As First Coast Expressway construction continues, Clay County residents see small-town lifestyle erode

FDOT says the growth is not due to the new road -- it’s the other way around

A massive amount of construction is taking place Southern Clay County as the First Coast Expressway is being built to connect Blanding Boulevard with the St. Johns River. Longtime residents in Southern Clay are seeing their small town way of life erode.

CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – The First Coast Expressway, known by some as the Outer Beltway project, continues construction stretching from Interstate 10 on Jacksonville’s Westside down to St. Johns County.

The current section of the project right now is the two phases that connect Blanding Boulevard in Middleburg all the way to the Shand Bridge. The two phases of the project are slated to be completed between 2025 and 2026. Right now, many parts of southern Clay County are seeing considerable amounts of construction on that project. Many of those neighborhoods include residents who are not thrilled with the new road that is designed to give commuters a quicker drive to Jacksonville.

News4Jax has spent the past couple of years speaking with residents who are sad to see the small-town lifestyle of the southern Clay County communities of Middleburg, Lake Asbury and Green Cove Springs give way to big city suburbia.

“I haven’t talked to anybody that was happy about it. I’m sure there’s somebody that was happy about it, especially if they’re selling land,” said Dave Horton, who has lived in Lake Asbury since 1971.

Horton said the area was all wooded when he moved in. He doesn’t plan on still being in the area one way or another by the time the project is complete.

“If I’m lucky, me and the wife will be dead and gone by then. That’s what we’re hoping for,” said Horton.

Younger residents who prefer a more rural way of life are echoing Horton’s sentiment.

“Moved here in 2003 from Louisiana,” said Middleburg resident Kristi Milam. “No one I’ve talked to has anything good to say about it, so it’s kind of where that stands. No one else likes it. They came here for the quiet town it once was, and now it’s not.”

Milam added she has considered moving to even more rural areas like Keystone Heights to get away from the growth.

The growth is expected to bring thousands of homes into southern Clay County. One area that will have substantial growth is Governor’s Park in Green Cove Springs, where News4Jax has reported on the need to build new schools.

While some residents have lamented the growth because of the population boom, others welcome it because of the long commute so many Clay County residents face right now.

“As everyone knows, Blanding Boulevard and some of the primary routes are pretty congested,” said Sara Pleasants, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation. “So this provides an alternative to that for people who live out on the far Westside of the Jacksonville metro area.”

Pleasants also pointed out that the growth is not due to the new road, but it’s the other way around: The road is being built to accommodate the explosion of growth Clay County has seen.

Clay County leaders are also aware of some unease by longtime residents with the growth but said the new expressway is critical to the future of the county.

“I think you could call it a big deal for Clay because it is,” said Clay County Commission Chairman Mike Cella. “So that our people don’t have to drive as far to go to work. Right now, Clay County is the number one county in the state in which more people leave to go to work instead of stay to work.”

Cella said population projections for Clay County show it should add 85,000 new residents by 2040, and the road is needed for all the growth.

And growth is nothing new for Cla County. Cella said that in 1970, the county’s population was only roughly 32,000.

The county also provided maps to News4Jax that show large amounts of land that is environmentally protected in this section of the county that will not be developed.

Clay County provided maps to News4Jax that show large amounts of land that is environmentally protected in this section of the county that will not be developed. (Clay County)

Once the two phases to connect Blanding Boulevard with the Shands Bridge are completed, there will be a rebuild of the Shands Bridge that connects Clay and St. Johns counties. That project is slated to begin in 2022 and finish in 2029.

The state Department of Transportation added that the First Coast Expressway will add a critical hurricane evacuation route for evacuees traveling north from South Florida.

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Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.