Wednesday, September 16, 2015

County & Record vs. Greedy Developers: And the World Turned Upside Down!

When Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, the American musicians played, "And the world turned upside down." That's how it appears with County Commission rejecting a comprehensive plan amendment. Thanks to both County Commission and the Record!

Editorial: St. Johns County takes its rightful seat at the development table
Posted: September 16, 2015 - 11:17pm
It’s always risky using the phrase “seminal moment” in any governmental sense because governments are products of politics. And politics is a product of power, or the quest for it. It changes unerringly.
But the vote by our county commissioners Tuesday to deny a Planned Unit Development for the King’s Grant subdivision near the intersection of State Road 206 and I-95 may be as close to a seminal moment as we’ve had in the county for quite a while.
The King’s Grant issue had been simmering for a year, and came to a boil over the past two months. We thank Commissioners Jeb Smith, Jay Morris and Bill McClure for removing it from the burner.
This is not about whether The Record believes King’s Grant to be either a good or bad project — though there was certainly much more bad packed into that PUD than good for our county. But again, the development’s plans were secondary to what occurred Tuesday.
We are a county that has never met a development plan it didn’t like — development for development’s sake. Or more clearly, development for developers’ sake. They make the baby and taxpayers get to raise it.
The near-myth of growth paying for itself should be clear by now — including, and especially, county government and our commissioners. Up until now, they’ve had no problem singing from both sides of the collective mouth. They cuddle up to development, then come to the voters with a sales tax hike because revenue simply can’t keep up with infrastructure paid for but not maintained by impact fees long gone — as are most of the developers and the money they made here. It’s the coal mine and the shaft metaphor.
What happened Tuesday was commissioners stiffened up rather than rolling over. A PUD is not a guarantee of anything. It is, most clearly, a zoning contract between a government and a developer. Neither begins the process with inalienable rights, other than what the current zoning classification allows.
Everything else on the table is as much the county’s call as the developers’— actually more. It’s meant to be a negotiation, with developers seeking all they can get for themselves, and commissioners seeking all they can get for the people of St. Johns County. And it looks like three commissioners hitched up their britches, flexed their biceps and accepted that responsibility Tuesday.
In the process we may have also realized that the comprehensive plan maps were drawn 25 years ago in an attempt to spit-ball where growth might best take place — and be avoided. But nowhere does a comp plan “convey rights” to a developer (defined or implied) above what existing zoning allows. That’s why they have to make the “ask.” Do you think they would “ask” if they thought they had legal right to sidestep zoning laws?
And understand, King’s Grant can begin clearing land and selling houses tomorrow if it wants (and can talk buyers into homes on 40-foot lots for $300,000-plus). No one’s stopping them from building within their existing mixed-use parameters. It has private property rights, and should exercise them if it sees fit. It does not have the right to build on the scale, density or time-table it demanded.
The South Anastasia Communities Association needs to be mentioned. If you want to see community engagement, it resides here. Its members organized an assault on the developers’ own aggressive assumption — which, at times, increased density and other expectations after PZA denials. Call it historic expectations ...
SACA laid out its case without the 11th-hour not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) hand-wringing we so commonly see. They did it smart. They did it right. And three commissioners got it right. It was a good day for this county.
Let’s hope “seminal” stays put.
DavidWiles 09/17/15 - 09:56 am 20the hazards of community opposing of mega development
It is nice to read a favorable editorial about the denial of a large/mega development proposal and particularly nice to see a concession that SACA community organization conducted itself well.

