• Callahan resident Christine Burch, joined by husband Thomas, places a sticker on a survey ranking how important various amenities and issues regarding growth are as Nassau County’s staff plans for western Nassau’s future. The Western Nassau Heritage Preservation Committee held the meeting Nov. 13 and plans to formulate growth needs based on citizen input. Photo by Kathie Colgrove/News-Leader

County asks its citizens for input on the future of development

On the east side ...

The Nassau County Planning and Economic Opportunity Department held an “outreach open house” on Nov. 14 to ask concerned residents for their input on the future planning of the William Burgess Corridor. This was to be the first of a number of meetings in both east and west Nassau County. The meeting was held at the Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Betty P. Cook Nassau Center campus in Yulee.

Taco Pope, the director of the department, and his staff set up an elaborate display of maps and visuals as well as a slideshow in an effort to show the 44 people in attendance what is under consideration.

Pope said he and his department were tasked by the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners to come up with their future plan by March.

“The current initiative is known as the William Burgess Context + Connectivity Blueprint (WB CCB),” Pope wrote in an email. “The study area is (the) area of Yulee south of State Road 200, east of I-95, west of Highway 17 and north of the Nassau River.”

Pope’s department came up with a “Vision Book” in December 2017 about a specific “overlay” area for one of five “village centers” in the study area called the William Burgess Mixed-use Activity Center Overlay District. That district, abbreviated as the William Burgess District or WBD, lies east of Harts Road and south of S.R. 200/A1A, and is transected by the CSX railroad tracks and U.S. 17.

The Vision Book calls for a multi-modal transit facility to be located at the intersection of the CSX railroad line and William Burgess Boulevard. The district extends east of U.S. 17 for about half a mile on both sides of William Burgess Boulevard. In year three of the county’s current five-year capital improvement program, William Burgess Boulevard is to be extended east from U.S 17 to Miner Road.

“The overlay we created last year...is a much smaller area that (is) concentrated on the area near William Burgess Blvd. and US 17,” Pope wrote. “The WB CCB is a much broader study that is far more comprehensive not only in land area but also impact.

“The work we did last year concentrated on a single village center and only superficially analyzed the adjacent lands. The current initiative looks at five distinct village centers and all the land area surrounding them. The direction we are heading, we are going to expand the previously adopted ‘William Burgess District’ to include the full study area of the William Burgess Context + Connectivity Blueprint initiative.”

The William Burgess District Vision Book can be viewed at http://bit.ly/2ACngwy.

“We will be trying to come up with a more sustainable manner in which we go into the future,” Pope said at the meeting earlier this month. “A top down approach did not work, and now, based upon the last legislative session in Florida, citizens were empowered to take control of planning for their communities. We now have a bottom-up approach to common planning where citizens can engage in activities like this.

“We will take your feedback, we will get your ideas. You tell us what you want your community to look like, what you value and want to preserve and what you would like to see your community look like in 20 to 30 years. That is why tonight is really important.”

Pope made it clear that planning for the area involves looking into how much growth can be expected. Nassau County currently has a population of approximately 82,000 people and projections are that by 2045 the population will almost double. The Yulee area, where there is significant land available, is ground zero.

“Our direction is to look and to plan for common growth. Today there are 660 homes, 1,600 people and 1.3 million square feet of non-residential space. So what we did is, we went and looked at the current entitlements of all the properties that are in the study area and we said, if we build-out at the current rate, based on what is entitled by the Future Land Use Map, in 2045 we will have 4,000 homes, 10,000 people and 4 million square feet of non-residential space,” Pope said.

“The need to plan for this growth when the development comes online is that you hold to a higher standard, that you make sure that the schools, the parks, the roads, all the civic infrastructure is put into place.”

The displays for the attendees were set up as stations covering natural features, ecology, transportation, education, culture, archaeology, and history. There was also a children’s table.

Pope discussed the need to create a community to make day-to-day life comfortable and functional, using examples of parks with amenities for all ages, abilities and interests, and having shops, parks and other amenities accessible by sidewalk and within a 5- to 10-minute walk from home.

Adrienne Burke, the assistant director of the Planning and Economic Opportunity Department, discussed the need to hear from the citizenry about flooding concerns and low-lying property. Burke talked about the department recently receiving funding for a vulnerability assessment to explore the most vulnerable areas and how to improve them.

Burke also expressed the importance of history and preservation and gave the example
of the “historic area” in the U.S. 17 and S.R. 200/A1A area with older buildings and the railroad’s history.

