Rutherford & Waltz back bill to preserve Northeast Florida's heritage

Goal of legislation is to keep region's history and natural resources intact

The Nation's Oldest Port National Heritage Area Act could mean millions of dollars to the area from Nassau County to Flagler County. Congressmen John Rutherford and Michael Waltz announced the bill Monday at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Northeast Florida’s historic coastline is the target of a bill introduced by Florida congressmen.

U.S. Reps. John Rutherford and Michael Waltz announced Monday they’re backing legislation that would designate parts of Duval, Flagler, Nassau and St. Johns counties as a National Heritage Area.

The bill, known as the Nation’s Oldest Port National Heritage Area Act, would recognize the region for its historical value. It would help preserve historic sites and conservation areas by providing federal support through a network for public and private agencies.

"The bottom line is Florida is growing at an exponential rate, and that's a great thing, but we have to do it in a way that preserves our environment and preserves our history and that keeps this place beautiful and historic so that for future generations, it is somewhere everyone wants to come, but then can enjoy," Waltz said.

After its introduction Sept. 27, the bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources.

Under the bill, a nonprofit group would be formed to identify preservation and conservation projects, find funding sources for those projects, and explore ways to educate the public about resources that exist within what would become the heritage area.

"It really is an amazing opportunity to create a process to plan, preserve and tell the story of Northeast Florida going back, that is, 9,000 years," Rutherford said.

The heritage area would include the St. Johns River, St. Mary’s River and Castillo de San Marco National Monument, among other sites. 

“St. Augustine and the entire First Coast is home to countless places of historical significance,” Rutherford said. “From rich Native American and African American history to the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States, Northeast Florida’s cultural heritage sites are deserving of this national recognition that will ensure they exist for future generations.”

Added Waltz: “Northeast Florida is filled with natural beauty, historical assets and countless resources we need to preserve. Our area is one of the oldest, most historical areas in our country, so it’s important we protect and preserve these areas for visitors and residents.”

The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum has been selected as the fiscal agent for the heritage area, which means it would receive 10 percent of the funding set aside for the area during its first five years. That funding would offset the costs absorbed by the museum during the heritage area’s creation.

"(It's) not just about St. Augustine and I think and that is really the brilliance of what they've done here because they haven't made it like a homer project," Rutherford said. "This is for the entire Northeast Florida (coastline)."

Waltz added: "And it'll unlock tens of millions of dollars of federal dollars to ensure this federal preserve going forward."

A 2012 study showed the Alliance of National Heritage Areas contributed nearly $13 billion annually to America’s economy and supported almost 148,000 jobs. 

About the Author:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.