Putnam development stirs controversy
ANNE MARIE APOLLO
Publication Date: 07/03/07
EAST PALATKA -- Out a road called Cracker Swamp, tree limbs that reach over a length of still, brown canal are just as likely to sway from the pressure of a combine as a passing pickup truck.
Remote even by Putnam County standards, there are still parts of old Florida there. Farmers are out early on their tractors; children spend the summer on wide wooden porches.
But in a place where it seems as though almost nothing has changed any time recently, a development unlike anything Putnam County has seen before is on the way.
Hailed by some as the county's future and others as a desecration of its past, Mariposa would put 3,230 houses as well as hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail, office and business park space on 2,025 acres of land, nearly half of which would be held for conservation.
If the development continues to get the nod, it could have its first round of needed permits by the end of the summer, with building continuing past 2020.
Mariposa has been the target of criticism from its neighbors -- ranging from family farmers who maintain the development will "tear the heart out of" the region's agriculture to a St. Johns county commissioner who said he believes negative impact from the growth will overspill Putnam County's borders.
In the wake of a development order unanimously approved by the Putnam County Commission last month -- the most recent in a long list of approvals from local and state agencies it must acquire -- Mariposa's backers said the project will mean education, not only in the expected elementary and middle school buildings but through possible college satellite campuses.
Along with the development would come water and sewer services for eastern Putnam County, medical parks and a possible hospital, they said.
Joey Kelly, director of external relations for Delray Beach-based Ascot Development, said the land development company chose Putnam County in part because the houses could make a significant positive impact. Mariposa would bring jobs, diversify the region's housing stock and, once built out, could net the county more than $11 million annually in property taxes, she said.
"We understand fear of change, but we think this brings value" to the greater community, she said.
County Commission Chairman Brad Purcell knows not everyone is happy with Mariposa.
At the same meeting at which the commission approved the development order, nearly 100 people spoke about the project, the bulk of them against it.
Many fear the development is the first step in the urbanization of eastern Putnam County, something Purcell said is not true.
Not every developer who comes to Putnam County is going to get the green light, he said.
"We have learned from the development patterns of our region," he said. "We want agricultural land and open space and residential.
We're looking for a balance."
Ascot's Kelly said that, while the developer has an option to buy even more land in St. Johns County, portions of which Mariposa abuts, it has no plans now to expand.
St. Johns County Commissioner Tom Manuel, however, said he believes additional development eventually is planned across the county line.
He said he is against the proposal as it stands now and plans to speak about the recently approved development order this month when Mariposa comes again before the Northeast Regional Planning Council.
The project Putnam County already has approved will negatively affect nearby Hastings as well as St. Johns County roads, Manuel said, despite $5.5 million set aside by Ascot for improvements at the intersection of Interstate 95 and Florida 207.
The Florida Department of Community Affairs questioned transportation issues brought by Mariposa in a review of the project earlier this year. It raised concerns about urban sprawl and protection of natural resources, among other issues, and Mariposa has drawn letters of opposition from the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Putnam County Environmental Council.
Residents on both sides of the county line are speaking out, too. They chafe at being called poor and are incredulous at the idea of building on land that has historically been swamp.
"If this foolishness is allowed to happen, it will tear the heart out of, and be the end of, agriculture in Putnam and St. Johns County," wrote one farmer in a letter to the Department of Community Affairs.
In nearby Hastings, Mayor Tom Ward said the town still is adjusting to having a four-lane road and has been concerned about the amount of traffic the nearby development would bring.
But that might happen with or without Mariposa, Ward said.
Years ago, Hastings was considered a day trip from St. Augustine, he said. Now people are traveling back and forth several times a day, and people are moving rapidly to nearby Flagler Estates.
"Life changes," he said. "And it's going to continue to change."
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