Nassau County’s newest local government meets
The county’s newest “independent special and limited purpose local government,” the East Nassau Stewardship District, held its first publically noticed meeting on Sept. 28.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed FSS 2017-206, which established the East Nassau Stewardship District, on June 16. The ENSD’s present jurisdiction covers 11 huge parcels of land, according to the statute. Its boundaries surround about 24,000 acres, mostly east of Interstate 95, including the new Wildlight development.
The new government is empowered to “impose and levy taxes or assessments” on private property within the district’s boundaries. Any taxes and assessments on its residents and businesses will be in addition to Nassau County’s other taxes.
The new body can guard its entry roads and streets, “plan, finance and provide community infrastructure and services within the district,” issue bonds and borrow money.
Though it can implement “guard houses,” the ENSD “may not exercise any powers of a law enforcement agency but may contract with the appropriate local general-purpose government agencies for an increased level of such services within the district boundaries.”
The ENSD can also “enter into impact fee, mobility fee, or other similar credit agreements with Nassau County or a landowner developer and sell or assign such credits, on such terms as the district deems appropriate.”
There are a few limitations to its power. The statute creating the district says the ENSD “shall not have or exercise any comprehensive planning, zoning, or development permitting power.” Any actions taken must also be consistent with “the effective local comprehensive plans,” and “it is the legislative intent and purpose that no debt or obligation of the special district constitute a burden on any local general-purpose government without its consent.”
The district is governed by a five-member board of supervisors: Michael Hahaj, chair; James Daniel Roach, vice-chair; Robert D. Fancher, assistant secretary; Robert M. Rhodes, assistant secretary; and Max Hord, assistant secretary. They will hold office for a term of four years.
All five current board members were appointed and then elected by Rayonier, the corporate majority landowner.
The board is empowered to employ and fix the compensation of a district manager, and hired Craig Wrathell. Wrathell is also the managing partner of Wrathell, Hart, Hunt and Associates LLC, which specializes in managing community development and special taxing districts in the states of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
When asked in an email why the new district’s presence is a benefit to Nassau County, Wrathell responded: “The East Nassau Stewardship District is an effective growth management tool utilized to plan, finance, construct, operate and maintain the public infrastructure, amenities (as applicable), and facilities located within the Stewardship District. …The Stewardship District ensures that ‘Growth pays for Growth’ whereby additional infrastructure required by new growth is paid for entirely by the new growth and not by the county and its existing residents.”
This concept has not been without its controversy, however. To address some of those concerns, Wrathell added that, “The Stewardship District does not replace county services or taxes nor does it create any burden or obligation on taxpayers outside the district. All Nassau County laws, regulations, ordinances and permitting processes remain in place.”
According to the email from Wrathell to the News-Leader, “For Wildlight Phase I, the District Engineer estimates the cost of the public infrastructure improvements to total $45,200,000. A portion of that $45,200,000 is contemplated to be funded by the East Nassau Stewardship District issuing tax exempt bonds. The portion of the $45,200,000 in improvements not funded via bonds will be privately funded by the majority landowner and donated to the East Nassau Stewardship District.”
Conspicuously absent from the Sept. 28 meeting was any county commissioner or any member of the county staff. Prior to the meeting, Danny Leeper, on behalf of the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners, sent a letter to Chris Cor, senior vice president of real estate for Rayonier, members of the East Nassau Stewardship District and others, expressing concerns about a resolution on the sale of bonds and a few other issues that appeared on the meeting’s first agenda. That letter reaffirmed that the county looks upon the new government as a “public/private partnership,” and encouraged continued “consultation, coordination, and cooperation.”
The letter also says that certain materials had not yet been received or reviewed by the county and as a result, much of what was on the district’s agenda for their September meeting was postponed until October.
Creating such a district is often used as a tool for community development.
In the mid-1960s, the Walt Disney World Company envisioned developing its global tourist attraction on 25,000 acres of property in Central Florida. The property sat in a remote area so secluded that the nearest power and water lines were 10-15 miles away. No local counties had the services or the resources needed to bring the project to life, and it was unreasonable to ask the local taxpayers to pick up the development tab.
In 1967, the Florida State legislature, working with the Walt Disney World Company, created a special taxing district called the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
As created, the RCID district acts with the same authority and responsibility as a county government and is solely responsible for paying the cost of providing typical municipal services like power, water, roads, and fire protection. Essentially, creation of the RCID made Walt Disney World self-governing. The RCID is responsible for raising its own revenue and in turn, it has the authority to create its own rules. The RCID celebrated its 50th anniversary this past May.
Now, Nassau County, Florida, has something very similar.
The East Nassau Stewardship District plans to meet at 10 a.m. on the third Thursday of each month at the Florida State College of Jacksonville’s Nassau campus, located at 76346 William Burgess Boulevard in Yulee. One exception to the third Thursday plan is in December, when the board will meet on Dec. 14.
A fully functioning website with news and official information is expected to be up and running by the next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 19.