ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. - It's not just one of the leaders in the Sunshine State, St. Johns County is one of the fastest-growing places in all of America. Whether you live in the county or not, the St. Johns surge affects everyone. The new homes, new businesses, new schools and more traffic has county leaders trying to determine how everything will be paid for.
The Chamber of Commerce, the school district and commissioners are working together as a team to figure it all out.
"I don't think it's any secret that St. Johns County has been growing (for the) past eight, five to 10 years, if not 15," said Michael Ryan, director of communications for St. Johns County commissioners. "We don't see that slowing down anytime soon."
"I think it's probably unprecedented," added Tim Forson, superintendent for St. Johns County Schools.
"We're certainly going to continue to have people move into our area because it's a very attractive area," explained St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce President Isabelle Rodriguez.
These three organizations are all working closely together, reacting to development and making it all work for the county. Each person tells News4Jax that their camaraderie is unusual, but gratifying, and they appreciate that all three agencies involved work well together.
County growth by the numbers
Based on July 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, St. Johns County is home to 226,000 people -- up from 190,000 in 2010. That's 19 percent growth in five years. In 1980, the county had just more than 51,000 residents.
To put it in perspective, the average Florida county grew by 4.6 percent between 2010 and 2015.
Duval County saw an above-average growth as well, but nothing like it's neighbor to the north. In 2010, Duval County had more than 864,000 people. That number rose to just over 913,000 in 2015 -- growth of 5.64 percent.
Clay County beat the Florida growth average as well. The county had a population of almost 191,000 in 2010, but grew by 6.86 percent by 2015, reaching nearly 204,000 residents.
Fastest-growing areas in St. Johns County
The fastest-growing part of St. Johns County is happening in the Nocatee community. It's located in northeast St. Johns County and is a premier, master-planned community that has sold more than 4,200 homes. But it's growing by the thousands. The area is approved for more than 12,000 additional homes.
"But there are about 20 or more developments that show that Silverleaf is going to have 10,000 units. That's really the biggest development other than Nocatee in the north part of the county. Around that, there are a multitude of developments that have between 500 to 3,000-4,000 units as well," explained Rodriguez.
A map of hotspots shows residential building permits and new construction projects in 2016. Red spots mean between 80 and 190 building permits per square mile.
Along County Road 210 near I-95, the Twin Creeks community is just getting underway. It's labeled as the future home to Crystal Lagoons. More than 1,000 multi-family units are on the way, with more than 1,200 single-family lots.
Growth presents challenge with rising costs
Local developers say the growth in St. Johns County presents a challenge with rising costs, and that massive developments are squeezing out the smaller home builders, which keeps competition from balancing out price for consumers.
Jesse Killebrew and Andrew Norgart, from Alsop Companies, develop properties in St. Johns County, which includes the Coquina Ridge development in St. Augustine.
"It's becoming very, more and more unaffordable to develop land in St. Johns County," Killebrew said.
They showed News4Jax the county's comprehensive growth plan, saying they worry that "healthy growth" can't continue without more competition.
"I think the big thing to keep in mind is affordability, and that's something we see getting away from in the county. The large developments, like Nocatee and Shearwater, with the price points getting so high, it really isn't an opportunity for a first-time home buyer," Norgart said.
Killebrew says it’s all math, explaining the fees associated with development -- St. Johns County has school concurrency, traffic concurrency and impact fees.
He says a lot can quickly move to $40,000 or $50,000 dollars, then double that to develop.
And when builders set pricing based on making a profit, Killebrew said, "A $100,000 lot equates to a $400,000 house or a $500,000 house, and you get to what Andy said, you have an affordability issue."
Killebrew and Norgart want to see more diversity among the builders, pointing out that some of the massive developments, like the new River Town in the northwest part of the county, are controlled by one builder.
They also say that public employees may not be able to afford the homes being built -- with price points aimed for a minimum income of $80,000 per year.
"I don't think it's fair to teach school here, or fight fires here, or be a nurse here and then you have to live in Clay County, Flagler County or Duval County so it's affordable. So it's supply and demand that makes things affordable," Killebrew said.
