At church picnics, farm and feed stores, and the town’s only sit-down restaurant, talk has a way these days of turning to an issue on many people’s minds: the future of Hastings.
Five weeks from now, the issue will be settled in the Nov. 7 general election. Hastings will remain either a separately controlled and managed town, or it will be merged under the governance of St. Johns County as an unincorporated part of the county.
Led by Commissioner Chris Stanton, the town commission voted in August to put the question up to voters by ballot. Supporters say dissolving the municipality would boost Hastings financially by eliminating the local millage rate and reducing water rates through efficiencies since the town currently operates its own water and sewage system.
Just how the issue will be resolved at the polls remains to be seen, but talk to Thomas Cave, pastor of The Lord’s Temple, and he’ll tell you local residents definitely feel the town is at a significant crossroads.
“The pulse I have is there are mixed feelings concerning the dissolution of the town,” Cave said. “In my conversations with folks around town, I see that a lot of people want change. They want to see the community grow and their utilities come down. They also want to see more businesses in the community.”
“On the other hand,” Cave added, “I think there are those who are concerned about too much growth and what it might mean if the county comes in. They’re also worried about future taxation. Will those with less income be able to maintain their property values?”
No matter which side residents come down on, town leaders hope the referendum brings voters out to the polls. The proposition, requiring a simple “yes” or “no” response, needs a majority to pass.
Voters have until Oct. 10 to register. According to the St. Johns County Supervisor of Elections office, the town of Hastings currently has 432 voters on its rolls. So far, 50 mail-in ballots have been requested.
According to a 2016 census, 644 residents live in incorporated Hastings. Residents in unincorporated Hastings, which includes Flagler Estates, are not eligible to vote on the dissolution issue.
Vicky Oakes, St. Johns County supervisor of elections, said there was no way to tell how many voters might come out to the polls, but said, “I’m really expecting a pretty decent turnout because it’s such an important issue to the residents.”
It’s been 13 years since Hastings held a general election. In 2004, the town asked voters to approve a revised charter, setting down the structure of the local government and the town boundaries. Just 36 votes were cast in the special election, adopting the charter. Other elections, for seats on the town commission, have not gone forward because candidates ended up running unopposed.
“I just want [the coming election] to be representative,” said Stanton, who first suggested a study of the feasibility of the dissolution of the town. “We need more than 40 people to weigh in on this matter because it’s serious.”
‘In the sticks too long’
Hastings was founded in 1890 and incorporated in 1909.
Some locals like Stanton, who is a fourth-generation resident, have lived here all their lives. Others are newer folks who have come in search of a quieter, more affordable place to raise a family not too far from Jacksonville, Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.
Jay Shannahan doesn’t have to look farther than the booths of his restaurant, the Chicken Koop, to hear the buzz the fate of Hastings has created.
“Yeah, it’s what everyone’s been talking about,” said Shannahan, taking a break from serving breakfast in the retro-style diner at the corner of Main Street and State Road 207.
The business owner said the tenor of conversations has been congenial, that the issue hasn’t caused too much divisiveness among the regulars who frequent his eatery.
“Me, I’m for it, to be honest with you,” Shannahan said. “The water and sewer bills are just astronomical, and I don’t see any upkeep on our roads.”
To Stanton’s mind, the fiscal situation of Hastings is unsustainable. The town is in debt, and the county is better equipped to take on hands-on management of the municipality. Residents talk about the need for more infrastructure, for things like parks and community assets, as well as bringing economic development to the small town, Stanton said.
“It’s time for growth,” Shannahan said. “We’ve been in the sticks too long.”
Some locals do worry about Hastings’ identity, a sense of place, being lost if the government is dismantled. But, as Stanton points out, residents will still live in Hastings. They will still have a mailing address and post office in town.
“I think everyone wants to see some kind of change,” Cave said. “It’s just when and how that change comes.”
• The St. Johns County Supervisor of Elections office will conduct two meetings to answer questions about the voting process in the Hastings election. The first will be at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 18 at the Lord’s Temple, 140 Gilmore St.; the second will be at 11 a.m. Oct. 31 at Christ United Church, 200 E. Lattin St.