Sunday, August 14, 2016



Election preview: Growth and development at forefront of St. Johns County Commission races
Posted: August 13, 2016 - 10:28pm | Updated: August 13, 2016 - 10:50pm
With seemingly every conversation in St. Johns County taking place against a backdrop of growth and development, questions of how to meet the subsequent demands, and who’s responsible for creating those demands, have been at the center of debate in each of the three county commission races this election season.

Commissioner Jimmy Johns of District 1, representing much of the fast-growing northwest corner of the county, is facing off against fellow Republican Al Abbatiello in a universal primary contest that will be open to all registered county voters. This race will be decided Aug. 30 in the primary election.

Johns, the incumbent, was appointed in 2014 by Gov. Rick Scott to take over mid-term for former Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson (who now serves in the Florida House of Representatives). He is seeking election to his first full term.

Abbatiello is hoping his experience at the helm of the William Bartram Scenic & Historic Highway Management Group and involvement in several other groups challenging encroaching development will put him ahead at the polls.

Both candidates expressed concerns for the environment and the possible effects of sustained growth on quality of life in an editorial board interview with The Record earlier this week. (All editorial board interviews with candidates for county offices can be viewed at

Abbatiello said developers should have no expectations of exceeding the existing regulations on the lands they are developing and criticized the commission for approving changes and waivers at nearly every meeting.

“We have a Comprehensive Plan and we need to stick by that Comprehensive Plan,” he said.

He said one of the effects of straying from the county’s Comprehensive Plan — which he referred to as a “blueprint for growth” — is that developers are purchasing lands with zoning other than what their projects call for, confident they will get the modifications they seek.

Johns said he prefers to rely on the recommendations of the county’s experts when it comes to modifications and that many of the regulations influencing those decisions are state-mandated.

“As a commissioner, I can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to any agenda item, but that does not mean it is legally defensible,” he said.

Johns also said many items coming before commissioners for their consideration have already undergone untold hours of review and vetting by county staff.

“I would never try to perform surgery; I leave that up to the doctor,” he said. “I would request, as a commissioner, to have experts in every field that we have purview over as a county government.”

Funding (and how to find it) led to another point of contention.

Abbatiello said the commission missed an opportunity to find significant revenues when it denied bringing a proposal for a one-cent sales tax increase for capital needs to a ballot.

Johns, who had voted against putting the sales tax increase to a referendum, said he does not bring his personal preferences to the board.

“If the entire county — or the majority of the county — wants a sales tax, then that’s the direction I will go in,” he said, estimating at least 90 percent of the reasons people had given him as to why they wanted a sales tax increase would not have materialized.

As of Friday, Johns had raised $84,900 in monetary contributions and spent $44,086.39 while Abbatiello had raised $8,410 and spent $6,849.38.

Of the 135 contributions to Johns’ campaign, 96 came from outside the county. Such contributors included Jacksonville-based real estate developers, attorneys, investment firms, civil engineers and consultants. The majority of Johns’ 39 in-county contributions came from Ponte Vedra Beach businesses and residents.

Of the 44 contributions to Abbatiello’s campaign, 38 came from inside the county. At least $2,000 came out of Abbatiello’s pocket.

Most of his in-county contributions were $250 or under and came from residents in the St. Johns or Fruit Cove areas. His six out-of-county contributions amounted to $975.

Race for District 3

The eleventh-hour entry of write-in candidates in the District 3 and District 5 races has closed those two primaries off to non-Republican voters. The name of whoever wins each of the closed primaries on Aug. 30 will appear on the ballot in the November election against a blank space, assuming the write-ins don’t drop out of the race following the primaries.

Vying for Commissioner Bill McClure’s District 3 seat are former St. Johns County assistant administrator Jerry Cameron and St. Augustine businessman Paul Waldron.

In an editorial board interview with The Record last week, both candidates said growth was the elephant in the room but outlined different visions for dealing with the challenges presented by sustained development.

Waldron said developers should be allowed to build whatever they see fit, so long as it fits within the parameters of the land use regulations under which the property was purchased. Like Abbatiello, he said the county had no responsibility to allow developers to exceed those parameters. Waldron also expressed interest in eliminating impact fee credits.

