The chance that growth in St. Johns County is going to significantly decrease in the foreseeable future is pretty remote.
That was the message from St. Johns County Commissioner Henry Dean when he spoke Friday at a St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce event in St. Augustine. And it was backed up by data from county growth management director Suzanne Konchan and her staff.
“We’re going to have growth,” Dean said. “If anybody thinks we’re not going to have growth or we can adopt some rule or ordinance or law to stop growth, that ain’t going to happen.
“We cannot have a wall between Duval and St. Johns counties and give people day passes to come down and be tourists. We have to deal with the growth.”
That was the topic of discussion at the Historic St. Augustine Area Council meeting, and it’s been one of the major topics of discussion among almost everyone in the county at least through the 2000s — if not before.
Konchan presented guests with a look at what is coming for a county that has already added 45,000 residents since 2010.
She showed that permits for new single-family homes in the county are on pace with the 2004 fiscal year (which runs October to October) of about 4,000. That would be behind the record pace of 4,800 in fiscal year 2005.
In the latest monthly building report, the county recorded 351 permits for single-family homes in April. That’s higher than any April since the recession and higher than all but one monthly total prior to the current fiscal year.
For the calendar year, the county issued 1,370 single-family home permits in 2017, through April. That pace suggests there will be more than 4,000 permits issued this calendar year. In 2016, the total was about 3,400.
“It has been a steady and more sustainable level of permits that we’ve had these last four years,” Konchan said. “We’ll see that go up but not that spike and hopefully not that trough we saw leading up to the Great Recession.”
Why does this pace appear sustainable? Part of it is the economy, although that can always change.
But the main reason is the constant influx of more development applications. Konchan said about 10,000 new housing units have been approved in the last five years. Another 8,400 new units are currently somewhere in the review process.
And that doesn’t count older developments that have rights to build thousands of homes and are in the process of doing so.
“We could hit 4,000 (new homes) this calendar year,” Konchan said. “Time will tell. We’ll see how the economy and demand continues.”
Konchan added that commercial permits are also up, including a marked increase in applications for self-storage facilities.
With the increased building activity and rise in population here, Dean and Konchan were asked about ways to mitigate traffic congestion, school overcrowding and other growth-related issues. They were also asked about the potential impact of expanding the homestead property tax exemption by $25,000.
Dean said transportation, always a great concern among those who live and work in downtown St. Augustine, was the biggest growth issue facing the county and the city.
“I just think we need to continue working together, the city and the county working together to see what options we do have,” Dean said. “Maybe the county should look at expanding its somewhat nominal public transportation system, the Sunshine Bus.”
Making any improvements to roads is going to be difficult, though, especially if the homestead exemption goes through. Dean said that would result in the loss of about $10 million per year to the county’s general fund.
One of the few bright spots is the extension of State Road 9B into St. Johns County to relieve some stress on Race Track Road. But other than that, the cupboards are bare.
“We’re struggling to meet ongoing operations and maintenance and repair of our existing facilities,” Konchan said. “To the best of my knowledge, there are very few dollars in the 2018 budget — probably zero dollars — for new road construction out of the county’s general fund.
“We have impact fees that will go to some projects, but they’re not high enough to build significant amounts of new roadways. So every dollar lost through homestead exemption or any other means puts that much more challenge on the county.”
Dean agreed that the county was “already behind” but did not offer any solutions as to how to counter the potential loss of revenue.
At the same time, Dean said he supported projects that paid for themselves, like the recent ICI Homes project called Middlebourne. The 450-home development at the intersection of Longleaf Pine Parkway and Veterans Parkway came before the County Commission in April and was continued. Other commissioners said they were concerned about lack of school capacity in the area.
The homes there would have cost an average of about $500,000, providing a wealth of property tax revenue, Dean said. The status of the project is still uncertain.
“I thought that was a really good project to go forward,” Dean said. “If we don’t look at those as good projects and approve them, if we just stop approving those kinds of developments, we have a huge backlog of entitled lots in this county … there will be a strain in our ability to go forward.”
Moving ahead, it’s clear growth is likely to remain the No. 1 topic for Dean and all local politicians for some time.
”Personally, I want to see sound, well-planed, orderly economic growth in this county, both in the residential and from a business standpoint,” Dean said.
He pointed out that the state’s population has gone from just less than 7 million in 1970 to about 20.6 million in 2016. Meanwhile, the county has gone from about 31,000 in 1970 to 235,000 residents.
“While the state has grown three fold, the county has grown as of today nine fold since 1970,” Dean said. “So it’s little wonder that we have transportation issues, school classroom issues, traffic issues.
“Growth can be wonderful, but it brings its own set of problems, as we learn.”