By Creighton “Corky” Hoffman
May 17, 2022
Editor’s Note: The following Q & A sent to the Fernandina Observer might answer some questions regarding the proposed 50-acre development on the South-End Amelia Island. We are seeking rejoinders. On Monday, May 23, at 6:00 p.m., the Nassau County Commission will meet at the James S. Page Government Complex to vote on the proposal.
I am the president of the Sanctuary Property Owners’ Association. We are located immediately north of the Riverstone property. That position has, unfortunately, made me something of a focal point for community discussions about the Riverstone property – ever since Steve Leggett emerged more than three years ago.
As you know all too well, virtually the entire Amelia Island community has been enraged since release of the proposed settlement between Riverstone and the county. Thrust into the middle of all this, I have listened carefully as folks have debated the issues.
Many are asking the same questions. The good news, I believe, is that consensus is forming around answers to many of the frequently asked questions. I have tried to summarize below the more frequently asked questions and the consensus answers that are emerging.
Is Riverstone actually proposing eleven 85-foot towers up to 85 feet high?
Yes. Page 48 of Riverstone’s filing with the Commission on March 7, 2022, states: ”The subject property is proposed for ten 7-story buildings containing 2 units per floor, and one, 5-story building containing 2 units per floor.” This is a fundamental assumption in Riverstone’s claim for damages of $27 million.
Page 46 of the same document shows an aerial view of the eleven towers.
Riverstone claims its land is worth only $45 million if restricted to 45-foot height. Is that true?
No. After allowing for a 200-foot strip donated to the county for a park, approximately 1,700 feet of oceanfront property are available for development. This is sufficient for:
· 18 oceanfront lots, like those in the Plantation, the Residence, or the Sanctuary, worth at least $3.2 million each. (18 X $3.2 million = $57.6 million)
· Another 18 single-family lots immediately “across the street” from those on the oceanfront, worth at least $1 million each. (18 X $1 million = $18 million)
· Therefore, the total retail value of the lots alone is at least $75.6 million (57.6 + 18.0).
· This is in addition to the tax benefit for the donated land that Riverstone and the county have agreed is worth another $11.4 million.
The values of these lots come from comparable sales data provided to me by Sotheby’s Realty on Amelia Island and from the County Assessor’s website. They can be readily and independently confirmed.
If the property is currently worth substantially more than $75 million, as 38 single-family lots, how can Riverstone claim damages of $27 million from the county?
It can’t. Its calculation of alleged damages assumes that the property is worth only $45 million if the 45-foot height limit is observed. (See page 85 of Riverstone’s March 7 filing.) It never even considers the possibility of 38 single-family lots on or near the oceanfront.
There are no damages whatsoever if the obvious possibility of 38 single-family homes, on or near the oceanfront, is considered. These homes would all comply with the County’s existing 45-foot height limit.
If 38 house lots are just as valuable as eleven condo lots, why doesn’t Riverstone do that?
It is impossible to know what Riverstone is thinking. But at least two reasons are apparent:
· Riverstone intends to sell the property, not to develop it. If so, it would like to market the land as widely as possible – to developers of condominiums and single-family homes.
· Acknowledging now that single-family lots could be at least as profitable as condominium towers would mean admitting that it’s $27 million claim against the county is entirely without merit.
Are 38 single-family homes better than 150 condominium units for Amelia Island?
Yes, for all the obvious reasons you have heard repeatedly: Less traffic; less demand on the water and sewer systems; less demand on all infrastructure, including emergency services; homes would be compatible with those up the beach and across A1A at Long Point; no 85-foot concrete wall marring the beach for 1/3 of a mile; lower environmental impact; etc.
Since condos are vertical, aren’t their footprints better for the tree canopy than single-family homes?
No. A row of eleven condominium buildings will require nearly all trees in the 1/3 mile strip to be removed.
The alternative development would include only about 38 homes. A single-family home can be positioned on a large lot to minimize tree removal. Of course, current laws require that any tree within the footprint of a new single-family home must be replaced with an equivalent planting.
There are good reasons why the Amelia Tree Conservancy strongly supports single-family homes in lieu of condominium towers.
Is Riverstone’s offer of a 200-foot strip for a park anything special?
No. As a focal point (reluctantly) for these discussions over the last three years, I have had contact with at least four serious developers of high-end single-family homes. As part of those discussions, I have made clear to each developer that the county would expect a strip of at least 150 feet for beach access and parking.
I understand that some beach access and parking is already in the comprehensive plan. It is reasonable that the County will seek more in the normal course of negotiations for any large development. I wanted every serious developer I met with to understand this.
The candid response in each instance has been less than a shrug. Almost like asking for a glass of water in a restaurant. This is understood as a cost of doing business, like the cost of putting in roads and utilities. Acceptance of this requirement has engendered virtually no discussion.
Potential developers understand that they will have approximately 1,700 feet of beautiful oceanfront property available. Their concerns go to other issues such as the substantial portion of the parcel designated as a flood plain; the diminished “secondary dune” on the property, upon which homes and other buildings have been constructed north up the beach; the availability of sewer service; rising interest rates; etc.
The proposed park is obviously something very special. Everyone should welcome the expanded beach access, parking, and facilities. But it will be available to the public whether the land is developed as condominium towers or 38 single-family homes.
Many view the proposed settlement as incredibly one-sided and probably written entirely within the offices of Rogers Towers. Remarkable concessions have been given to Riverstone in addition to permission for building 85 feet high – such as immunity from future ordinances and tree regulations; permission to build within twenty feet of the Coastal Control Line; multiple lighted billboards along Amelia Island Parkway; a promise for all county staff to cooperate with Riverstone’s efforts to develop the property; etc. Granting all this, in exchange for a 200-foot strip of land that should be readily available from any other developer strikes most as an extremely bad deal.
Will a vote to approve the proposed settlement end litigation over the matter?
No. It will simply kick off a much larger and longer series of litigation cases.
Angered citizens all over Amelia Island are already pledging significant sums to reverse any endorsement or implementation of the proposed settlement. Outside counsel is certain that sound basis exists for filing against Nassau County in state, and possibly federal court.
The new suits will not pit Riverstone against the County, but large groups of citizens against their county government. This will be particularly unfortunate.
Did the Commissioners do anything wrong last June when adopting the height limit on new construction?
No. The new ordinance was carefully crafted by the County’s Staff and Attorney to mimic the ordinance already in place in Fernandina Beach. It was passed in June, before significant changes in the Bert Harris Act became effective on July 1st.
Independent and knowledgeable legal counsel (including Gray Robinson) have indicated clearly that Riverstone’s legal claims have no merit (a “Hail Mary pass” by a developer). The Commission did nothing improper last June when it passed the new zoning ordinance.
Passage of that ordinance was widely cheered by residents of Amelia Island. It is my strong sense of the current situation that citizens are looking to the Commission to stand firm on the law it passed last June – even in the face of a frivolous lawsuit from a single developer. I am certain that the citizens will stand with you when you do so.
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I have tried to summarize the discussions that I am hearing in the community all over our island, fairly and accurately. If you believe that I have any of this wrong, please [post a comment].