Residents fighting the proposed development of The Outpost property gathered at the Palm Valley Community Association last week to prepare for upcoming county meetings at which the matter will be reviewed by the Planning and Zoning Agency (PZA) and Board of County Commissioners (BCC).
“This is our opportunity to be heard,” said Nicole Crosby, co-founder of Save Guana Now. “We have a big voice, and there are a lot of us.”
Save Guana Now is working to protect the 99-acre conservation property known as The Outpost that is located at the end of Neck Road and adjacent to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Ponte Vedra Corporation (PVC), a subsidiary of Gate Petroleum, is proposing to rezone The Outpost from Open Rural to Planned Unit Development (PUD) to build a 77-home subdivision there to be known as Vista Tranquila. The county expects PVC’s proposal to come before the PZA within the next few months.
In preparation for the county meetings, Crosby and Save Guana Now co-founder Gary Coulliette discussed development of a video and press release, signage, t-shirts and bumper stickers to protest the proposed development. The organization’s leaders also shared that their recent gala raised more than $10,000.
Crosby also reported on a judicial hearing held earlier this month in which Judge Michael Traynor ordered PVC’s proposal back to the county zoning application process. The court’s decision followed a motion by St. Johns County to dismiss a lawsuit PVC filed against the county last fall.
Crosby said the court’s decision is a positive result, adding that PVC failed at “circumventing public input.”
PVC attorney Amy Boulris, however, contends her client has always wanted to move forward with a process that the county has stymied. In its lawsuit, PVC charged that county officials failed to act for several years on the company’s request for a routine administrative interpretation regarding the limits of the Conservation designation of The Outpost. After failing to receive a response to requests submitted in 2013 and 2014 – when PVC entered into a purchase and sale agreement with Dream Finders Homes – PVC filed a PUD zoning application in July 2016. The lawsuit charged that application also had not been acted upon within the typical time frame, and asked the court to force the county to act on its application.
At the hearing, county attorney Patrick McCormack argued that PVC’s lawsuit was filed prematurely.
Boulris said the company had no choice but to sue because county staff consistently refused to process PVC’s application under the county’s current Comprehensive Plan because they claimed the Conservation designation was too ambiguous to apply. She said the county consequently requested the application be accompanied by a comprehensive plan amendment, but never specified the amendment they would propose.
“That simply was unacceptable,” Boulris said.
Boulris believes residents opposed to the development have pressured the county to “change the rules.” Save Guana Now members claim development of the property would have a far-reaching impact on the environment and wildlife in the area, including migrating birds, threatened species and species of special concern. The group has also expressed concerns about potential pollution that could contaminate the waterways, as well as increased traffic on Neck Road.
After hearing from both parties, Judge Traynor decided to stay or suspend the case, meaning it will move forward through the normal county process. According to county spokesman Michael Ryan, PVC is now in possession of the county’s comments on its application.
“The ball’s in their court,” Ryan said.
Boulris agreed, and said PVC is in the process of responding to the county’s feedback. Overall, she said, PVC is satisfied with the ruling, and stressed that Judge Traynor asked the county to commit to processing the application under the current Comprehensive Plan, and the county agreed to do so. The case will go back to the court if the application isn’t processed accordingly.
“I think it was a very sage ruling by the judge that allows the parties to now move forward consistent with state law,” Boulris said. “All PVC has ever asked for is a fair hearing in front of the county commission, applying the existing comprehensive plan to their application.”