Monday, November 30, 2015

Tricky, thinly-researched pro-developer article in Sunday's St. Augustine Record

Stuart Korfhage reminds me of the late Memphis basketball coach Dana Kirk, who appeared to throw basketball games and bet against his own team. When will Stuart cover development with independence and integrity?

Not one environmental or land use law professor was consulted in drafting this article, and it shows!
'A tricky balancing act:' Examining the pace of development in St. Johns County
St. Augustine Record, November 29, 2015
Only in her mid-20s, Alanna Elliott speaks for a lot of county residents when she says the place where she grew up is quickly disappearing before her eyes.
“This is a beautiful town, but it won’t be much longer with all this development,” said Elliott, who was born at Flagler Hospital and lives in the World Golf Village area. “I’m only 26 years old and I have been disgusted with the development for the last decade.”
And what she’ll likely see in the next 10 years will be just as disconcerting.
Already the 11th fastest-growing county in the entire country according to the latest information available from the U.S. Census Bureau (based on estimates from 2013 to 2014), St. Johns County is still bursting with new or resurrected developments.
Meanwhile, many established developments are nowhere near capacity. The St. Johns County office of Growth Management reports that there are almost 70,000 homes approved to be built in the county, though construction has yet to start. That’s today.
Yet, there is a steady stream of new applicants lined up and ready to ask to build even more.
“I don’t understand why the county begs for money for schools and lets people (continue to move) in,” Elliott said. “Natural habitat for animals is destroyed so thousands of people can move in? Makes me want to relocate somewhere less desirable.”
The county’s main issue
While St. Johns County continues to be desirable for outsiders, there is little question those who have been here for a while are growing weary of the influx.
It’s obvious at zoning meetings, county commissioners meetings and just ordinary discourse among those who have some history of residency in the county.
A quick scan of reader comments on local websites like or other news sites reporting on new developments will confirm the sentiment. Those moving into the county seem to love the move. Those already here are wondering if there is anything to slow down the move-ins.
“Yes, I do think there is too much residential development in St. Johns County,” county resident Brenda Csencsits said in an email to The Record. “This will never be passed by our county commissioners, but I would vote for not approving any new developments, except for low-cost housing and business/professional. Allow time for developments already approved to build out.”
However, Florida law leans heavily in favor of the rights of property owners. County commissioners along with others in the administration and on other governing boards have often made public statements about how they can’t simply deny a development because there are already so many.
County commissioner Rachael Bennett said she understands the emotional response from residents who might not like a new development where there was previously vacant land or silviculture.
But that doesn’t mean that land can’t — or shouldn’t — be developed. Property rights must be respected, she said.
“We are so constricted by (state) law,” Bennett said of the commissioners, who must approve new developments in the county. “(People) think if we don’t like something, I can vote against it, but I can’t.”
Bennett, who represents District 5 and just completed a term as the board chair, explained that what the county government can do and is doing is managing the growth. That means demanding the protection of wetlands, charging impact fees and collecting funds for “proportionate fair share” for infrastructure like roads and fire stations.
Bennett agrees there has been a lot of growth, but she also points out the quality of that growth. Many of the new residential neighborhoods are master-planned communities with houses that go for at least $250,000, most of them even more.
She said there is a great deal of scrutiny for every project by county planning staff.
“That by itself discourages bad development,” Bennett said. “They (developers) understand the cost of doing business in St. Johns County is expensive.
“We don’t have to relax our regulations in any way.”
It isn’t just the commissioners who find rapid development growth to be an uncomfortable — and possibly misunderstood — subject.
Dick Williams is chair of the Planning and Zoning Agency in the county, a volunteer board that makes recommendations to county commissioners on development projects. At a June 18 meeting, Williams expressed his frustration at the perception the county just gives developers whatever they want and that boards can arbitrarily choose to deny a development because they think there are too many.
“What I want to make sure you understand, though, because I hear this often — and recently a lot — is: ‘How in the heck can you people continue to approve developments when there’s no gosh darn schools available, the roads are full of cars and yet you keep approving and approving?’” Williams said. “The answer partially is we are not, by state law, allowed to turn down an application for rezoning based on lack of school capacity, based on lack of road capacity provided a developer who is requesting a zone change agrees to proportionate fair share, meaning some way they’re going to pay some money to improve roadways, traffic signals. Or basically the school board negotiates with the developer.
“‘Why in the heck would you say yes?’ The answer is I can’t say no based on that alone if they agree to pay into proportionate fair share.”
Is no an option?
Although it might seem otherwise, not all developments — even those proposed by reputable companies — gain approval.
But it can be quite a fight. A recent example is King’s Grant, a proposed development that includes 999 homes and commercial space near the Interstate 95-State Road 206 interchange.
The development was twice rejected by the county Planning and Zoning Agency and eventually denied approval by county commissioners by a vote of 3-2.
Yet the issue didn't end there, as the developer has filed a civil lawsuit challenging the legality of the commissioners’ decision.
So even when a development is rejected, it might not really be done. The county has vowed to fight the lawsuit, but the eventual outcome is hard to predict.
That hasn't stopped some people from fighting against certain developments, despite the difficulties.
Certain development proposals bring out area residents who speak against projects, and sometimes entire homeowners associations mobilize against a proposal.
And sometimes, local attorney Jane West is hired to prevent, slow or ask for changes to a local development.
It’s often a David vs. Goliath scenario, and she’s not Goliath. But she isn't powerless. She is still working against the King's Grand project that has been labeled as “urban sprawl” by some PZA members.
Her practice, Jane West Law, specializes in land use law. Her clients are those who oppose certain developments, many of them much smaller than King's Grant.
West said too many people — often those in local government — see huge developments as inevitable. She argues that not every development, regardless of its quality, is good for the community as a whole.
“It’s always a tricky balancing act,” she said of property rights issues. “But there’s a misconception that you are entitled to the best, most valuable use of that land.
“It is not our responsibility to make the developers rich.”
Sustainable growth
Suzanne Konchan, director of growth management for St. Johns County, said she knows the number of approved homes sounds amazingly high when looked at by itself.
However, she says, an approved home and a built, sold home are two very different things. She pointed out that the number of building permits for single-family homes in the last three years has averaged about 2,700 per year.
At the height of the housing boom, the numbers were higher. In 2005, for example, there were about 4,500 permits for single-family detached, attached and modular homes.
“I don’t think that (the current growth) represents a particularly high growth rate,” she said, comparing the current rate to the boom a decade ago.
She also pointed out that a huge portion of that growth is limited to Nocatee, a master-planned community near Ponte Vedra Beach. Nocatee is approved for more than 12,000 homes and is on pace to sell about 1,000 per year.
No matter how many homes are allowed to be built, developers will only put up as many as they think they can sell.
“We’re a market-driven society,” Bennett said. “No one can afford to build houses no one’s going to buy.”
County resident Art Lancaster, vice president of Eastland Partners, the company that developed Bartram Park starting 15 years ago, said large projects rarely reach complete build-out.
The Batram Park development, which is in St. Johns and Duval counties, was approved for about 9,800 homes but will likely top out at about 6,000, Lancaster said.
“You typically never hit that benchmark,” he said.
But he thinks people will continue to pour into St. Johns County as long as there are jobs available, whether here or in Jacksonville. And he said it’s about more than just the advantage of top-rated schools. He said the master-planned communities available here, especially in the north and northwest, have proven very popular.
“Quality of lifestyle is just as important,” he said. “I think everybody is very aware of that. You’re trying to provide a product that people want. Part of the reason they want to be in St. Johns County is because of what developers are offering.
“You look at it statewide, and Florida is not going to stop growing.”