“We really have to get prepared and we want to be proactive,” Burke said. “We don’t really want to wait for it to come and say, ‘Wow, we wish we could have done something better.’ We are trying to get ahead of it and cannot do it without the citizens. This is your chance to step in and say, ‘Wait a minute, we want parks, we need a school there, we need this, we are worried about a road going in here.’ That is what we need to hear about now, when we can do something.”

Those present were energized and enthusiastic in their participation at the various tables and with the staff.

Laura Rhodes of Yulee stated, “Every meeting I attend, they talk about the growth of Nassau County, but they never mention about a center, a convention center, a multi-purpose building or whatever, to build so that the high schools can have their graduation exercises without going to Duval County. Well, I have learned tonight about the growth that is coming to Yulee in the west side of (U.S.) 17 if I be around ’bout that time, because I am almost 83 years old.”

Randy Davis had practical concerns.

“I am out here because I have been here for 19 years and I want to see how the growth is going to affect my standard of living and my property values. I see a huge influx of people and different businesses coming in, which is great, but I am concerned about the traffic, (how) the highways are going to sustain all the growth,” Davis said. “Right now, A1A has a traffic jam on it. It’s very
difficult to have a secondary road to get around it, so I’m anxious to see how they expand the infrastructure.”

Vida Willis and her mother, Lois Willis, came to the meeting together. “We both live in this area the William Burgess growth community and what Taco had to say was very important to me,” Lois said. “I would like to see my community to grow the way he described versus what’s happened in the Chester area. It’s horrible over there. I live in a rural area and I want it to stay peaceful, and if growth comes, you don’t want the personality of your area to change.”

Christine Platel of Fernandina Beach, who has been active on affordable housing committees, said she has been talking with Pope, Burke and Fernandina Beach Planning Manager Kelly Gibson for three years about affordable housing.

“Last year in December they changed some of the ordinances to allow for greater density in the William Burgess area. That is a good thing, because everyone is living on huge lots that you can only put one house on. I am interested in creating what is called ‘pocket neighborhoods’ so that there are little cottage communities with smaller footprints for the homes, smaller lots and a lot of shared space, like shared garden space. It is a different way of living and affordable.

When asked, “What does affordable mean to you at this time?” Platel was blunt: “Well, I can’t afford anything here. We actually prefer to use the term ‘income-based housing’ rather than
affordable housing because what is affordable to one person is not the same for somebody else. So my focus is on income-based housing so that you have mixed income, a median income for this area … so that you can have a diverse population, not just old people stuck in an elderly community or very low-income people but a mixture of people, a mixture of ages.”

After the last person had left the meeting, Pope discussed the planning, process and reason for the meeting.

“I think the most important part is remembering that we design communities for people and for people’s daily lives and that’s been lost as we concentrate more on planning for cars, or planning for buildings, or planning for shopping, as opposed to planning for people,” Pope said. “Get into the community, find out what their concerns
are, what desires they have, what assets they want to protect, and then how can we create public policy that enhances their community, and makes it a more enjoyable place to live, and to raise
families.

“The purpose of these meetings is community engagement, to get feedback from the public, to understand what they’d like to see in their community. It is very rare people are concerned with changes take place. The civic infrastructure necessary to support that (future) change is not keeping pace with development. That’s one of the big pushes with this project, which is to make sure that the civic facilities come online concurrent with the development. Along with the people, come the parks and schools, and the roads, and all the components that make a complete community.”

The next meeting to work “with citizens to plan the future of Nassau County” will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12, in the Nassau Room at Florida State College at Jacksonville, Betty P. Cook Nassau Center, 76346 William Burgess Blvd.

For more information, visit http://www.nassaucountyfl.com/burgessoverlay.

***

On the west side ...

Western Nassau residents are adamant about preserving their rural lifestyles amid predictions that countywide population could double by 2045.

Nassau County has about 82,748 residents currently, with projections possibly reaching as high as 147,600 by 2045, according to data from a 2017 Urban Land Institute Technical Assistance Panel study of western Nassau.

“That’s the kind of impact we have to be prepared for,” Nassau County Planning and Economic Opportunity Director Taco Pope said Nov. 13. “If we do nothing and we pretend like it’s not going to happen or we could magically, like, build a wall and it’s just going to stop, all we’re going to do is end up repeating ourselves and creating a Yulee here. And that’s why we need your input. You have to tell us exactly what you want. If that’s what you want, that’s great. You just say, ‘Hey, we like it. We’d like to do it again.’ If you want something different, we have to talk about that. We have to then put it into policy, get that policy adopted and then make sure that it’s followed through and implemented.”

