Neptune Beach Denies Special Exception for 500 Atlantic Development

Developer is likely to take legal action against the city.

The developers proposing a 174-unit apartment complex on the site of the former Kmart store were dealt a blow Monday night as the Neptune Beach City Council voted unanimously to deny a special exception for the project.

The council upheld the findings of the Community Development Board (CDB), which voted in July to recommend the denial of the Special Exception.

Fewer people attended the special City Council meeting Monday night than were at the Fletcher High School Auditorium for the CDB meeting last month. But when Neptune Beach Mayor Elaine Brown asked those in opposition to the project to stand, nearly the entire crowd of about 300 rose to its feet. Only a handful stood to show their support for the project.

Jacksonville attorney Wyman Duggan, who represented the developer and the property owner, again went through the company’s reasons for believing they had met all eight criteria outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan to be granted the special exception for a Planned Unit Development. Duggan stressed that the proposed development would have less impact on traffic, density, utilities and city services than other permitted uses for the property, presenting affidavits from expert witnesses they said showed all the criteria were met.

Katherine Mosley, a TriBridge employee, said that the proposed density was less than is already in place in most areas east of third street. “Looking at units per acre per block, the max density east of Third that we’ve seen is 18 units per acre, and the average density being 11.4,” Mosley said. “The proposed application is at 10.5 units per acre. We’re on the very very bottom of what the comprehensive plan believes is the appropriate density for the site, and then you can look at the other blocks to see how they compare to what’s in the comprehensive plan.”

But the opponents of the proposed development brought their own group of experts who presented data they said shows the TriBridge plan does not meet the requirements outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan.

Mary Frozio, who has been one of the principal organizers of the effort to defeat the development, said the citizen’s group would present substantive evidence to support their position. “Tonight, the citizens of Neptune Beach will present you with competent, substantial evidence to support your decision to deny this request,” Frozio said. “We believe the denial from the Community Development Board, and your decision to deny, coupled with this evidence, will be upheld by a judge on appeal.”

Janice Fleet, an expert in concurrency, said that the actual density for the project would actually be much higher than suggested by the developer because both the former Kmart site and the parcel next door, which was redeveloped in 2016 to include Lucky’s Market, are being used in the density calculation. “If the density is calculated only on the 7.85 acre parcel, the applicant would be exceeding the limits for the comprehensive plan,” Fleet said. “The actual density would be over 22 units per acre, which is over the required.”

Others speaking in opposition to the proposal said that it would be incomprehensible for the City Council to base a decision on traffic estimates in the absence of an actual traffic study, and that common sense would indicate that someone would pay less for a home that was adjacent to a 3-story apartment building. The safety of the crosswalk, which has not been evaluated or approved by FDOT, was also called into question.

After nearly an hour of public comments, all in opposition to the development, the applicants had an opportunity to rebut some of the things that were said previously. Jacksonville Attorney Paul Hardin spoke on behalf of the developer. He told the council that they were to proceed in a “quasi-judicial” manner, meaning they could only consider facts and not emotions when making their decision. He again outlined the criteria for permitting a special exception, and then responded to a resident who had asked whether the developers wanted to negotiate, or litigate. “We don’t have a choice except to go to court,” Hardin said, which drew a skeptical reaction from the audience. But he also mentioned mediation, which happened when the city was in a dispute over allowing a Walmart store to be built in Neptune Beach. “We have the opportunity to have … a mediation process where you could discuss what input you want to have. And I will tell you, my clients are willing to do that. The fact we haven’t reached an agreement doesn’t mean people don’t want to talk. The only person I reached out to said ‘nobody wants to talk, we want to play out the hand’.”

But the council was not swayed by Hardin’s argument. Council comments were kept to a minimum, with only Councilor Rory Diamond reading a prepared statement saying he was basing his decision solely on the facts that were presented, and Councilor Richard Arthur, who praised the community for its involvement in the process, and asked for “civility and respect” for all involved regardless of the outcome of the vote.

That vote was 5-0 to uphold the decision of the Community Development Board and deny the special exception.

The company released a statement following the vote Monday night. “TriBridge Residential and TLM Realty are disappointed with the vote but remain committed to revitalizing the blighted site of the former Kmart and transforming it into a vibrant mixed-use community that will benefit the entire Beaches region. We will be proceeding with options for development that do not require approval from the Community Development Board or the City Council.”


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