Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Setting Limits St. Johns County Officials Must Determine How Much Buffer Land around Environmentally Sensitive Areas Is Enough

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Setting Limits St. Johns County Officials Must Determine How Much Buffer Land around Environmentally Sensitive Areas Is Enough

Article excerpt

With new houses and golf courses bumping up against once-isolated creeks and swamps, St. Johns County officials are considering expanding wetlands protections they adopted just four months ago.

Consultants hired by the county reported this month that 300-foot buffers would be needed to protect half the wildlife around wetlands and would prevent water pollution or wetland shrinking.

County planners in turn suggested tiered restrictions that would prohibit building within 75 feet of many wetlands, with 200- and 300-foot limits in more sensitive areas.

Those rules wouldn't affect lots for single-family homes platted before September, making the question moot in most existing neighborhoods.

But the possibility of new standards has agitated landowners, builders and environmental advocates concerned about the future of miles of undeveloped property in the fast-growing coastal county.

"It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard of in my life," said Ed Cooksey, a campground owner who was a longtime county commissioner and planning board member. "I've lived here all my life. . . . I just can't make myself believe that we need 75 feet."

"This is a hard one for everyone," said Georgia Katz, a county planner who said any decision by commissioners will be controversial.

The county included a 50-foot rule for property along most waterways in a bundle of development regulations it approved in September to meet state growth management laws. But it held open the possibility of change once a team of environmental consultants finished studying what the appropriate size should be.

County commissioners will be briefed on the consultants' findings during their board meeting tomorrow. County planners will ask the commission whether to pursue the subject any further, Katz said.

Homebuilders and others in the development industry have been concerned about how wider buffers would constrain construction.

On a mile of waterfront property, each 25-foot increase in buffers would prohibit use of 3 acres, said John Metcalf, an attorney for several large landowners. The same measurements would apply to land around marshes and isolated wetlands.

"It really is a political question. A political, legal, economic question of what you want to do," Metcalf said.

Cooksey said he was concerned that small landowners could be particularly affected and would feel they could do nothing but hold onto unusable land.

"We have enough of these rules and regulations on the books now," he said.

But environmental activists have warned the county's wildlife and natural beauty will suffer without protection for low-lying land around creeks, rivers and swamps.

"I've seen too many wetlands that have been destroyed," said Sarah Bailey, an outspoken conservationist and former commissioner who owns a ranch in northwestern St. Johns, the rapidly suburbanizing area south of Mandarin.

Suburban growth is raising the stakes of wetlands decisions in St. Johns, whose population of about 110,000 has increased more than 30 percent since 1990.

To allay environmental concerns, some developers take steps to avoid impacting wetlands. Developers planning the 15,000-acre Nocatee community on the St. Johns-Jacksonville border pledged to preserve 2,000 acres along the Intracoastal Waterway, and more elsewhere. …

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