Thursday, September 24, 2015


PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COM Heavy equipment clears a 70-acre parcel of land on Dobbs Road Cutoff in St. Augustine to build a new housing development on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. Developers are clearing the property, which was once wooded, to build a 180 home project called Ashby Landing.
PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COM Heavy equipment clears a 70-acre parcel of land on Dobbs Road Cutoff in St. Augustine to build a new housing development on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. Developers are clearing the property, which was once wooded, to build a 180 home project called Ashby Landing.

Group seeks tighter tree protection in St. Johns County
Posted: September 23, 2015 - 11:44pm

Personal experience prompted Vilano Beach resident Virginia Quelch to seek changes in St. Johns County’s tree protection and replacement requirements.

In her own neighborhood, she’s seen trees cleared for development.

“They just cut down an amazing amount of the oaks,” Quelch said.

What came out of the concerns of Quelch and others in the area is Citizens for a New Tree Ordinance, a group that hopes to change rules in St. Johns County to better protect and preserve trees.

“We’re not anti-development, we just want to try to do it better,” said Quelch, a local veterinarian.

The group has a website,, and a Facebook page, which shows photos from cleared land around the county. The group is also working on proposed changes to county rules.

A page on the website asks: “Did you know St. Johns County permits: Clear cutting every tree on a lot or in a development? … [and] Cutting down old growth trees and replanting ‘replacements’ at 40 inches per half acre?”

If certain requirements are met, clear cutting is allowed in St. Johns County, said Cathleen Kabat, county environmental specialist who handles permitting.

Also, a requirement for development of residential lots is that 40 inches of trees per acre must be in place after development, and 80 inches per acre for commercial sites, according to the code. That requirement can be met by both saving existing trees and replacing trees with new ones.

Protected trees have to be replaced inch-for-inch, Kabat said.

The county’s Land Development Code requires permits for clearing land and for getting rid of protected trees. Developers are required to pay into a tree bank fund when they don’t adequately replace protected trees. Payments are also required for protected trees that are lost, according to the code.

Some say the county’s requirements could go further.

“The county rules are pretty lax as far as protecting a wide range of trees,” said Chuck Lippi, co-owner of Advanced Tree Care Inc., who has been working as an arborist since 1995 and says he supports the work that Quelch’s group is doing. “During development you could have a completely forested area, heavily wooded, but [the county’s] main concern are specimen trees.”

Specimen trees are designated based on size and type of tree.

An example of a protected tree in the Land Development Code is a Southern red cedar of a certain size and within 3 miles of the Atlantic.

Lippi said midsize trees should be preserved, too. He said he would like to see a wider range of trees protected.

“You need trees of various ages and various stages,” he said.

Lippi’s work reaches outside the county, including some places in Florida where rules are more stringent.

“They have lost most of their canopy, and they’re making an effort to maintain what they have,” Lippi said.

Another of Lippi’s concerns was improper planting of trees.

Properly preserving trees should be the priority instead of just saving them, said Eddie Conlon, owner of Tree Medic and Coastline Landscape Management.

Conlon said sometimes people increase the depth of soil at a development, but if drainage is not done properly, trees could end up dying. He also said placing walkways and driveways too close to trees has damaged or caused the death of trees. Also, he said sometimes trees are saved that are at the end of their life span or damaged. If a tree is not preserved properly, or the wrong tree is saved, the tree could be lost several years later.

“Saving every tree is not going to work,” Conlon said.

sponger2 09/24/15 - 06:46 am 80How About This?
Stop building crap we don't want, need, and/or can't afford to support the infrastructure for, and the problem will be solved. For God's sake, look at those pictures. When are these boneheads that are supposed to represent us going to get off their azzes and stop this? They'll be coming around with the collection cup any day now, looking for more. For the record, I am anti development at this point. There has been too much, too fast, and too underfunded. Poor critical thinking skills, corruption and out of county interests dipping their hands into our well.

And we are left with what for their effort? Noise, traffic, higher taxes, longer commutes, decreased quality of life, less space, wildlife and freedoms. Crowded beaches, more crime, pollution, fees, and restrictions. No schools for little Johnny.

Those that made and are making this mess live in secluded, protected,and well policed areas that retain the beauty of the their area, having profited greatly off the decimation of our county.

