“Ready or not, Western Nassau is in the crosshairs for development.”
That quote is from the first page of a Nassau County Department of Planning and Economic Opportunity Vision Book, highlighting the upcoming growth and challenges the western portion of the county is facing.
The Yulee area is seeing a bulk of the growth west of Fernandina Beach.
“We went from a few thousand residents to 86,000 residents, and we see no slow down,” said County Commissioner Pat Edwards.
In 2018, Nassau was among the top 25 fastest growing counties in the U.S. State economic researchers predict its population will balloon to over 114,000 in the next decade.
Edwards has been living there since 1973.
“Nassau County and the Yulee area was basically a drive-thru to Fernandina Beach,” Edwards said.
He said the area initially saw a burst of growth in the 1990s and early 2000s. But the growth came mostly in the form of subdivisions, with few businesses to support them.
“Everyone who has been here for any length of time, 15 to 20 years, realizes that we probably grew too fast, and we didn’t grow very smartly,” Edwards said.
After growth came to a halt during the recession in 2008, momentum has picked up again.
“Hopefully we can do it in a way that provides jobs, recreation, and a community,” Edwards said.
Edwards said the County Commission and planning department are trying to attract commercial developers, with the hope of creating jobs. According to the 2019 county growth report, 60% of Nassau residents leave the county for work.
The county also wants more schools and recreational options — other than internet gambling.
“We had a public hearing the other night, and the board voted to close the gaming facilities,” Edwards said. “But one of the overriding things that came out of that, over and over, people of age came to the podium and said they had nothing to do. This was their only recreation and we're gonna take it away from them.”
Land developers say they’re listening to what the county government wants.
“They actually plan,” said real estate developer Greg Matovina. “They actually are looking forward to the future and saying, ‘What do we want this to look like 20 years from now?’”
Matovina’s company is working on four planned communities in the Yulee area – Blackrock Park, Village Walk, Nassau Crossing and Nassau Station, with a combined total of more than 750 homes.
“They don't necessarily bring you pieces of land and say, ‘Come develop these’ for you, but when you have a piece of land, they've already got an idea of what they want to have happen there,” Matovina said.
County officials also said they’re trying to accommodate residents who want to keep a rural atmosphere.
“That's going to be the challenge moving forward,” said Nassau County Planning Director Adrienne Burke. “How do we keep that rural sense of character that people are here for? Either they’ve been here for decades, or they’re new, but that's why they're here.”
Beyond rural character, environmental groups are concerned about the growth’s impact on the county’s native animals and natural beauty.
“It's sad to see that there's no wildlife corridors that are being specifically created so that animals can move
back and forth across the county,” said Julie Ferreira, president of Nassau County’s Sierra Club.
The Nassau County Board of County Commissioners voted to add a referendum to the ballot this November that, if voters approve, would allow the county to buy land to conserve from development. Edwards said land along the St. Marys River and wetlands are essential to protect.
Nassau County currently ranks 57th out of 67 Florida counties, with only 7% of the land being conserved.
But Ferreira believes changes to land zoning, like changing the wetland buffer zones from 50 feet to 25 feet, have already caused significant damage to Nassau County.
“That means that all of our water bodies are going to be starting to be polluted by lawn chemicals in the county,” Ferreira said. “So I have huge fears that in the St. Mary's river and the Nassau River, that eventually we're going to start having algae blooms.”
On top of negatively impacting water quality, chemicals can kill aquatic animals like manatees, porpoises and dolphins, said Ferreira.
“We have a responsibility for the future to think a generation ahead of what we are leaving our children,” Ferreira said. “So now we have to have the regulations in place that are going to protect those future generations.”
“We need to get to a place where people feel like they have a right to protect where they live and what they like about it now,” said Chuck Oliva of the Sierra Club.
A joint study by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, University of Florida Geoplan Center and 1000 Friends of Florida predicts by 2070, roughly a third more of Northeast Florida’s open spaces and agricultural lands will be urbanized.
Sky Lebron can be reached at email@example.com, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.