Nassau County, landowner spar over development costs

The costs could add up to $70 million over 40 years, official says

YULEE, Fla. – Nassau County officials and one of the county’s leading landowners are locked in a stalemate over who should pay for some of the costs for a 24,000-acre development.

At the center of the standoff is the East Nassau Community Planning Area (ENCPA), a master-planned development owned by Raydient Places + Properties that is located in the heart of the county. The development could have far-reaching implications for taxpayers down the road.

The ENCPA has been in the works for about a decade. The county commission and Raydient's parent company, Rayionier, threw their support behind several plans over the years to bring that development to life, including legislation (House Bill 1075) last year that empowered the ENCPA to govern itself.

When the county came to an agreement with Raydient, the deal included some stipulations. Among those was a promise that Raydient would pay for parks and recreation facilities located in the ENPCA, as well as infrastructure to accommodate the ballooning population.

In exchange, the development received support from the county. That support included backing the creation of a stewardship district that gave the community the power to pay for new projects by issuing bonds. It also included what amounts to a 12 percent property tax refund.

"From day one, no impact to county taxpayers was supposed to happen inside the ENCPA. That was agreed upon in all of the literature that they produced and that we voted on," said County Commissioner Pat Edwards. "It could easily be $50 million to $70 million over the next 20-40 years."

Edwards said the county has been working for months to get Raydient and stewardship district officials to come to the table to work out funding sources for development costs. He said Raydient was non-committal, strung officials along and pulled out of meetings at the last-minute.

Then, Edwards said, commissioners learned of an amendment that was tacked on to current legislation, Senate Bill 324 and House Bill 697, that would release Raydient from its obligations. He said it represents a "poison pill" for the county's ability to enforce promises spelled out in HB 1075.

"Our county attorney looked at it and was dismayed that it was there and when he started checking, it was being promoted by lobbyists from Raydient," said Edwards.

But that's not how representatives for the developer see things. One said the company had nothing to do with the amendment, which was filed Jan. 26 through the Associated Industries of Florida (AIF).

Charles Adams, vice president of community development for Raydient, said the only thing the agreement requires of the company is that it must donate 20 acres for a community park. He said claims by county officials to the contrary are inaccurate.

"We are not sure why the county thinks there's been a change in our commitment," Adams said. "We remain committed to providing what those agreements say and what the county ordinances say."

"We intend to live up to those obligations that are set forth in those agreements and there's no state legislation that can come and turn over an agreement that we have with Nassau County," he added.

In response to the Jan. 26 amendment, the county commission is backing additional amendments by state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and state Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Neptune Beach, that would effectively cancel it out.

The AIF came out against the Bean and Byrd amendments on Monday. In a statement, the group's president Tom Feeney said in part the lawmakers' amendments would have a "chilling effect on future economic growth" in Florida.

A bill containing language from AIF's amendment is expected to come up for vote on Tuesday. If it passes without revision, Edwards said, Nassau County taxpayers could be on the hook for up to $70 million.