The residents of Fern Parke Way in the Flora Parke community just off Amelia Island were disturbed on the morning of Aug. 12 by the sound of construction equipment. An area of the quiet cul-de-sac marked on official documents as open space, including wetlands and wetland buffers, was being cleared.
Resident Alan “Hupp” Huppmann said a surveyor was there at 7:30 a.m. to mark it. An off-duty Nassau County Sheriff’s Office deputy at the scene told one of the residents it was his job to keep the worksite operating.
Nassau County officials and the NCSO soon began receiving calls from the alarmed homeowners, and several hours later a stop work order citing violations of county ordinances and regulations, and lack of county, state and federal permits, was issued. But according to the residents, the work continued on for another one-and-a-half hours.
Huppmann, a well-known local musician, lives two houses away from the site. He estimated half the area, about 80 square yards, was destroyed. He documented the events by going live on Facebook, emphatically describing what was occurring and asking for help from the government and the media.
He contacted Nassau County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Danny Leeper and County Commissioner Aaron Bell.
Assistant County Manager Taco Pope arrived on the scene at approximately 1:30 p.m., assuring the residents there would be a temporary one-week work stoppage. Pope also informed the residents that there was ongoing litigation involving the land.
Huppmann, who has lived in Flora Parke since 2009, discussed how the cul-de-sac and the treed area wraps around the immediate houses. Prior to moving in, Huppmann says he was assured by a salesman that the destroyed area was in a protected wetland that would not be touched and would remain in place. As far as he knew, the previous requests to remove the designation of common space wetlands and backfill for two lots had been denied. At one point, Huppmann said, a representative of the developer had offered to sell the land to Huppmann and his neighbors for $140,000.
Huppmann believes the requests to remove the designation have been ongoing since 2014, with the most recent ones coming earlier this year. He said SEDA is the de facto current Home Owners Association until 90% capacity is reached in the whole development. He estimated that would occur in October.
The News-Leader also contacted John A. “Sandy” Semanik, CEO of SEDA Construction Company. Asked why a crew was sent into the site with a backhoe to take down trees and then backfill with dirt, Semanik responded, “Because we own the land.”
But then Semanik wanted to clarify that ownership.
“First of all I want to make this very clear to you. SEDA Construction Company has nothing to do with this. The property is owned by Flora Parke Development Incorporated. That is the developer that owns the land, not SEDA. Just trying to clarify that because to me it is a bit of a technical point but remains the same. It is not SEDA Construction Company’s property. They build houses and we were not building a house, we are clearing the land and filling it because we have the permits to do that from Saint John’s Water Management.”
Semanik said the relationship between SEDA Construction Company and Flora Parke Development Inc. is that Flora Parke is the developer and then the builder, SEDA, buys the finished lots from the development entity.
Asked if St. Johns River Water Management District permits are up to date, Semanik responded, “Yes. I talked to them less than an hour ago. They got many, many calls and they confirmed with everybody that we had a permit and that we had mitigated the site and we are in compliance.”
Asked for a response as to why the crews continued to work after the stop work order was given, Semanik responded, “All four of the issues on the stop order were incorrect. The stop order was not correctly issued, and it was issued to SEDA Construction Company, which was not on the job, nor doing the job. So everything about the stop order was incorrect … the stop work order should have been to Flora Parke Development Inc., in other words, nothing was right on the stop order, the violations nor who it was to, so because it was all incorrect it did not get to the party it should have. The County called and actually asked, at which time I talked to the Administrator for the County.”
Asked who he spoke to at the county, Semanik said it was Pope: “It was Taco Pope who actually went to the job site and he called and when we talked and I said, ‘well the day is over and a lot of things are wrong but let’s meet next week and clean it up. At this time we are supposed to meet because we are confident that we are fully permitted.”
An ongoing struggle to save trees
Mike and Karen Drought, who own property adjacent to the vacant land, were very upset by the land being cleared. Karen said the developer’s desire to put more houses on that space started years ago, but they “had been assured by the county over and over that this would never be touched and that they were going to stand behind us,” Karen told the News-Leader. “And then we wake up to a bulldozer coming off the truck and bashing into the trees immediately, fast. (I am) very emotional,” Karen said with tears in her eyes. She added that the trees taken down included “really big ones, as you see birds flying everywhere.”
Mike said he felt abandoned and violated by the county when officials did not respond right away.
