Would proposed 66-home development threaten Guana Preserve wildlife?

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – A potential 66-home development that could be built near the Guana Preserve would kill wildlife and contaminate water, some Ponte Vedra Beach residents said. 

The development would be called Vista Tranquila and would be built on land at the southern end of Neck Road off Mickler Road -- owned by the Ponte Vedra Corporation, which is an umbrella company of Gate Petroleum. 

But local nonprofit, Save Guana Now, said wildlife, both on land and in water, would suffer tremendously if the project is approved. 

The 66 homes would be built near the end of Neck Road, behind a locked gate with a wooden sign at the top reading, "Ponte Vedra Outpost," and has a Gate emblem on it.

Nearby is the Guana Preserve, which surrounds the majority of the Outpost. It’s not difficult to catch a glimpse of wildlife while visiting the Guana Preserve. Hundreds of animal species, 14 of which are threatened or endangered, live in the preserve.

The possible future site of 66 houses is something that Gary Coulliette, co-founder of Save Guana Now, told News4Jax on Tuesday would be detrimental to the water and land creatures that call this area home.

"As a master naturalist, I can tell you that habitat fragmentation is the single worst disaster to happen to any animals," Coulliette said. "Anytime you clear property, you’re taking away habitat."

The yellow triangle on this map shows the Outpost property. The 99 acres are considered conservation land because of its rich ecosystem and natural habitat. Much of it borders the white area on the map, which is the Guana Preserve. 

"It’s quite another thing for environmentalists and scientists to say, 'Yes, there truly is a problem with the idea of developing that land,'" said Nicole Crosby, co-founder of Save Guana Now. "So we’re really please that we’ve got support from a number of environmental organizations."

Crosby said one of those organizations includes the Sierra Club -- on local and state levels. She said their hope is that the Ponte Vedra Corporation decides to sell the 99 acres to someone who will conserve the property.

As for what’s next, Save Guana Now is waiting to learn from St. Johns County when a public hearing will be held. There would be one for planning and zoning, and if that’s approved, it would go to the city commission. The group hopes to learn of a date any day now. 

News4Jax has not yet heard back from the county, but this has been a long back-and-forth process. Gate said, after not hearing from the county for several years, it filed a lawsuit this year in hopes of getting the county to respond. Gate said the county did respond the week before the trial date earlier this year. The court told the county that the process had to be done in a timely manner.

As to whether timely means months or years, Gate said, right now, there is open dialogue.

A Gate spokesperson also told News4Jax that St. Johns County isn’t using the same environmental surveys with the Outpost as it has with other developers, and those determine what land should be considered conservation land. Gate also sent the following statement:

It is false to claim that the entire 99-acre Outpost property has ever been in conservation. Consistent with the policies of its comprehensive plan and St. Johns County’s previous applications of its conditional conservation land use designation, only the jurisdictional wetlands (approximately 22.7 of the 99.3 acres) are subject to the conservation land use designation. GATE does not, and will not, propose development on those 22.7 acres. The debate and attempts to prevent development on the remaining property and to characterize the entire 99-acre parcel as sensitive conservation land is simply a land grab by some who want to utilize our private property as their own private greenway. 

"In addition, numerous independent, on-site surveys and studies by environmental firms have concluded that there are no significant natural communities or habitats on the Outpost property.  Wildlife seen in the adjacent Guana lake have their breeding, feeding, nesting and roosting habitat needs well met by core estuaries and upland buffers located within the GTMNERR. After four years of planning and research, we have proposed a low-density neighborhood that is sensitive to the ongoing protection of the adjacent NERR, while still allowing for the reasonable use of our private property.”