NEPTUNE BEACH, Fla. – The Community Development Board voted 6-0 during its meeting Wednesday evening to deny a proposed development at the site of the old Kmart in Neptune Beach.
The unanimous vote came after the the board spent more than four hours listening to public comment from community members who packed the Fletcher High School auditorium.
The meeting began at 6 p.m. and quickly turned into a heated debate. Those for and against the project each had three minutes to share their opinion with the board.
"We're not against development, we're against this project," said Julio Esteban, who opposes the project.
"It just doesn't seem very functional down here at the beach and I think they need something like this to enjoy it," said Jonathan Smith, who supports the proposal.
The Kmart store went out of business about two years ago. It's been a hot topic because, with half of the former shopping center empty, it is the largest vacant property in Neptune Beach at this time.
A developer proposed turning the site into apartment buildings and retail space. The development, named "500 Atlantic," would include 175 multi-family residences, a boutique hotel with up to 74 rooms, and 107,000 square feet of commercial, retail and restaurant space.
Those in favor said the development would benefit community growth.
"There's just a lack of available housing right now. It's hard to find an apartment," said Lindsey McClain, who supports the project. "I think it’s going to be a great opportunity, especially to take over the bleak and just sad, empty Kmart that’s gross and no one wants to look at."
Those opposed to the development believe it would take away from Neptune Beach's small-town feel.
"I think (it will create) traffic," said Penny Kennedy, who has lived in Neptune Beach for 24 years. "There's already no places to park in the (Beaches) Town Center."
Neptune Beach Police Chief Richard Pike also voiced his concerns about the project to the board at Wednesday night's meeting.
“With the current staffing that we have, bringing in an apartment complex of this scope would certainly stretch the Neptune Beach Police Department even thinner," he said. "Therefore, we would need to ask for additional personnel.”
For the last several months, there's strong opposition on social media from a Facebook group named "Neptune Beach Kmart," which had more than 1,500 members as of Wednesday. The group's description says it aims to "stop the development" of the proposed "big apartment complex" at the old Kmart center.
The development team originally proposed five three-story apartment buildings with 199 units, but later revised the plans -- lowering the number of units, and adding additional public parking and the hotel.
The City Council will have the final vote on the project.