A sad development for Heritage River Road

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  • A sturdy chain link and barbed wire fence is going up between Heritage River Road and the bank of the St. Johns River, blocking all river access and obstructing views. A similar fence is planned for the marsh side of the road. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    A sturdy chain link and barbed wire fence is going up between Heritage River Road and the bank of the St. Johns River, blocking all river access and obstructing views. A similar fence is planned for the marsh side of the road. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
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I know a lot of people have sadder things than this going on in their lives, so I shouldn’t feel so bad. But I do.

Those readers who follow my weekly columns have long known of the love Bucko and I have for our regular drives to Heritage River Road off Heckscher Drive. In this pandemic time, with much of our normal life restricted, more than ever we have been visiting this road to watch and photograph the roseate spoonbills, wood storks, herons, egrets, etc. that inhabit the marsh on one side and the St. Johns River edge on the other. In fact, we’ve been haunting this road for more than three decades.

When we first started visiting this road in the 1980s, it was to meet our friends at the Pirates Cove Fish Camp that was once located there. In the years since, we’ve seen (and I’ve written columns about) all the changes: from the uplands vegetation being destroyed, large mountains of dirt piled up in the middle, and finally, some replanting of Spartina grass in the area that is being converted back to a marsh. This work is part of a saltwater mitigation bank aiming to restore the marsh here in exchange for development damage to other marshes in Jacksonville. That has been going well, and the large flocks of spoonbills and many other birds attest to its success. Often when we visit the area, we see fishermen and picnickers using the side of the road along the river, and birdwatchers like us aiming cameras and binoculars to watch the action in the marsh. Both sides of the 3,000-foot road are an attraction for many. This freedom is soon to end – for all of us.

About two weeks ago, we noticed the first signs of trouble. A fence crew was hard at work installing heavy posts along the river’s shoreline. What on Earth is this for? I immediately contacted Lisa Rinaman of the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization and alerted her. Her investigation has revealed the crux of the problem. The “saltwater mitigation project,” permitted years ago, is in the final stages of completion.

Right now, the 3,000-foot fence along the riverbank is nearing completion. Cars can no longer drive on the beach there. Yes, that may have caused problems for the beach, and the garbage left behind is indeed unsightly. But many areas along the river’s edge have vegetation right up to the shore so no cars could ever drive there in the first place. Only fishermen and those of us taking in the river views can access these areas. What harm can that cause? Now, the views, and all river access, will be closed by this obtrusive fence.

Even worse – if that can be – is now that Lisa has shown me the fence permit, I am even more incensed. The marsh views and bird watching on the other side of the road will also likewise be ruined, since a similar 3,000-foot fence is planned for that side of the road too. And to what avail? Even without a fence, no one ever walks through the saltmarsh here or can cross the drainage ditch that divides it from the road. A fence is a needless, expensive eyesore that is transforming this bird-watching mecca to a chain link/barbed wire hallway along the full length of the road.

Presumably, this “mitigation bank” has money to burn. So, not only did developers destroy the area that this mitigation is supposed to compensate for, it is destroying another prime nature viewing area. If money is the only issue, a suggestion by my friend John Fleming is to build a boardwalk in the marsh for people to enjoy it safely, without harm to the environment. Surely that’s a better use for money than a long, view-blocking chain link fence!

If you are concerned about these developments, take a ride down Heckscher Drive, turn on the first left turn after the high Sisters Creek Bridge, and see for yourself. And if you too are totally incensed, maybe there remains room to fight it. To help, I suggest you contact Lisa Rinaman, the executive director of St. Johns Riverkeeper (lisa@stjohnsriverkeeper.org), the St. Johns River Water Management District employee overseeing this project, regulatory scientist Nanette Church (nchurch@sjrwmd.com), and the city of Jacksonville employee mainly involved, Al Ferraro (Ferraro@coj.net), to register a complaint.

Maybe we can work to stop the fence on the marsh side, at least. But the work is progressing quickly and there’s not much time.

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.

patandbucko@yahoo.com