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].
Two questions I haven’t had answered on Facebook:
Simple answer: No
It’s the “forever and ever” language in the proposal that bothers me second, right after the 85 foot tower height.
Over time, new regulations are passed. Existing regulations and zoning are amended and get repealed. Building codes get stronger.
Despite the engineers’ best efforts, buildings don’t last forever. They aren’t supposed to burn down, but it happens. They’re not supposed to spontaneously collapse, but it (rarely) happens. Hurricanes can damage a building, making it uneconomical to repair. Land that is buildable now may be negatively impacted by tides, wind erosion and zoning changes in the future.
Nothing in this agreement should “grandfather” this property forever. Any future changes to the property should be subject to the laws and regulations then in effect. (Just like the rest of us.)
It seems to me the most important question never gets asked or answered: Did the developers ever get approval for any part of their 85-foot tall, 11-building project before the height restriction ordinance went into effect? If so, they might have a case that they should be grandfathered in to the old height limit. If not, then they have no right to expect a variance on the new ordinance. We would’ve heard if there were already permits approved, so I have to assume the developers are just looking for a quick buck. Also, thank you for the calculation of the current land value. The only way the developers’ case holds up is if their land is worth $45 million, and it appears to be worth much more than that. We should vote NO on any settlement and be prepared to litigate this case.
You’re correct. Every lot in the county (vacant or not) holds someone’s dreams and “plans” for the future. It’s always been true that you have to develop your property in accordance with the current rules, not the rules you choose from the past.
No Riverstone never got approval for 85 foot towers.
Thank you, Corky, for such a thorough, thoughtful and comprehensive piece about the Riverstone property “mess”. It clarifies so much of the misinformation being discussed and will hopefully bring both sides together for a civil discussion and reasonable compromises.
Thank you for a very well written summary. Bottom line at the end of the day, if your land calculations are correct, The Emperor has no clothes. No damages~~no case. Sord rattling by lawyers.
The best defense for developers many times is an offense and the mentality of “we’ll see you in Court”. If these developer attorneys were faced with a mirror image amount in Little People damages and costs (i.e. they loose they pay the citizen/county legal costs as in European Courts) maybe they would not be so quick to posture. The entire “legal” system appears broken if not to address the protection of the innocent~~as always the taxpayers those of us paying The Commissioners, the cost of the entire system.
Zoning and height restrictions, yes they are development controls. Controls to preserve quality of life for the other 99% of us that cannot afford a $1 million plus for a lot to build a multi million dollar house let alone a 85 foot condo tower. This is a clear case of elected officials elected to protect the common good not their egos nor wallets. Let’s see if they have the ethics and backbones to stand firm on their oaths to protect the common good.
Say no to greed. Contrary to the movies, greed is not good.
You have answered most of the important questions. Thanks for that.
My comment is this: What was Riverstone thinking when they originally purchased the 50 acres? Did they think they could just build whatever they wanted, environment be damned? Somebody in that organization had inside knowledge that they could get over on the Nassau Commissioners or they wouldn’t have made it this far. You can’t convince me there is not corruption going on here.
Thanks for this informative piece. I do hope that the Commissioners will stand strong against Riverstone’s proposal. The single home proposal allows development, just not development that violates pre-existing building constraints. . Just like residents living in an HOA managed community they must abide by the community standards and rules.
Thorough and precise job of a bad plan for the south end of Amelia Island. Back room deals have been a historic part of the island development and I hope island residents stand together to halt this one in its tracks. The Nassau BOC works for the citizens not the other way around. I hope they stand up to this developer and Rogers Towers. The thought of lighted bill boards as part of the trade for a park concession mentioned in this report just floored me. Shame on that law firm and Mr. Liggett for this mess.
A speculator’s speculation, based on 2021 changes to the Bert Harris Act. https://www.flsenate.gov/Com…/billsummaries/2021/html/2478
I wrote a quick note to Mr. Bell and Mr. Martin, they both replied quickly. How they will vote, remains to be seen.
I would encourage y’all to contact the Commissioners:
Meet the Commissioners | Nassau County – Official Website (nassaucountyfl.com)
Denise May- [email protected] (county attorney)
Taco Pope – [email protected] (county manager)
Good job of explaining it I hope Amelia Island sticks to the guns an don’t allow it. Because if one does it others will
Thank you for the summary. I urge everyone one to read Section 9 of the settlement, it includes adding up to 150 multifamily additional units, and accessory buildings. This includes but are not limited to, meeting rooms, parking garage, restaurants, pools etc. All of this adds up to the property obtaining a “Resort Certificate”. Not only has Nassau County voted against building above 45 ft, but we have also voted against building another resort or hotel on this property. That was most recently turned down when the racetrack was proposed at the airport, this property was included in the development plans. Classifying the property as a resort, will restrict public beach access on the south end of the island, it does not increase it. Public beach access is already at a critical point, we do not need to restrict or limit any more access. The “Linear Park” looks nice on paper, but that is all it is, an artistic drawing. My understanding is nothing has been permitted or approved, and the items in the drawing are all “examples” of what could go there, not what will.
Anybody who considered beachfront property in the past probably recalls what happened to AI bubble pricing in 2008. My point being that all value proposals are speculative and timing absent zoning barriers is critical. Buying something speculatively is always risky but threatening the zoning commission absent any wrong doing on their part is simply stupid. Their are homebuyers available on both sides of this disagreement. The county commission should not cave to threats, that will only make all future issues a precedented nightmare.
I am a Nassau County resident and plan to attend, and will request to be able to speak at, the Meeting to be held this evening that will deal with possible changes in construction possibilities in Nassau County.
In preparation for that meeting, I request that you give thoughtful and unified attention to the following:
I look forward to the meeting, and particularly to your clear manifestation of interest in and protection of a party in interest that cannot express its own needs—namely the South Island land itself. From the publicly available information, it looks like Riverstone is not planning to treat it very well, and it has no one but you to protect it.
Thanks very much.