Retired Callahan resident Val Brophy is against unconstrained development. She’s lived in western Nassau for 45 years. 

“I hate to see all this growth,” she said. “There’s a lot of us who don’t want to see our rural community ruined. It’s slower-paced, has less crime and has a community feeling. But the bigger it gets, you lose all of that and I hate to see it happen – and so do a lot of other folks.”

Brophy and roughly 70 other citizens attended a Western Nassau Heritage Preservation Committee meeting at the Multipurpose Building in Callahan. Public comments were not formally received during the meeting. Instead, planning department employees stood at stations around the room, fielding questions from residents. Some residents placed star-shaped stickers on large printed surveys displayed as part of the breakout session.  

The survey sought residents’ preferences on a scale from one to five, with five being the highest, for how they desire to live, work and play. Stars were placed within the appropriate rank. Preferences on the importance of history and archeology, natural features and ecology were also surveyed. The data compiled in recent months will be analyzed, with results presented to update residents in the spring. 

The committee, which consists of five planning and zoning members, has met since March with residents to gain input on what they desire. The project will take about two years to complete. 

Pope’s overview highlighted the conditions that drive development.  

“Twenty years ago, job centers started pushing south and east of downtown Jacksonville, which then resulted in a residential push into what was then rural St. Johns County north and rural St. Johns County,” he said. “Well now, we have the same effect happening; the same scenario where there’s job centers coming online in downtown Jacksonville and around the airport and western Duval that are having the same impacts and pushing residential development into southern and western Nassau.” 

He continued, “At the same time, you have drivers that are internal to the county with the Crawford Diamond and U.S. 301 and Crawford Road. And then you also have the non-residential portions of the area around William Burgess (Boulevard) and the (East Nassau Community Planning Area) – the Wildlight area. Both job centers – both job creators – those are going to create a demand for more housing in Nassau County. And when you start to consider the quality of life that you all enjoy: low crime rates, good schools, easy access to beaches, relatively low development costs and then
the popularity of Nassau County largely contributed to Amelia Island, you know, national recognition for tourism, it starts to make a lot of sense why people want to come and live here when they can jump on a road with real easy access to Georgia and Jacksonville and go to work in the morning.”

At least 12,000 residents commute to jobs outside of Nassau each week, according to Pope.  

Nassau County Planning and Zoning Board Chairwoman Linda Morris welcomed the crowd before Pope’s presentation. 

“Our purpose here tonight, quite honestly, is to hear you,” she said. 

“And to hear you as we, as planners, and as those who for whom you have given us the trust and reason to do so as we develop standards to control development. Development is not all bad, but unplanned development can be. What should it look like, where should development be considered and all of the ramifications that go with those decisions, that’s why we’re here to hear you tonight.” 

Christine Burch is satisfied with existing conveniences available. 

“I don’t want any businesses in here at all,” she said. “Our taxes are enough.”

Tanya Conklin also enjoys the rural surroundings of Callahan. 

“We’d really like to keep it open and natural,” she said. “I know that development will happen, but let’s have it as conservatively as possible.”

Nan Poor desires expanded recreational amenities to complement existing options. She wants a dog park so that she can freely exercise her Jack Russell mix.  

“We need it really bad out here,” the Callahan resident said. “Ewing Park is nice, but we need something bigger.” 

County officials recently revealed plans to clear ground next year for a regional park near Pratt Siding Road. Walking, biking and equestrian trails are planned. Recreational facilities and ball fields would be added as funding allows. 

East side resident Lainie Rodis works in Callahan. She has witnessed the growth along A1A as she commutes to and from the island. She also appreciates the charm of western Nassau. 

“Let’s preserve the natural beauty of the county and don’t let it get overrun,” she said.

Rodis added that people outside of the county take a quick look at the area and dismiss it because it’s too rural and doesn’t have enough creature comforts. 

“You have to look past that and really analyze the benefits on this side of the county,” she said. “I don’t want it overrun. I’ve seen too many cities overrun and I don’t want to see that happen here. It would be a shame.” 

Husband Ted Rodis welcomed the opportunity to provide input about the impacts of growth in western Nassau.  

“It’s nice to see some attention on this side of the county,” he said.

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