But those who sat through the year long process of watching the Kings Grant PUD effort finally end in a 3-2 denial vote by the BCC have to also concede that the policy 'tilt' of St. Johns County is so 'developer friendly' and 'business creation oriented' that only exceptional effort have any chance. This is not a NIMBY cry versus the pragmatic value of more 'rooftops' on the tax roles or some 'Bert Harris' expression of right to develop private property. This is the hard nosed calculation of what the St. Johns county Staff and lawyers contributed to the Kings Grant PUD effort to be approved.
Many people forget that by the time a PUD application gets to the first PZA hearing about recommendation it has spent up to a year in discussions and negotiations with St. Johns staff---development services, public works, growth management, planning all review for compliance with land use code. Now add all the professional time to calculate 'concurrency' with the k12 school system, with the SJC Utility, with the deficiency status of 206 road and I95 exchange, with environment issues of floodplain and aquifer recharge area. Now add the consideration of special impacts when the developer asks for waivers or special use. All these are 'sunk costs' the municipality absorbs before the first PZA hearing---and then the SJC staff make a recommendation whether they support the particular PUD application.
When Kings Grant PUD came before the PZA last October it went down to a 7-0 not recommend vote for several reasons, including the lack of staff recommendation. Frankly, the PUD proposed was a turkey; no park, zero lot lines, no fiscal analysis, no 'commercial' detail and asking for 925 homes.
But the amazing feature was then the Kings Grant developers said they were NOT going forward to a BCC decision about the PZA recommendation but instead went into a months long 'trade' deciding with municipal staff (primarily from growth management and planning). All this extra time resulted in a second PZA hearing in May (I thought there was a minimum of one year before re-application) at which the SJC gave their luke warm recommendation due to a 'medical park' idea added on what was now 999 homes. After three hours of PZA discussion there was a 4-3 PZA vote to not recommend.

This time Kings Grant developers decided to go ahead to a County Commission vote but three days before their July date for consideration the added a fiscal analysis by Hank Fishkind promoting the economic benefits to the county tax roles. Due to forgetting that the Neighborhood Bill of Rights argues that any new project information had to be available for 14 days the BCC continued the formal hearing and vote to mid September. Again, the county had to mobilize its staff for the July misdeal and again for the September. Although the Staff (Teresa Bishop) presented the position on the PUD, the previous endorsement had been downgraded to 'would not oppose' the project. Even more important to the ultimate 3-2 denial of the Kings Park PUD, Commissioner Jay Morris had instructed the county's Office of Business and Management to scrutinize the fiscal assumptions and projections in the Fishkind study done for the developers.

At the actual BCC hearing it seemed to me that the tilt of the entire hearing process was decidedly in favor of the mega developer. After an introduction and SJC Staff report of the project the developer got 40 minutes to make a case. Then after the opponents (SACA and Florida Wildlife Commission) got 25 minutes rebuttal the county attorney (Patrick McCormack) made an amazing interpretation on the grounds of 'abundant caution.' Any audience member planning to speak who was/had been a member of SACA could not make a further 'public comment' as their interests had already been expressed. Fortunately, this legal effort to suppress free speech and tilt the anti-development sentiment away was quickly dispensed with as a series of individuals each declared their 'speaking as an individual' status and added crucial information including;
a) actual present day housing costs from Coquina Crossing on 207, to Shores on US1 south to Flagler Estates and Hastings that countered the developers/Fishkind assertion that houses on 40 foot lot would sell for $300G.
b) the actual economic value of existing timber silviculture on the parcel and the overall economic value of agriculture and silviculture to stabilizing the St. Johns economic base.
c) details of the I95/206 'node' and county's 'mixed use' zoning classification during a twenty five year evolution since l990
d) environmental details of the actual land in terms of aquifer recharge and watershed drainage aspects.

These and other individual citizens contributions (whether by SACA members or not) did help the BCC understand details about the PUD proposal and inferences about 'leapfrog' development into remote rural parts of the county constitution 'urban sprawl.' This matched well with the overview analyses done by Jane West and Sarah Gledhill on behalf of opponents of the proposal and the independent study of the Fishkind study done by the county's OMB expert.

In the end, the kudos for SACA and community involvement is nice but the actual costs to citizen groups on such a delaying process before final decision is definitely not an even or fair playing ground against mega developers. My bet is Kings Grant PUD will be back again for another go at the brass ring.

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