The west side of Nassau County is expected to boom with residential, commercial, and industrial development over the next 10, 20, and 30 years, said county officials, who are mapping a strategic plan for “balanced” growth and “sophisticated” development that will not resemble, they maintained, the isolated subdivisions and crowded line-up of commercial strip malls that attract cars and stall traffic throughout the day on the SR 200/A1A commercial corridor.
That is good news for at least one west side resident who attended a public meeting in Callahan Wednesday to discuss long-range planning for the large rural area west of I-95. The man said he no longer travels across the county to visit Fernandina Beach, “even if I want to dip my toes in the ocean,” because “it is turning into an absolute disaster.”
The county’s top planner—and Yulee native—agreed: Development has changed the local landscape and not necessarily for the better.
“The Yulee I grew up in, it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s gone,” said Taco Pope.
Mr. Pope directs Nassau County’s office of Planning and Economic Opportunity, a department once known as Growth Management. He said the county wants to shift its approach with developers, who for years dictated building plans across Yulee. According to Mr. Pope, it is time for local officials to define where people will live, work, and play.
“Before it’s too late, the barn door has been kicked open and we’re playing catch up,” he said.
But claims that developers had dictated to the county what they would build and where they would built it, may not fully explain what happened to congest the SR 200/A1A, at least in part. For some key projects along the corridor, elected officials cooperated with private developers and celebrated the Public Private Partnership.
Several years ago, the County Commission allowed Jacksonville-based developer Sleiman Enteprises—owner of The Landing—to build, inspect (and name) with local taxpayer money—David Hallman Parkway, the roadway that wraps behind its Villages of Amelia shopping center anchored by Publix supermarket, Ross Dress for Less, and T.J. Maxx. The company also handled the feeder road that travels around the RaceTrac gas station before heading into the Flora Park subdivision. When the roadway opened in January 2014, commissioners held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and gave special recognition to company President Tony Sleiman.
The county also gave a Sleiman executive a voting member position on a special committee chaired by Commissioner Danny Leeper to determine developer impact fees—fees the company would pay if they built a project in Nassau County.
There was discussion at the meeting about working with private land owners. Moving forward, Mr. Pope said there are two key questions to ask about west side development: “Where do we want it to be? Where do we not want it to be?”
The Urban Land Institute of North Florida, a collaborative group of real estate, planners, and developers, has been asked to evaluate local conditions (good), analyze the potential for growth (great), and recommend where to put shovels in the ground (Callahan and the Crawford Diamond industrial site).
A report by the group’s Technical Assistance Panel is expected in six months, according to Scott Sheridan, the panel chair, who said the recommendation will be a “roadmap” for the community.
Mr. Sheridan is the Chief Operating Officer of Wiregrass Ranch in Pasco County, a 5,100 acre mixed-use planned community outside of Tampa Bay being built on ranching and timber lands. Previously, Mr. Sheridan worked for an engineering company that planned, engineered, and permitted large-scale projects for the site. He worked on plans for a 6,400 housing development on a 3,527-acre tract that had been home to herds of cattle, according to a March 19, 2016 report in the Tampa Bay Times.
To the people gathered in the community room at the Northeast Florida Fairgrounds, he said: “You have a great opportunity to capitalize on growth for the next 30, 40, 50 years.”
This week, ULI panel members interviewed local leaders, including County Commissioners and county staff, the mayors of Callahan and Hilliard, the School Board president, Economic Development director, and Greater Nassau County Chamber of Commerce. Member Gregg Logan, who manages community and resort projects for RCLCO, a real estate consultancy, said the group also received “a phone book and a half to read.”
He said there are concerns about growth, traffic, commercial sprawl, recreation, poor infrastructure (roads and utilities) and changes to a rural lifestyle. While people seek quality jobs, they don’t want “radical” change, he said.
In a Question and Answer session following the presentation, a resident asked how aggressive growth will impact taxes. Despite the widespread building of commercial projects in Yulee, the man said, taxes are on the rise.
“I know Yulee is booming,” said Assistant County Manager Justin Stankiewicz, who is also Office of Management and Budget Director. “We’re aware of the problem.”
Mr. Stankiewicz stood from his seat in the back of community room next to County Manager Shanea Jones to address the crowd. Commissioner George Spicer and Commissioner Justin Taylor were also in attendance.
According to Mr. Stankiewicz, commercial development will pay for itself—and generate revenue.
“I make money on commercial (development),” he said.
Residential development, he said, loses money. For every $1.00 collected, he said the county spends about $1.50 to provide services.
Mr. Stankiewicz said ad valorem taxes haven’t been raised since 2014, though taxes have been rising because property values are up. On the plus side, he said: “We do have pretty low taxes compared to where other counties are at.”
Former County Commissioner and real estate investor Jimmy L. Higginbotham, who launched a group last year in Tallahassee that maintains Nassau County is heading for a financial crisis, said “Unless we get some commercial (development) here we’ll be in trouble…residential doesn’t pay for itself.”
The ULI members expect significant job centers around Callahan and in Rayonier’s pine forest that is a certified industrial site known as Crawford Diamond. On a large screen, they posted a map that defined growth areas between Callahan and Hilliard with a line that resembled a long link of sausage, according to one woman who wanted to know what the line meant because her home is near the ‘pork.’.
The ULI members said Callahan and the unincorporated area around it, can expect to see the bulk of development. And to some extent, Hilliard will also see development, they said.
The job centers are (for now) in Jacksonville and new housing, when it comes, should be located near highways and transportation hubs, they said.
Another resident said she would hate to see Route 301 turn into A1A, “like a Town Center.” She also asked for 100 feet of natural landscape buffer along the roadway. “Put trees in there,” she said. “Not rinky dink…big mature trees.”
And she asked for paved roads in private subdivisions. Children walk miles to school, she said, because buses won’t pick them up on dirt roads. The kids, she believed, are at risk of getting hit by a car or picked up by child molesters.
There was also a call for better code enforcement. Too often, it was said, the county lets people “weasel their way” out of violations and fines.
Another man said he did not want to see traffic congestion, like Yulee’s. One of the ULI panel members is Hugh Mathews, CEO and president of England Thims & Miller, the engineering firm that is handling the expansion of SR 200/AIA in Yulee for the state Department of Transportation.
Mr. Pope held up a book titled ‘Rural by Design—Planning for Town and Country.’ He said the county is planning “sophisticated” development (though what that means, he didn’t say) and looking to follow the industry’s best practices.
“Whether you’re pro-development or anti-development, it’s coming,” he said.
“If we do nothing, what are the outcomes? We need to be proactive.”