News4Jax asked one of the developers if he thought the way growth works in the county is stacked toward the big companies
He said no, that’s not what he would say. However, he thinks allowing other, smaller projects to come online would help create more affordable prices, as well as the possibility of first-time home buyers.
New schools needed to keep up with growth
New homes bring in new families, meaning the county needs more classrooms to accommodate all the new students.
"It's starting to become more widespread. However, I will say, it is, as it has been the last 10 years, the north end of the county is where the largest growth is, the highest growth rate," Forson explained.
He says the long-term school plan is as important to him as fixing short-term problems. One example is Nease High School just off Highway 1. It was established in 1981, but is now expanding to meet the needs in nearby Nocatee.
"And you know, high schools are very expensive to build. So a number of years ago, we expanded Bartram Trail High School. We went from 1,500 permanent seats to 2,000, and we're really doing the same thing presently at Nease," said Forson. "We're adding a building that's adding 600 students stations so that will help with the growth that's already there and some that we see in the years to come."
While building is expensive, the way the law is written, developers help pay for new schools. Forson says the district will add almost 2,000 students this year alone, so the expansion of Nease is underway, as well as a new elementary school near World Golf Village that is to open in the fall.
In the year after that, the 2018-2019 school year, two K-8 schools will be ready to open their doors. One will be located in Nocatee by the Twenty Mile Village area. The other school in the Aberdeen development -- just west of Durbin Crossing.
Ways to pay the price tag for improving traffic
As expected, traffic has been impacted by residential and business growth and highway improvements and additions are underway. One example is State Route 9B -- connecting I-95 to I-295. Another example is in St. Augustine. Commissioners have invested more than a million dollars so far to improve Woodlawn Road.
"Residential growth, in particular, brings an elevated level of demand on our infrastructure, our roads, our fire rescue department or Parks and Recreation, and so in St. Johns County, we continually struggle with the revenue question, and we will continue to do that for the next couple of years," explained Ryan.
Right now, it takes between $12 million and $14 million each year for road maintenance. To expand roads, the price tag adds $7 to $8 million every year for 10 years. That's $77 million for new and better roads.
County commissioners are exploring a number of ways to pay for road improvements, which would impact those living in the county and anyone traveling through. Three of those options include:
- 1 percent additional bed tax on tourists, which generates $1.5 million
- 1 percent sales tax on residents and tourists, which would bring in $23.5 million
- A 5-cent per gallon gas tax, which would bring in a projected $5.8 million
Need for affordable and senior housing
While the county considers how to find money for infrastructure, the Chamber of Commerce says there's a big concern over commercial development rising up to ease the tax burden on residents. The Chamber says add to the fact that the county needs to find enough affordable housing for average-wage earners. The average wage number is $39,000 a year.
Besides affordable housing, there's a need for senior housing as well. Rodriguez says there's not only a need, but an opportunity for job growth there.
The Chamber tracks demographics in the county and projects the greatest increase in the population over the next 15 years will be between the ages of 75 to 80 -- an increase of more than 140 percent. That means more senior living communities and more jobs for people in that sector of health care. It also means a need for training in that industry, which could come from local educational institutions.
Handling the county's growth
St. Johns County leaders admit that they have a balancing act on their hands: handling the big boom in St. Johns County and trying to appease residents who want to maintain a small-town feel.
"There's a reason we moved here. It was for that," said Ryan. "That we want to make sure that it stays at that level, but we're also challenged with balancing private property owner rights. And so if someone has the right with our land-use plan and our zoning to develop, we're going to ensure that that development happens in the right location at the right time, in the right type of development."
While there's a lot of excitement about the growth in St. Johns County, there's concern as well.
"It's a challenging time right now," said Dick Williams, a member of the county's Planning and Zoning agency. "Growth is a double-edged sword. It brings more jobs, more opportunities ... The schools are attractive to people who want to move here ... but growth brings with it development and infrastructure challenges."
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