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Once-rural area in St. Johns now bustling


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Maybe St. Augustine should consider annexing along the I-95 corridor to increase its tax base.


The Times-Union

ST. AUGUSTINE -- New roads cut into the vast dirt tracts of future developments east and south of World Golf Village. Trucks and machines rumble through an expanse that will one day bear thousands of new houses.

The projects are represented by colors and shapes on the maps that line the office of Jim Davidson, chief executive officer of Davidson Development Inc., developer of World Golf Village. Approaching its seventh anniversary this spring, Davidson's development produced the Interstate 95 exchange there in the 1990s and opened a huge swath of St. Johns County to the subdivisions of tomorrow.

As the World Golf Village enters what Davidson called "maturity," new projects are appearing.

"Within the next six to nine years, I'll bet, there will be a complete tie between St. Augustine and Jacksonville," Davidson said. "Where there is, in a sense, not a break between St. Augustine and Jacksonville."

Other developers are pursuing new projects that surround the village, such as the proposed 10,700 residential units of Hutson Co.'s SilverLeaf Plantation planned to the north, or the 1,800 planned to the southeast along Pacetti Road or the 1,150 expected to the south in the World Commerce Center.

"We clearly were the reason because of the infrastructure we put in," Davidson said. "It's no different than anything else. Somebody's got to lead the train, and it ain't the cabooses."

The number of houses sold in the village rose to 1,500 last year, tripling the total of 500 sold in the first five years. The number of sales agents grew from four in 1998 to 17 today. The underlying development in preparation for 7,200 future homes will be complete within two years, Davidson said, leaving the work to builders and real estate agents. Five hundred homes are under construction now, he said.

"We have matured into a full-blown market," Davidson said, after the early critical times.

Karen Palmer, vice president of sales for Davidson Realty -- a real estate company led by Davidson's wife, Sherri -- said sales in the village alone topped $135.5 million in 2004. Her goal for 2005 is $150 million.

"It's taken us almost 10 years to be an overnight success," Palmer said. "Now that we've been discovered, the ball is rolling."

Build it and they will come

Nearby farmers and landowners sold out, are selling out or can't help thinking about it.

Richard and Velma Horton have operated Horton's Grocery since 1956, when they took it over from her parents. The store is about a mile west of the village, at Florida 16 and Pacetti Road, which becomes International Golf Parkway.

Velma Horton remembers people riding to her store on horseback in days of yore, when the area was farmed for cabbage and potatoes. Now developments encroach from the west and south. The Hortons are selling their 4 acres at that corner.

"All the farms and ranches and dairies turned into subdivisions," Richard Horton said. "It was a rural area, cabbage and cows. Now about all we have is construction workers."

Rancher Richard Pacetti sold 128 acres to the village when it was in planning stages in 1989 and 100 acres to the World Commerce Center in 2004. He grew up on his grandfather's land, which had been in the family since 1903. He sold a lot of it, but kept enough to raise 500 head of cattle.

"I think it'll be a city here in 10 years," Pacetti said.

The growth along the entire I-95 corridor is "taking off, really, as projected," said Jack Peter, chief operating officer of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Attendance in the Hall of Fame and the town center is up, and the Super Bowl was a success in February with the New England Patriots using the village as their headquarters.

"I had an aerial tour last spring," Peter said. "To see it from above, to see the development coming down I-95 and west along Florida 210 ... it was striking."

"And it's been great for the village and the Hall of Fame because we're smack in the middle of that," he said.

Growing pains

The developments worry many people, such as environmentalists mourning the loss of wildlife and scenery and long-time residents bemoaning the prospects of traffic jams.

"I sure hope Pacetti Road doesn't turn into another Florida 210," said Roger Van Ghent, environmental activist and former St. Johns County Commission candidate.

He named the main roads off I-95 in northern St. Johns County, roads that serve almost as latitudinal bands of growth. From north to south, they are Race Track Road, Florida 210, International Golf Parkway, Florida 16. Florida 16 was a topic of concern last week in county meetings because of the increase in traffic that will plague it in coming years.

"Florida 210 is already overcrowded," Van Ghent said. "Race Track Road is becoming the J. Turner Butler Boulevard of St. Johns County. International Golf Parkway will probably get the same problem. Just from the traffic point of view, there is going to be a serious problem."

Plenty of projects are planned in the area, such as road widening at Florida 16 and International Golf Parkway. A new east-west road north of the village and a north-south road west of I-95 are being discussed.

The problem of congestion springs from subdivisions that are big enough to introduce traffic but small enough to avoid a designation of Development of Regional Impact, Sherri Davidson said. A development of regional impact such as the village must include its own structural improvements beforehand. The smaller projects can build as many as 999 houses without improving the area's infrastructure -- as long as they don't cross the 1,000-home threshold that defines a development of regional impact.

But it's hard to expand infrastructure once you've built around it, Jim Davidson said.

He said the village is more environmentally sound than most other developments.

"Take our maps and go anywhere in the state of Florida, go to Atlanta and look. I'd put ours next to anybody's," he said.

Though he clearly prides himself on developing the World Golf Village and opening the area around it, Davidson said the steady push south from Jacksonville has been dictated by the market.

"The market itself tells you where to go," Davidson said. "There's a lot of scientific analysis to it."

"One thing you learn is you better be on solid footing," he said. "Everybody who's had problems in real estate made moves when they shouldn't have. ... My belief is you only make that next move when you know for a fact the plans will come to fruition."

ken.lewisjacksonville.com, (904) 819-3546

This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stor..._18232119.shtml.

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