St. Johns County reiterated its stance that developers behind the controversial Vista Tranquila project in Ponte Vedra Beach will have to seek a Comprehensive Plan amendment if they want to build on a piece of property known as the Outpost.
The county submitted its second round of comments on the proposed project on Aug. 1, following up on Ponte Vedra Corporation’s responses in June to the county’s initial staff review of their application for a Planned Unit Development.
Disagreement between the county and developers over some land use issues has kept the project at more or less of a standstill for about four years.
The proposed PUD is situated at the southern end of Neck Road, bordering the Guana River in the northern reaches of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve, or GTMNERR.
Opponents to the project, including residents of existing homes on Neck Road, have said Vista Tranquila would be far from tranquil. They’ve argued further development would cause habitat destruction, contamination of the reserve’s nearby waters, and result in a dangerous uptick in daily car trips on Neck Road, which would become the sole outlet for nearly 200 homes.
County staff provided initial comments to Ponte Vedra Corporation on Feb. 27. At the time, the developer was requesting to rezone about 99.3 acres from Open Rural to allow for construction of 77 single-family homes. The parcel in question is about 75 percent uplands and 25 percent wetlands and the applicant is not proposing to fill any wetlands.
Responses provided by the developer on June 30 indicated the company, among other things, would remove all waiver requests from its application, increase building setbacks and upland buffers, and decrease the scale of its project by 11 lots, resulting in a total of 66 single-family homes.
The county in its latest correspondence said staff still does not accept Ponte Vedra Corporation’s insistence that the subject property is designated residential, rather than conservation, on the county’s Future Land Use Map.
The developer has said its PUD design is “superior” to that of existing development on Neck Road, due to its lower residential density, required central water and sewer connections, inclusion of a master stormwater drainage system that meets Outstanding Florida Water regulatory requirements and “substantially” increased buffers along the GTMNERR.
But the county came back and asked the developer to provide staff with a preliminary grading and stormwater management plan that “more accurately details” the location and size of the facilities that will be required.
Ponte Vedra Corporation had said in its June responses that “mere adjacency” of residential development to the GTMNERR boundary has never been considered by the county in other instances. In its second round of comments, the county still requests the developer “discuss how the scale and intensity of this proposed project is consistent with the existing adjacent GTMNERR.”
“Although the applicant has committed to providing the minimum required standards for development staff still has concerns with the potential for adverse impacts on the public lands that surround this project,” the county’s comments continue. “The GTMNERR and the Guana Wildlife Management Area have the potential for impact with light, noise, runoff, loss of habitat and other kinds of issues that come with residential development.”
On the issue of roads, the developer said traffic on Neck Road was not projected to exceed the county’s minor collector road threshold of 2,000 vehicles per day. The developer said their study accounts for the existing 116 dwellings as well as the projected added traffic of 30 vacant and developable lots as the 66 homes they’re proposing.
The county, however, said based on the project’s daily trip generation, right and left turn lanes will be required at the Mickler Road/Neck Road intersection, adding they counted 33 vacant, developable lots and that they’re projecting daily trips over the 2,000-vehicle cutoff. Staff said even with the decrease in proposed homes from 77 to 66, Vista Tranquila would still constitute a “major project.”
Other concerns dealt with identification and location of specimen trees, potentially significant cultural resources (archaeological sites) in the area that may require additional testing or monitoring, as well as the distance of the PUD’s southern reaches from the nearest fire station.
Developers brought a case against the county last year claiming officials were “stonewalling” their project by refusing to issue an administrative interpretation of the property’s land use designation and by, instead, requiring an application for a Comprehensive Plan amendment — meaning a longer, more costly process that opens the door to further regulation — in order to move forward.
Ponte Vedra Corporation, a subsidiary of Gate Petroleum, said the county was dragging its feet, ignoring its own rules and denying the company’s rights to develop its long-held property without any chance for appeal.
The suit was filed Sept. 12, just two months after the company’s application for a PUD was submitted, but even that came after years without a formal determination by the county on the property’s conservation designation on the Future Land Use Map.
On April 28, Judge Michael Traynor of the 7th Judicial Circuit Court signed an order holding the case in abeyance on the condition the County Commission hear the PUD application in a timely manner under the county’s current Comprehensive Plan.
According to the county’s latest comments, staff will continue processing the application and will schedule a public hearing upon determination by staff that the application is “sufficient and ready” for a hearing, or upon written request from the applicant that the item be scheduled for a hearing.
No public hearing date has been established as of yet.