HappyKitty 11/29/15 - 06:49 am 121Boohoohoo Bennett, If you
Boohoohoo Bennett, If you can't seem to get your job done, which is to manage WISELY the growth and quality of life in St. Johns county, step down and let someone else do it.

Firstcoaster 11/29/15 - 07:58 am 121Bennett
is the lead cheerleader for the construction trades based in Duval County. Look at her financial statements here:

reader4paper 11/29/15 - 08:02 am 121“proportionate fair share”
"That means demanding the protection of wetlands, charging impact fees and collecting funds for “proportionate fair share” for infrastructure like roads and fire stations."
Then why are we having to pay for new schools?
New development should pay for ALL the infrastructure needs. Stop penalizing those of us that have already built the schools for the last 30 years of "manageable growth".

sponger2 11/29/15 - 08:25 am 112Bennett is a pathological liar...
The only thing she is trying to balance is how to keep the ball rolling while shaking off her responsibility for it like a wet mongrel. The very "Puppet" of the development community, she once boasted that she would get the economy growing "rooftop to rooftop". Bought and paid for (her installation as commissioner) by the development and real estate interests of surrounding counties or even out of state powers, she is the very antithesis of the citizens she is supposed to represent. If one of the cement trucks delivering material ran her down on the way to one of her "approved developments" it would be the equivalent of poetic justice.
The only commissioner that has fought development in the last twenty years was Ben Rich of district three. Like him or hate him, he ran on, and backed up our principles regarding development and although gruff to the establishment, we knew which side he was on...and it wasn't theirs.

Bufbills 11/29/15 - 10:05 am 09Look at Ponce Inlet
The arrogant town board of Ponce Inlet in Volusia County ignored the law and a developer has won a $30 million lawsuit against the town. Who will pay for that? The taxpayers. Because the town board was arrogant and did not follow the law. Thank goodness the St. Johns County commissioners are not putting their residents in that position.

