Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Readying for the Growth in St. Johns County; Planned Developments Will Result in a Tenfold Increase in Housing in the Region by 2015, Which Means Big Changes for Everyone

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Readying for the Growth in St. Johns County; Planned Developments Will Result in a Tenfold Increase in Housing in the Region by 2015, Which Means Big Changes for Everyone

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Basch, The Times-Union

As a life-long resident of northern St. Johns County, Donna Braasch can remember quiet times along rural State Road 13 along the St. Johns River when she was a child.

"It used to be hours where you wouldn't even see a car," said the 44-year-old Braasch.

But those days are long gone in that part of the county. The Julington Creek area in the extreme northwest portion of St. Johns County is already getting congested, and that growth will be spreading out across the northern half of the county in the next decade.

There are currently 11 Developments of Regional Impact (major projects that will affect citizens of more than one county) approved or proposed for northern St. Johns County that are planning an overall tenfold increase in housing in the region by 2015, from 4,278 units today to 45,551. That includes houses in two of the DRIs that will overlap into Duval County.

Throw in another 12,000 or so homes approved in Planned Unit Developments and about 22 million square feet of retail and commercial space and you're looking at a quite different place in the coming years.

"Right now, that's ground zero," said Ed Lehman, director of growth management for the Northeast Florida Regional Council. "For whatever reason, that's where the growth is."

So far, most of the development in the region has been centered in the Julington Creek and Fruit Cove areas in the northwest portion of the county and the area around the World Golf Village off Interstate 95. But over the next five years, growth should begin to explode across northern St. Johns County, with about 28,000 new homes sprouting up from the St. Johns River to the Intracoastal Waterway, according to phasing schedules filed with the DRIs.

Of course, that disturbs people who are used to the rural nature of the inland parts of the county.

Officials don't compile population projections for just the northern part of the county, but the U.S. Census Bureau reported that St. Johns was the 38th fastest-growing county in the country between 2000 and 2003 with a 16 percent growth rate.

And according to the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, St. Johns County is expected to grow by 35.5 percent through 2015, with the population reaching 194,000. And most of that growth will be occurring in the northern part of the county.

"Every buildable lot is being built on," said County Commission Nicholas Meiszer, who represents the northern district.

"The very influx of people is destroying the rural life. The county is becoming very urban," he said.

Nocatee and RiverTown

Most people concede that growth in Florida is inevitable, but it's the pace of growth that raises concerns.

"Change is difficult under any circumstances but when it's that fast, it's extremely difficult for people," said County Commissioner Karen Stern.

"That's why it's important we look to the sustained communities and planned communities," she said.

The 10 projects approved as DRIs include provisions for infrastructure needs like additional roads and water supply to ensure that the county can handle new development.

"The question is not whether development will or won't come, it's what type of development will come," said Greg Barbour, president of The Parc Group. Parc is developing Nocatee, the largest DRI in the region covering 15,000 acres in St. Johns and Duval counties, east of U.S. 1. The Nocatee plan includes 14,200 housing units, one million square feet of retail and commercial development and 4.2 million square feet of office space.

"We think Nocatee is a new type of development for St. Johns that addresses issues and is a responsible form of development," Barbour said.

The Nocatee plan calls for $100 million of road improvements, including a new four-lane road to replace two-lane County Road 210 from U. …

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