St. Johns County Residents Fight Back Against Development – The Flagler College Gargoyle
By Elisabeth Shirley and Madison Sloan
With less than 5,000 residents, Elkton, Florida is the epitome of a small town. Home to the St. Johns County Fairgrounds, this rural area with small communities and farmland retains southern life, untouched by the modern development that has settled in Jacksonville.
This way of life is continually under threat from developers, but residents are working overtime to ensure Elkton retains its charm. For Elkton, a seemingly simple change like an industrial warehouse would change their entire way of life.
Long-time resident Pat Hamilton is one of those working to preserve the town’s small community. In September, Hamilton was present at the St. Johns County Commission meeting to decide whether or not approximately 90 acres of farmland would be rezoned for an industrial warehouse.
Hamilton said the turnout was huge and the meeting lasted several hours. Weary farmers took the time to speak out against the proposal, along with other residents aware of the drastic effects it could cause.
“All of these farmers recognized that they needed to go out and protect their farming community, which they didn’t have to do before,” Hamilton said. “This is the first time that I see groups of farmers who have been here for several generations come to these meetings.
Hamilton said County Commissioner Sarah Arnold read an email she received the day before from a nearby farmer. The e-mail said that if the proposal were accepted, it would ruin their way of life which they have maintained for several generations. Arnold said that in light of this, she could not support the proposal.
“Chris Shee hoped to keep [the plans] under the radar so no one notices. And the thing is, you say it’s 1.25 million square feet of industrial warehouse, and you don’t really know what that means until you realize the square footage of the Avenues mall is 60 acres and this one is 100,” Hamilton said.
Chris Shee bought the approximately 90 acres and hoped to convert it from farming to light industry to build warehouses for KeHe, an organic food distributor who showed interest in the site. Shee’s proposal was defeated by a 4 to 1 vote at the commission meeting.
The rejection was a victory for Elkton residents, but Hamilton said they will continue to fight as more developers seek to build in rapidly growing St. Johns County.
“We still have a nice enough place, but people see it as underdeveloped,” Hamilton said. “They don’t recognize that there were a ton of people and a ton of money trying to defend the southern part of the county.”
According to latest census reportbetween 2010 and 2020, the population of St. Johns County grew by nearly 44%, from 190,039 to 273,425. Although proponents believe industrial development is creating new job opportunities for the growing population , conservationists are concerned about the negative impacts.
Nor is it the first time that Hamilton has worked on such preservation. He lives inland and has spent the past 25 years working the 15 miles of conservation land that stretches from Moses Creek to Princess Place. He understands that not all development is good.
“I can eat the oysters outside of my house and that’s because we have all this protected land, I can see manatees from my dock and I can see dolphins every day,” Hamilton said. “Having a farming community is more important than having an urbanization developed by someone who grew up in Fort Lauderdale and only sees it as vacant land.”
Jen Lomberk of the Matanzas Riverkeeper was also present at the St. Johns County Commission meeting. Like Hamilton, Lomberk noted the overwhelming number of local voices that were critical in deciding the meeting.
“It showed a lot of participation from people who live in rural St. Johns County that we don’t see often. Farmers and people who have lived in Southwest St. Johns County for generations have spoken out against a development proposal that would have negatively impacted their way of life,” Lomberk said.
The impact of the meeting’s decision extends beyond Elkton. Lomberk said allowing more intense development will open the door for future development in what is now the rural part of our county.
“You can think of it like dominoes. Once you fall, it knocks down everything around it,” Lomberk said.
While there is concern to take away the flavor of the southern part of the county, there are also environmental repercussions to allowing such development.
“St. Johns County is one of the fastest growing counties in Florida,” Lomberk said. “Unfortunately, as a general rule, more people means more pollution. More development means more trees. felled, more wetlands filled in, and more impervious surfaces, basically more sewage and stormwater entering our waterways.
Toxic algal blooms are one of many environmental concerns when considering the negative effects of industrial and urban development. Between 2017 and 2019, reports show that a Florida red tide killed about 600 sea turtles and more than 200 manatees.
Fortunately, the Matanzas River remained untouched by previous algal blooms that impacted other parts of Florida. However, with the increase in development, the threat is constantly looming.
As a non-profit organization, Matanzas Riverkeeper helps educate residents about development proposals that will harm the health of local waterways and teaches them how to fight development.
“Industrial development certainly has a place in our communities. The problem with Elkton was that it wasn’t the right place,” Lomberk said.