Firstcoaster 09/24/15 - 08:25 am 60Sponger2
Right on! Up until 2+ years ago we couldn't hear trains going by 1/2 mile away. Because of the clear cutting on lots between us and the tracks we hear every damn train!

These builders are lazy. They have heavy equipment come in and knock down every tree, including very mature oaks, build, and then plant some pathetic immature trees.

County commissioners - DO YOUR DAMN JOBS! Quit taking money from outside special interests so you can climb your way to Tallahassee, Washington, etc.

Voters - hold their feet to the fire. Quit voting in people because you believe their lies, or just because they are members of your political party. Do your homework. Their monthly political contributions reports are readily available on the internet.

Nigel 09/24/15 - 10:36 am 20Sponger2
Makes good points. If you can't stop or slow the development all together then higher impact fees and demands on developers to provide for all infrastructure must be put in place. They are builders, let them build schools.

As to the current land rape the county commission is condoning, it is completely unacceptable!

NO clear cutting, period! Either work around and preserve the trees or don't build, period!

PearlOfWisdom 09/24/15 - 11:21 am 40Stop the madness!
Stop the unbridled growth! There should be a complete moratorium on building for 5 years. The amount of felled trees is breathtaking. There is no money to build the infrastructure for these new buildings. Double the impact fees to the damned builders NOW!

Sponger, can you give a link to the financials you referenced? Seems like nobody's challenging those in power.

dunrobin 09/24/15 - 11:22 am 20Help yourselves, help us all
There is a new local group forming to combat government corruption on a local level - hugely successful in Tallahassee this past year. The website is and there is also a facebook page. The local chapter is forming up now. The only way to fix these problems is to put the local officials in check, and call them out on catering to business interests over the voters. Power in numbers! Get involved. Change can happen. The city of St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach, and St Johns County - the locomotive is coming for you.

Firstcoaster 09/24/15 - 12:28 pm 30Pearl
I think you meant to ask me for the link. I will have to be cryptic because the Record prohibits links.

Go to votesjc dot com

Click on "candidate information" upper right.

In the dropdown select "Candidate list, reports, and profiles."

In the imbedded dropdown window, select the election cycle timeframe.

Then select the candidate by name. There will be a list that will link you to each report that they have submitted.

You will notice that Comm. Jimmy Johns already has accumulated $10,100 for next year's election, and 11/16 are from Duval County!!! Note the occupations of the donors.

I guess poor Mr. Johns doesn't have many friends in St. Johns County.

Mr. Johns owns Solid Rock Engineering Consultants, Inc., a Jacksonville construction engineering/consulting firm. What a shock. You can search this business name and find his website to learn more.

Ms. Bennett also seems to have a lot of friends in Duval County. Note the occupations of her donors too.

DavidWiles 09/24/15 - 01:31 pm 20There used to be a fairly
There used to be a fairly strong tree ordinance in St. Johns but it was 'whittled down' with such developer prone logic as 40 inches and 80 inches of *tree* per strip cleared parcel or the right to replace mature trees with four inch seedlings and call it equal.

Strip clearing huge swathes of land is also done when a developer is filling in low lying (often wetlands by any other name) land to be compatible with FEMA floodplain descriptions. Along with violating tree ordinance, there also used to be policy concern for gopher tortoises and other endangered critters that would be buried and die from the fill. The Kings Grant PUD 'environmental expert' for the developer reported no critical or endangered specie(s) found on a 772 acre plot of slash pine. The SJC Staff worked with the developer's application for more than a year and never challenged this.

Finally, the strip clearing developer also creates destructive runoff into streams and groundwater bodies. Drive down by Moses Creek on US 1 south and look at the new Crescent Cay PUD being put in by 'homegrown' DR Horton. The little plastic retaining walls are pathetic and in any rainy situation the slit runoff pours into pristine waters like Moses Creek.
St. Johns does have a code enforcement division but its policy toward development is reactive not proactive. This means until there is a complaint (actually a succession of formal complaints) there will not be a review of a bid situation---trees, protected species, runoffs---whatever. Second, the normal enforcement strategy is a warning for first violation, minimal fine for second violation and then ----in theory---stopping implementation until the violation(s) are fixed. And fixed is the final rub. Once the trees are reduced to rubble, the specie killed, the water polluted all nature gets is a retrospective sigh.
Those on-line commenters above that say enough development in St. Johns need to follow several money trails of how to be a successful mega developer.