“We need to hold people accountable for what they’re bringing to the table,” he said.

Cameron said he would like to institute a process for fiscal analysis that would give the county a better understanding of the net financial impact each project will have in terms of infrastructure and ongoing costs of services once built out.

When it came to funding, both candidates seemed to lean more toward frugality.

Waldron said he’d like to see the county find efficiencies in the budget before increasing any fees or taxes, to which Cameron said the efficiencies have been there since budget crunches during the recession years and state-mandated decreases in ad valorem revenues.

Cameron said the reality is there are 70,000-plus homes approved and yet to be built whether the commission likes it or not. He said with population growth will come a different set of expectations that could include demand for more “urban services.”

“What we have to decide is what we want to be in the future,” he said. “We have to either pay for what we’re getting — we’re living out of a savings account now — or we have to determine what services we’re going to cut.”

As of Friday, Cameron had raised $154,475 in monetary contributions and spent $42,526.47 while Waldron had raised $65,654 and spent $60,799.14.

Names and addresses attached to the 234 contributions to Cameron’s campaign indicate widespread support inside and outside the county.

Cameron’s 108 out-of-county contributions came largely from Jacksonville-based developers, investment firms and consultants. Other contributions came from businesses and associations in Daytona Beach, Orlando and Tallahassee. Cameron also received considerable support from businesses and residents in St. Johns County and St. Augustine — and $25,000 came out of his own pocket.

Waldron’s support consists mainly of St. Augustine residents and businesses, with the majority contributing $250 or less. More than $35,000 of his campaign funding has come out of his pocket. Only eight of the 143 contributions to his campaign have come from outside the county, amounting to $695.

McClure in April announced his decision not to seek re-election to his seat, which represents the southeast part of St. Johns County. He opted instead to make a bid for Rep. Ander Crenshaw’s open District 4 seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Race for District 5

Contending for Commissioner Rachael Bennett’s District 5 seat are Henry Dean, former head of the St. Johns River Water Management District, and Dottie Acosta, a former top official at the St. Johns County Property Appraiser’s Office. Either candidate would bring extensive experience in the public sector, although neither has served in an elected position before.

Both Acosta and Dean, in their editorial board interview with The Record last week, said there has been too much growth and that it should be paying for itself.

Acosta said commissioners have not given enough attention to strains on infrastructure and services when considering approval of developers’ requests for modifications and variances.

“We’re not being compensated correctly for that,” she said.

Dean said a “course adjustment” was needed and that the problem was not with the county’s Land Development Code or Comprehensive Plan, but, rather, the drifting away from those regulations by commissioners.

“I would be very reluctant to vote for any variance to the land use regulations and to the Comprehensive Plan,” he said, adding developers know and understand the limitations well before land is even purchased.

Dean also said he would have voted in favor of putting the proposal for a one-cent sales tax increase on a ballot last year.

“That’s probably the biggest revenue source available to the county,” he said. “The voters should have an opportunity to vote on that issue.”

Acosta said she agreed the sales tax increase should have gone to the voters for their consideration, but perhaps only for a half-cent. She also expressed an interest in redistributing revenues from the county’s Tourist Development Tax, or bed tax, as well as increasing the assessment on short-term transient rentals.

“We’ve advertised ourselves to the point where we can’t drive on our own streets anymore,” she said.

As of Friday, Dean had raised $128,781 and spent $60,502.67 while Acosta had raised $13,805.61 and spent $11,290.39.

Of the 230 contributions to Dean’s campaign, 147 came from outside the county, mainly from Jacksonville land development and investment firms. Additional support came from businesses and associations in Tallahassee and Orlando. Ten businesses providing the same address in Daytona Beach each donated $1,000 to the campaign, identifying as real estate management firms, developers and holding companies.

Of the 35 contributions to Acosta’s campaign, 31 came from inside the county. Those contributions included $10,100 Acosta lent to herself over six transactions. Much of her support came from contributions of $250 or less from St. Augustine residents and businesses.

Bennett in February withdrew from the race for her seat, which represents much of the St. Augustine area up to International Golf Parkway.

The annual salary for a county commissioner is $70,338 plus benefits.

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