“We bought this place because we had protected three sides of our house and on the other side, we had a good friend and we wake up one morning, yesterday, and its devastated. Most of the way through, the representative just smiled and giggled a lot,” Mike said. “They get all this done and Karen went in front of the backhoe when they were about to cut down a large tree and said, ‘don’t do it’ and the operator pointed over to the representative and he said, ‘just do it.’ It hurts our heart; this is what we bought this place for the solitude of it and we had birds flying all around yesterday and this morning. I don’t know where they are now because their nests are gone. Everything is gone and my wife stood here in tears most of the day and they could have cared less.”
The other homeowner whose property is adjacent to the cul-de-sac is Fernandina Beach Airport Manager Nathan Coyle. Coyle moved into his house in 2017.
“My position is, it is platted as common space. There is a process to replat that property,” Coyle told the News-Leader. “The process obviously was not followed to replat that property. I think that there is a clear process in place for that and I don’t think that process allows you to go out and clear the site without going back and requesting a replat to be able to pull a building permit. It is my understanding that they requested permits to develop that parcel before and they were denied appropriately because they did not go through a process to request a replat. Obviously, they stepped farther ahead than they should have, and I think there is a major concern with anybody out there … continuing to work on the property once a stop order was issued. It is egregious.”
Coyle added, “The homeowners trust that our county leaders are doing the right thing and we trust in the process that is put in place and we expect everybody to follow that process.”
Bell, who represents District 2 where Flora Parke is located, said the lots are shown on the plat as open space. “However, they are still owned by the developer,” he said. “The developer’s contention is that he can do whatever he wants with them but the lots are platted as open space, and in order for him to do anything there he needs a permit from (St. Johns River Water Management District), which they did get, and a permit from Nassau County, which he did not get.”
Bell said the first stop work order was ignored.
“A second stop order was issued by Code Enforcement at which time two citations were issued, the first being for failure to follow the first stop work order and the second for not having a permit,” Bell continued. He added both carry fines and the issues are now scheduled to be heard at a Sept. 8 Code Enforcement Board hearing.
In correspondence with SEDA in February, County Manager and Attorney Mike Mullin wrote, “I do not believe, at this point, that you can proceed with development on the lots. The County cannot issue permits for those lots.” Additional correspondence from 2014 confirms SEDA’s plan to build on the site.
News travels fast in Flora Parke, and Kenny Richards, who has lived on Pond Parke Place since 2008, called the News-Leader with his own story.
“We selected the particular lot that we built our house on expressly because it had woods behind it and adjacent to it,” Richards said. “Going back over five years, SEDA has surveyed the adjacent lot to our house at least once a year. As recently as late June, early July, SEDA sent out surveyors.”
The surveyors told him they were surveying that site and other sites, including the Ferne Parke cul-de-sac. Richards said someone at the county reassured him they did not have any permits to build, though it was their property and they could survey it if they wanted to. “They did not have any permits to cut down trees or anything like that,” he added.
Richards suspected the site next door to him would receive the same fate as the one on Fern Parke Way.
“The struggle I have had with them and the anxiety I have had with them over the years is real. I just really hope that this is it.”
Richards also contacted Bell, and told the News-Leader Bell was reassuring.
‘Mitigation for the impacts’
The News-Leader also spoke to Teresa Monson, the public communications coordinator for St. Johns River Water Management District. Monson sent a written statement regarding the situation:
“St. Johns River Water Management District staff were notified by the Nassau County engineer on Aug. 12 about two lots at Flora Parke being constructed in wetlands. The District previously permitted construction on four lots, including the two Fern Parke lots, under a permit modification (Sequence 11) that expired in 2014. However, the lots were inadvertently not included in the builder’s documentation related to the current active permits (Sequences 15 and 16). The builder has already provided mitigation for the impacts to these lots, as required under the original permit, which included putting a portion of the development under a conservation easement. Because the modification does not show the two lots, the builder will need to submit a permit application to the District to correct the administrative error and go back through the permitting process for those lots, which includes public noticing and opportunity for public comment.”
The News-Leader quoted Monson’s communication to Semanik, who said he “had spoken with Tracy Shilling the compliance officer, at Saint John’s Water Management District and she said we were in compliance.”
Huppmann was scheduled to meet with Mullin Tuesday, and a meeting is scheduled to take place today between Mullin and Semanik’s attorney.