High Rise Development Comes to Northeast Florida
High-rise development came late to Northeast Florida, relatively speaking. While most of south Florida experienced moderate high-rise growth during the 50’s, the beaches area of Jacksonville was not considered an attractive area for condominium development. Indeed, many often referred to Jacksonville Beach as “blighted”. Efforts to attract redevelopment investment to the area were ineffective. However, the late 70’s and 80’s saw a few high-rise buildings being built. It wasn’t until the middle 90’s that people noticed that beachfront mom and pop motels and cottages were being sold to developers who sought to construct high-rise buildings.
In 2003, the owners of Beach Marine contracted with the Devlin Corporation to purchase and develop the marina. The Devlin Corporation developed plans to construct 550 condominium units in high-rise buildings at the marina with five buildings at 90 feet. The project also included plans to privatize the marina. In the Fall of 2003 an advertisement depicting the projected development appeared in the newspaper showing the scope and size of the condominium project. This advertisement got the attention of both the residents and city government. Shortly thereafter, the owners of Beach Marine and the Devlin Corporation submitted a development application to the Jacksonville Beach City Council asking for permission to go forward with the project.
Concerned Citizens Mobilize
In an effort to get citizens to lobby the City Council to deny the proposed development, concerned citizens began distributing educational flyers to their Jacksonville Beach neighbors to educate them on the proposed development and encourage them to contact their City Council members. Initially, many citizens didn’t believe that the Council would listen to their concerns and they believed the development was a “done deal”. But, a determined group of citizens didn’t give up and continued work to convince citizens that their voice mattered and they could influence the City Council. During rush hour the night before the Council meeting, concerned citizens waved signs on busy Beach Blvd. across from the marina, encouraging citizens to attend the City Council meeting to oppose the development plan.
As a result, the first City Council meeting was attended by hundreds of citizens speaking out against the project and asking that the Council not approve the development. The Council was reluctant to approve such a large development and asked that the project be scaled down. At a second City Council meeting in January 2004, Beach Marine and the Devlin Corporation returned offering many concessions, including an offer to give the city marshland it owned north of the marina, but they didn’t scale down the project. Finding that the proposed development did not fit with the character of the beach community, the City Council unanimously denied the development request and Devlin cancelled their plans.
By early 2004, condominium development in Jacksonville Beach was rampant. The combination of investors looking for a quick profit, developers ready and willing to supply condominium units, easy to come by financing, including interest-only loans and land owners eager to “cash-in” on rapidly escalating land prices fueled the rapid growth in development.
Citizens Sponsor Charter Amendment to Control Over-development
Concern for future development in Jacksonville Beach prompted a few citizens to look for a way to restrict high-rise development. A Political Action Committee (PAC) named Beaches Watch was formed to sponsor a Charter Amendment limiting building height to 35 feet in Jacksonville Beach. In order to assure that only the citizens had control over the height limits, not the city government; the citizens launched a petition drive to obtain the needed signatures to place the amendment on the 2004 election ballot. In one month’s time, Beaches Watch obtained enough signatures and the amendment was certified to be placed on the November ballot.
The Jacksonville Beach City Council reacted to the 35-foot high referendum by forming a Height Study Committee composed of citizens, developers, land owners and City Board members. Unable to reach consensus on a single recommendation, the Height Study Committee presented the Jacksonville Beach City Council with 4 options strongly supported by the committee and one option that garnered partial committee support to place a City-sponsored referendum on the City Charter to make permanent the pending current rules and regulations which allowed high-rise construction. The business community established their own organization called Beaches Vision to counter the Beaches Watch effort. Both groups labored to convince the citizens to their point of view. The end result was that over 76% of the vote favored the 35-foot height amendment and over 69% voted “No” to the cities amendment. It was a solid vote against further high-rise development in Jacksonville Beach. Not to give up, the height amendment was challenged in court by the development community but was upheld.
Beaches Watch Organizes to Keep Citizens Involved in Quality of Life Issues
Shortly thereafter, the Beaches Watch PAC was dissolved and Beaches Watch, a Non-Profit 501(c)4 Corporation was formed to promote citizen involvement in Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, Jacksonville Beach and Ponte Vedra Beach quality of life issues. As stated in its brochure, Beaches Watch is a non-partisan concerned citizens group that was established in 2004 to focus on preserving our beaches’ quality of life. By monitoring issues in our beaches communities, educating beaches citizens on these issues, and encouraging citizen participation in the government process, Beaches Watch is helping residents maintain the beach lifestyle for themselves and future generations.
In the last few years, Beaches Watch efforts have grown to address beaches quality of life issues at the regional and state level. Beaches Watch was instrumental in getting a group of 25 citizens to Tallahassee in support of the City of Jacksonville’s request for Florida Forever funding for the purchase of 140 acres of marshland for preservation. As a result, the project was placed on the Florida Forever funding contingency list. Currently, Beaches Watch is working with other northeast region community groups regarding water issues. Our group has been working to encourage water conservation legislation at the beaches, Duval county and state levels. We have also been working to educate our local citizens on the need to protect the St. Johns River and our other natural water resources through water conservation.