1) Notice that most of the re-investors of projects approved in our last frenzy of give away (2002-2006) are LLCs. This corporate shell gives some immunity from liability and also allows prospective parcels of land to be development to be secured without complete ownership. I would have the county not consider any PUD or DRI proposal unless the projected land was completely owned and paid for.

2) Most code violations border on 'scoff-laws' in the sense that a mega developer expects to be somewhat illegal and if caught pay the penalty as part of operational costs.

3) Impact fees are what the county charges developers to pay for a spectrum of public services that will be provided. In 2015 the actual impact fees are very inadequate to actual public works and service costs but less than a decade ago they were even less. Recently a re-invested PUD was re-approved by current staff and commission even though it had no impact fee for public schools. Why would any leftover approval be automatically honored on previous stipulations if the current fiscal situation is so dire?

4) Impact fee 'credits' for the developers are the biggest hype going. The credit is when a private sector developer 'donates' money to build infrastructure that has a 'public' benefit----and the county then 'credits' them to be paid back with public funds. Excited by the amazing generosity of the PARC and Davis family for the 210 east Nocatee overpass and parkway? That is part of $100 million in St. Johns impact fee credits owed to the Nocatee developer. When some small time PUD talks about 'donating' three-five acres of land to build a fire station or an elementary school that donation also generates 'credits' as obligations to be paid back with public funds. When a developer offers to 'bundle' or 'front end' their impact fees as a lump sum that is no gift, just an inducement for a broke municipality to get ready cash instead of having to wait for full phasing and complete build out implementation. If you really want to see the game in action, do not focus on the initial approval of a mega development but the succession of Major Modifications that follow. One of the tricks are to take obligations of public benefit (roads, sewers, etc) to be built in phase one and get them delayed fifteen years to phase three or four. As shown time and again, the municipal memory is somewhere between five-eight year. A variant on the first trick is to use Major Modifications to 'trade back' accumulated impact fee credits and/or development rights (e.g., millions of square feet in commercial zoned land) to eliminate obligations made in initial approval. Check the World Commerce DRI, approved in 2004, and their obligation toward IGP and other infrastructure as a big time illustration.

5) Community Development grants or CDDs are a way of developers shifting the burden of building 'amenities' from the LLC investors to the new home owners. In large, DRI type developments, this usually means each homeowner pays a thousand or more dollars annually to the private developer. The issue for the municipality is why they keep approving CDDs to help finance these mega developments for private purposes when they know full well that there are not public resources to provide adequate schools, fire, police, utilities, parks, libraries and so on. Why not let private developers fund their own amenities and let the new homeowners pay increased taxes to the public sector?

6) finally, look at the fiscal analysis provided by the mega developer in terms of what is described as 'revenues' and 'expenditures' of the proposed project. How many paper mache' pipedreams have been generated (and accepted as gospel by the county commissioners) that set artificially high values for homes or commercial entities to be developed and calculate profit ('revenues') as if the project was completely built out? Recently Kings Grant PUD did a fiscal analysis that said 999 homes on 40 foot lots built at 206/I95 would sell for $300,000 each and projected their economic benefit after ten years of building out. In that rare case, the analysis was challenged successfully ( actual sell value around $200,000 each and a decade build out closer to 800 homes at best ) and the proposal rejected. But you can go all over St. Johns county and find case after case where lands at time of approval (usually farm or timber or open rural zoned) are 'donated' as some form of inducement to approve but also listed as 'revenue benefit' to the county at a fiscal value of full developed and complete implementation. As long as the fiscal condition of St. Johns is a composite of developer speculation and carnival sell job, rather than a pragmatic detailing of actual cost, taxpayers, homeowners and general citizens are simply the foil of the development industry.

Firstcoaster 09/24/15 - 04:20 pm 10DW
thank you for taking the time to pen a detailed explanation. Unfortunately, the process has become too complex and hazy for the average person to comprehend.
But the bottom line is that the system has been rigged by some questionable "leaders" known as commissioners to favor their developer contributors. In one case a "johnny come lately" commissioner is in that industry.

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