AlphaOneAlpha 11/29/15 - 03:42 pm 90A tricky balancing act re development in St. Johns County
After reading this article and the quotes from folks serving in our government, it's pretty clear that things will remain business as usual as they plan to do nothing more nor anything differently.
This is completely unacceptable. I, for one, do not buy into this dodge. First, let's not forget that the big developers and builders (predominately from Jax) are the ones who most contribute to the re-election campaigns of some of our sitting county commissioners. While legal, this is a complete conflict of interest.
Two past commissioners, who supported the building approvals in the early and mid 2000's that created the current 70k backlog of homes were bounced out of office because of that same conflict of interest and same lack of action and concern.
At the very least the building fees need to be doubled or tripled in order to fund the infrastructure impacts.
It's time to get involved and be heard. Your "representatives" are not representing the best interests of the St. Johns County people on this subject and plan to do nothing new nor different on with respect to this situation.

Morris1 11/29/15 - 06:35 pm 60What does the case law say?
Florida has the Bert Harris Act, which does next to nothing for a small owner-builder who wound up getting hung with a wetlands parcel (its just not cost effective to pursue takings compensation on a four or five figure lot), but does empower developers of PUDs/DRO's with all sorts of "recourse" and positions to fight, since in their case, millions or tens of millions are on the line.
I am not versed enough on cutting-edge case law on this particular issue to express an opinion, but I would really love to hear the opinion of someone who is. Does our various property rights protection mechanisms go too far, in empowering commercial developers to reshape communities with radical land usage alterations while offering no practical protection to the individual? If so, we need updated legislation, desperately.
Regardless, we just agreed to tax ourselves to perpetuate this mess, with 'funding the children' being the predictable leading edge of the spear and all the financially illiterate types- who rather comically demonstrated they don't understand how 'budgets' work- insisting we had no other choice.
We're living in the St Johns County we deserve. We didn't fight hard enough to stop this.

martystaug 11/30/15 - 08:11 am 40Ponce Inlet lost a lawsuit
Just because another town lost a lawsuit to a developer, is that supposed to scare St. Johns county into rolling over for developers? Seems like the point of this article is to excuse the zoning board and commissioners for not protecting all of the existing landowners who follow and live with current zoning codes and restrictions. But along comes a developer who buys a big chunk of open rural land and all the neighbors' rights be damned. If there is a state law that demands the approval of any zoning change request, I'd like to see it. Zoning law was enacted to protect the environment and existing neighbors from the impact of just such developments as these.

sponger2 11/30/15 - 09:11 am 40That's right Marty
Zoning laws exist just for that reason. I'm all for property rights, as I am a property owner. I am not for land use change at the drop of a hat and a couple bucks being spread around followed by a threat from some shyster. That can and will be dealt with. Morris has made a point recently that I would like to address as I have had direct impact from the subject matter.
If you own land that you want to put your house on (the one you would live in) or an additional small structure for an elderly parent on your property, you should not be subject to the same fees and revenue draining BS as if you were building 999 homes and doing squat for infrastructure. The two are different animals. This would need to be addressed if God forbid any of these spineless jellyfish ever grew a pair and put forth a building moratorium. Something that should have been attached to the "poor Marvin won't learn his letters campaign" if we don't pony up an extra cent on ever dollar (post tax) you spend. And it is closer to a full cent if you read how the tax will be collected, with rounding up and such. That being said, we should go full tilt, because as the article states, they are still handing out building permits like Halloween candy, thereby making the school problem worse, and the tax hasn't even kicked in yet.

Morris1 11/30/15 - 11:42 am 10If I'm not mistaken...
... the hang-up seems to be the Bert Harris Act.
Whenever you pass a law like that, you wind up giving 'both sides something to argue about', to be settled by a judge, at great expense to both parties. Since we don't have loser-pays litigation in this country, the net result is developers who have a financial interest in the millions of dollars that result in a successful 'land rights' challenge are much more willing to fight than municipalities, whose interests are defending something non-financial in nature (for example, the quality of life of neighbors surrounding a re-purposed silvaculture tract)
The intent of the Bert Harris Act was to stop the bloodbath of regulatory takings that were occurring after wetlands regulations got ramped up in the 80's and 90's, people who bought land that was suddenly (and retroactively) rendered useless, or useful but only with a huge added cost. That was not fair. In Bert Harris, theoretically, these people should have compensation recourse. The problem is, unless you're an awfully talented lay-attorney who is capable of navigating that process on your own, the cost to do so are much higher than what you can expect to be compensated (for parcels of a certain value), and that's assuming you win.
The game changes when it's a 8,000 acre DRI, though. In that situation, the mechanisms of Harris are *very much* worth fighting over since it might mean the difference between a pine tree farm and a shiny, new development where that developer makes tens of millions of dollars... and counties? Eh, why fight it? They'll probably just lose anyway, they'll have to spend a ton of money defending it, they run the risk of incurring damages. Its a lot easier to just write it all off to 'progress', and hey! Lets not overlook all the jobs it will create! (sarcasm).
If we can clarify the law and amend it so there is a safety valve for municipalities to deny large developments, we could stop the bleeding. We will never be able to undo the ones that were approved, but we can hopefully slow down the "St Johns County: 1,000,000 Residents" cliff's-edge to outside a couple more generations.

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