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St. Johns County Residents Win First Round Against River Crest Development

The St. Johns County Commission will soon consider a developer’s application to build 115 new homes in the northern part of the county.

The county’s Planning and Zoning Board is recommending denial of the application after nearby residents voiced their opposition last week.

Mary Farr and Scott Campbell are neighbors in the Fatio Grant community, tucked between horse pastures and piney woods in northern St. Johns County. Farr says living here gives her a perfectly rural lifestyle.

There’re about 240 homes in this immediate area. It’s like a bubble in amongst all the development, especially to the north,” Farr said. “And we would just like to stay that way."

Farr and Campbell are on the board of the Fatio Grant Community Alliance, a group formed specifically to challenge new development. Front and center on their radar: a 70-acre development called River Crest being planned by Alsop Companies. The project could bring an additional 115 homes to the area.

Campbell says the Fatio Grant community was settled in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He describes it as an old neighborhood with several family enclaves. Alliance members worry River Crest would overwhelm local traffic, schools, drainage and sensitive wildlife habitat.

“That’s why we bought out here,” Campbell said. “We don’t want someone coming and trying to make a profit affecting why we bought out here and why we moved out here.”

Northern St. Johns County is also home to Nocatee, one of the fastest-growing suburbs in the nation. Farr says she understands some growth is positive, but she thinks she has a reasonable expectation to maintain her way of life.

Farr said, “We recognize that this piece of property in this area is going to be developed. But would hope for a thoughtful development that takes into account all of these concerns that we have.”

Going Up For A Vote

It’s late in the evening when chairperson Dick Williams reconvenes the St. Johns County Planning and Zoning meeting. River Crest Attorney Kathryn Whittington makes a case for the development, arguing it meets the county’s compatibility standards and does not conflict with residents’ rural independence.

Whittington said, “We’re not preventing or interfering with that rural lifestyle. We’re not infringing on their OR [Open Rural] zoning, or their rights to raise tilapia, or pet grooming businesses, or keep bees, or raise farm animals, or ride horses. We’re not affecting that.”

The River Crest team says they’ve been responsive and adaptive to residents’ criticisms. Bill Schilling is the development’s transportation planner. He says he’s made concessions to accommodate concerns over road capacity.

“We’re actually proposing—the applicant is proposing to make improvements to the county road network,” Schilling said.

During Public Comment, more than 20 Fatio community members appeal to the agency to oppose River Crest. The group’s attorney Jane West tells the board density is the biggest issue.

“This site is the quintessential American open rural,” West said. “Yet it’s juxtaposed with a dense, compact, routine Florida subdivision with small lots that simply does not take into consideration the character of where this is going.”

The proposed development comes amidst a county-wide budget deficit, and a debate over a potential one-cent sales tax to help pay for infrastructure. In a 4-3 vote, Planning and Zoning recommends denial of River Crest.

The St. Johns County Commission will consider the project later this summer.

Anna Hamilton is a freelance radio producer and oral historian in St. Augustine, Florida. Her first radio story, produced at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, covered a competitive burrito eating contest. Since then, her award-winning documentary work has focused on issues of civil rights, the environment and foodways. Hamilton produces Watershed, a podcast exploring Floridian culture and our changing environments.