Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Switzerland Riverfront Park Is First in St. Johns; First Phase of 55-Acre Property Open by May

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Switzerland Riverfront Park Is First in St. Johns; First Phase of 55-Acre Property Open by May

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Scanlan, Times-Union staff writer

The sun was starting to set over the St. Johns River in Switzerland when the first guests walked in under the ancient oak trees and swaying Spanish moss Thursday to see the birth of St. Johns County's first riverfront park.

As the wind rushed through branches lit gold by the setting sun, eyes lifted skyward as something winged past.

"Look, there's an osprey. And there's its mate," said Shorty Robbins, the county recreation department's administrative manager. "Eagles won't be too far behind."

Views of the winging ospreys and wind-whipped waves on the river will soon be accessible to everyone as St. Johns County begins construction this week of a passive park on the 55-acre property at 610 Swiss Lane off Florida 13. The first phase of the park, once a working orange grove called Alpine Groves, should be open by May. The park will continue the Alpine Groves name.

"The county really, desperately needed this," said resident Phyllis Abbatiello. "This is a little bit of heaven."

Saving 55 acres of riverfront property from development is good too, said Susan Grandin, director of the Northeast Florida office of the Trust for Public Land. Her agency bought the site in 2000 and sold it to the county at cost to prevent "55 acres of houses coming here, like they would have."

"We bought and sold it for $2.2 million, and this would be worth well over that now," she said. "It is just such a beautiful spot on the river, and it gives everyone a chance to have access to natural resources they wouldn't otherwise have."

The site 5 miles south of Julington Creek was a sprawling orange grove operated by Ruth Bennett and her family until the 1950s. The main house dates to the late 1800s, while an orange sorting shed and stable remain intact, as does a church-like children's museum operated when the grove was open.

With a $2.2 million Florida Communities Trust grant in hand, the county had to add only $5,000 of its own funds to buy it, said Dan Weimer, the county's recreation chief.

"This is probably an $8 million or $9 million piece of property here now, and we are eternally grateful for Ruth Bennett and her husband," Weimer told the audience of 80-plus at the chilly groundbreaking. …

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