Save Guana Now gala raises funds to fight development of The Outpost

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Sandy Chapin looked out over the Guana River and pointed to the nearby area known as The Outpost.

“Imagine all that gone and just rows and rows of houses,” Chapin said, shaking his head. “It’s the last place left.”

Chapin was one of 150 attendees who signaled their opposition to plans to develop The Outpost by attending Saturday’s “Save Guana Now Gala.” Held at the home of Neck Road residents John and Martha Denneen, the event attracted guests from across the First Coast to the benefit aimed at fighting the Ponte Vedra Corp.’s plans to build a 77-home housing development to be known as Vista Tranquila on The Outpost. PVC – a division of Gate Petroleum – is challenging the property’s existing designation as conservation land, and has accused the county of dragging its feet in processing its planned unit development (PUD) application.

In response to PVC’s application, however, residents have banded together, forming Save Guana Now to prevent the development of what they say is one of the few remaining pieces of pristine open space left in Ponte Vedra.

“We just can’t keep building on every piece of land,” said Sheila Hickson-Curran. “It’s conservation land, period.”A 22-year resident of Ponte Vedra, Hickson-Curran has lived for the past nine years on Neck Road, the two-lane road that serves as The Outpost’s sole point of access. She stressed, however, that her home’s proximity to the property is not the deciding factor behind her opposition or those of other Save Guana Now supporters.

“It’s not a case of ‘Not in My Back Yard,’” she said. “It’s the beauty of the place. We would love for it to be a public space open for everyone.”

Seaside resident Joellen Rawson also expressed dismay at the thought of the property being cleared for nearly 80 homes.

“I’ll just cry if all this is destroyed,” said Rawson, who said she goes hiking in the Guana Preserve nearly every week. “When we moved to Ponte Vedra 23 years ago, they said it would always be a preserve.”

Del Webb resident Gloria North is a former science teacher who holds a master’s degree in biology. North said her opposition to the proposed development plan stems for her concern for its impact on the environment.

“Guana is a very important area for bird migration,” North said. “I think we need to be good stewards of the world.”

Frances Eaton, also of Del Webb, agreed. “There has to be something left for future generations,” she said.

As gala guests enjoyed cocktails, a catered dinner and a silent auction, Save Guana Now co-founder Gary Coulliette provided entertainment, singing and playing guitar. Coulliette and co-founder Nicole Crosby then thanked attendees for the strong support the fundraiser had received, noting that they had had to turn people away from the sold-out event.

“It’s heartwarming to know so many people support this cause,” Coulliette said. “Once you cut down those trees, you can’t take it back. They’re gone for good.”

Gala guests also heard from Jane West, the attorney who is representing Save Guana Now in its quest to prevent The Outpost from being developed. West updated attendees on a hearing held last week, at which Judge Michael Traynor ordered the dispute between PVC and St. Johns County back to the county zoning application process. Last fall, PVC filed a lawsuit asking the court to force the county to act on PVC’s planned unit development application for Vista Tranquila. The county had sought a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, prompting Traynor’s ruling sending the application back to the county process.

“They (PVC) don’t want you interfering in this process,” West said. Gesturing to the pristine view across the river, she continued, “Your participation will determine how this vista looks five to 10 years from now, so your active engagement is very important here.”West encouraged attendees to show up when the matter comes before the county’s Planning and Zoning Agency and Board of County Commissioners.

It’s an opportunity to which Save Guana Now co-founder Crosby is looking forward.

“We’re very pleased by the court decision,” Crosby said. “Gate tried to circumvent public input and now we’ll have a chance to offer that input.”

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