Judge Michael Traynor of the 7th Judicial Circuit Court recently ordered that the Outpost case involving St. Johns County and Ponte Vedra Corporation be lifted out of abeyance to allow the Gate Petroleum subsidiary to potentially modify its complaint against the county.
Traynor lifted the abeyance at a hearing in January, which means PVC can bring forward its original complaint with the addition of a new count – a subset of the complaint – to address the county's refusal to process the developer’s request for an administrative interpretation. PVC filed a motion to lift abatement in December.
PVC’s attorney Amy Boulris believes St. Johns County has stonewalled the company by refusing to offer the administrative interpretation on the Outpost’s conservation designation. PVC is seeking to build a 66-home residential community called Vista Tranquila on the 99-acre conservation property known as the Outpost, which is located at the end of Neck Road and adjacent to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve.
An administrative interpretation would offer PVC a chance to craft its Outpost proposal – based on the ruling of a county manager – before the case advances to a public hearing in front of the Planning and Zoning Agency and Board of County Commissioners.
Attorney Jane West represents those who have formed the nonprofit group Save Guana Now to fight the development, and she said PVC is pursuing a preliminary decision to circumvent the public process.
"Basically, the whole reason why there was a stay or abatement to begin with was to allow Ponte Vedra Corporation to go through the normal process of pushing their application through at the county level," West said in an interview with the Recorder, "and go through all the same procedural steps that any other applicant would have to go through."
Boulris said lifting the abatement will allow PVC to amend its complaint and pursue a preliminary decision from the county.
"[Traynor] abated the case many months ago because it appeared, at the time, the county was agreeing to process the Ponte Vedra [Corporation] site plan application under the terms of the existing comp plan," Boulris said.
After Traynor held the case in abeyance, Boulris claimed that PVC encountered "continuing difficulty" with the county’s development staff who "continue to refuse, in various ways, to apply the existing comprehensive plan."
The notion that the county is utilizing stall tactics and PVC is being treated unfairly is "just simply not the case," West asserted. Furthermore, the Save Guana Now attorney believes PVC is dragging its feet on purpose.
"When the motion for the abatement was entered into last year I honestly expected within days for them to move the entire process along," she said. "Instead, it took months."
West also said the developer is not entitled to an administrative interpretation on whether the Outpost can be developed as a residential zone.
"St. Johns County is saying 'No,' that's why we have a public hearing, that's for the County Commission to decide what is the area of conservation," she added. "They want something that other applicants don't get; other applicants don't get some sort of preliminary administrative interpretation."
Meanwhile, Boulris noted PVC's motion to lift the abatement cites county code allowing a land owner to file a request for an administrative interpretation. According to PVC’s attorney, the county administrator is required to offer a formal interpretation based on the county’s comprehensive plan.
“Then the affected party, after he issues that formal interpretation, any affected party can appeal it to the county commission...
“So, the whole hold up has been for years that the county has not been willing to process our application unless we would first agree to an undisclosed comprehensive plan amendment," Boulris added. "We had to sue over that."
Boulris contended that there are "two problems" with the idea that PVC can get its formal interpretation at a public hearing. The first is that PVC would be forced to craft plans without being offered a formal opinion in advance, she noted. Secondly, PVC’s attorney said the county may never provide an interpretation of the “conservation” label of the Outpost property, based on its own official letter, even if the developer eschews an administrative interpretation and goes straight to a hearing.
Traynor has not yet ruled on whether the county must respond to PVC, said Boulris, but he ultimately ordered a lift of the abatement to allow the developer to move forward with its complaint against the county and seek a binding court order.