Developers want to build closer together to manage St. Johns County growth. Residents have other ideas

Managing growth in already busy St. Johns County

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – St. Johns County commissioners met on Tuesday to talk about managing the growth in the county, one of the fastest-growing in America.

The county is dealing with traffic issues and overcrowded schools, and everyone agrees something needs to be done. Residents, builders and commissioners all got the chance to say what changes they would like to see in the coming years Tuesday morning in St. Augustine during a growth management workshop.

Everyone had their own ideas.

Builders called for higher-density projects.

“Density and higher-density projects allows to help reduce costs. It lowers the risk of urban sprawl that we’re seeing. And it also helps to consolidate the traffic impacts that we’re seeing because people have less distances to travel and it lowers the cost that the county has to maintain roadways, as well as infrastructure and communities,” said John Gislason, a land acquisition manager for builder DR Horton.

But one environmentalist said the county needs diversity in its land use.

“Just increasing density, full stop, is not the solution,” said Jen Lomberk, Matanzas Riverkeeper. “You want to cluster to that density so that there are some areas that are undeveloped in some areas that are heavily developed. But just increasing density full scale, that’s not the answer. That’s more children in schools, more cars on roads or things that are going to require funding to sustain them.”

Advocates said affordable and workforce housing must be part of the conversation when talking about growth.

“There’s got to be a partnership that creates affordable housing. It’s government regulations, it’s builders, the developers and it’s banks. And if all three don’t pitch in together, it’s really not going to grow,” said Bill Lazar, director of the St. Johns Housing Partnership.

And with more than 61,000 new houses already in the pipeline to be constructed in the coming years, some are calling for a halt to new developments altogether.

“Growth for the sake of growth, however intelligent it may be, needs some time to take a break,” said St. Johns County resident Feroz Talyarkhan.

Commissioner Henry Dean made it a point to note that the commission voted down three new housing developments in the last seven weeks.

The county’s population jumped 43% from 2010 to 2020, and the county has struggled to keep up with infrastructure needs. That’s why commissioners voted to put a 1-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot that would help pay for $500 million in infrastructure repairs and upgrades.

Dean said the commissioners are taking the suggestions seriously and looking at possibly making changes.

“My biggest takeaway is that we have a large number of very interested citizens and residents in the county that really want our county to be the best it can be and want to communicate with us on a regular basis,” Dean said.

There was no formal action on Tuesday, but Dean said there seemed to be a consensus between commissioners that the county needs to look at possibly making changes to impact fees, the fees paid by developers for roads and other growth-related infrastructure.

The county also plans to have another growth management workshop this fall.

Dean also said the county is already looking forward to 2025 when it will have to review and amend the county’s long-term comprehensive plan.

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