residential units on the property.

Far from appeasing those in opposition, however, the last-minute changes prompted questions from PZA board members and criticism from attorney Jane West, who represents members of the Save Our Vilano group that opposes the project.

“This is just a procedural mess,” West said. “We should not be changing the comprehensive plan based on a piece of paper we all just received 10 minutes ago.”

West said the size and scope of the proposed resort is incompatible with the surrounding residential area, and noted that the only other similar commercial enterprise nearby was a small boutique hotel of fewer than 30 rooms. The owner of that property was the lone person to speak in favor of the project during public comment.

West also reiterated residents’ concerns about how the resort would impact traffic as well as the negative impact it might have on efforts to revitalize the Vilano Town Center commercial district.

Resident opposition

Numerous residents spoke in opposition to the project, including several speakers who brought letters from their homeowners’ and condo associations opposing the project. One resident, a former longtime traffic engineer and federal highway employee, disputed the projected traffic impacts of the project.

Another resident told board members it’s hard enough trying to cross A1A with his four grandchildren, and fears that building the resort would make the traffic situation even worse.

“My biggest concern is a safety concern,” David Vermeulen said. “Someone’s going to get killed trying to cross A1A.”

Pete Molinaro told the board he and his wife just moved to Vilano Beach to begin their retirement after 44 and 37 years of teaching, respectively. The proposed resort, he said, would be right outside his window.

“I worked hard and long to retire,” he said. “We specifically moved to Vilano Beach because it was residential. I’m shocked this is even being considered.”

Resident Linda Doherty asked board members to consider the concerns of Vilano Beach residents.

“Developers have one goal in mind and that is to make as much money as possible,” she said. “We truly have an idyllic paradise. If not for vigilant zoning, it may slip away and turn into everywhere else.”

Attorney Avery-Smith said, however, that the modifications presented at the meeting were an attempt to be responsive to neighbors’ concerns about traffic and impacts on quality of life.

“This is a work in progress,” Avery-Smith said. “We hear those comments (from the public) and make adjustments. It’s a direct response to those folks in back who are concerned about traffic. It’s a negotiation.”

She also disputed residents’ contention that the area is primarily residential, pointing to several restaurants along A1A.

“We’ve all been to Cap’s, we’ve been to Aunt Kate’s, we’ve been to The Reef,” she said.

As for traffic, she added, planned FDOT improvements to the St. Augustine intersection of May Street and San Marcos Ave. were expected to ease traffic backups over the Usina Bridge to Vilano Beach.

In the end, the majority of PZA board members said they were reassured by the studies conducted by county staff indicating that traffic increases would be negligible and the overall impact of the project positive.

“We all live in an area where we get frustrated by traffic,” member Jon Woodard said, “but we have to rely on the experts.”

Added PZA Chair Jeffrey Martin, “For me, it comes down to the tax revenue generated. (This project) creates jobs, tourism, a bed tax – those are all good things. We need those things.”

The Board of County Commissioners is now scheduled to consider the matter at its Sept. 20 meeting.