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The St. Augustine Record

Vilano residents object as county looks for savings on Army Corps project

Even though the county stands to make money in a project that also adds needed beach parking, there is still some collateral push-back.

That’s the case for the current effort along a 2.5-mile stretch in Vilano Beach. The St. Johns County Public Works Department is studying the area to find places to add more beach access and public parking.

It’s being done in order to get more funding for the upcoming U.S. Army Corps of Engineers beach renourishment project. Public Works Director Neal Shinkre said adding more parking could save the county as much as $7 million just in the first phase of the work.

As it’s currently configured, the agreement provides 36 percent of the funding with money from the federal and state governments. But Shinkre said the county could get as much as 68 percent of the funding from federal and state sources with the increased access — preferably added every quarter to half of a mile.

In all, the county is looking at a total of eight to 10 spots that could get a few parking spaces or maybe just a bike rack. Just because a site is surveyed doesn’t mean it will be chosen.

“The goal is clear: The feds and the state are not interested in providing beach nourishment in sort of private beach areas,” Shinkre said. “They want to make sure the entire public uses it. That’s the reason why the money has come to this area.”

But here’s the difficult part: There isn’t a lot of unused land along State Road A1A. The property there is very valuable, and those who do have expensive homes along the road aren’t particularly happy about the county adding public parking near those homes.

Among those who have been outspoken are John Smits and Rusty Ickes. Smits lives on Third Street, and Ickes lives at the Castle Otttis, also on Third Street.

They and some of their neighbors have been concerned about the possibility of putting parking in an area of Fourth Street.

Smits said when surveyors were seen in the area, residents were upset and felt the county was trying to move in and quickly alter the area without telling them what was happening. He said putting parking there would ruin a pristine area and bring traffic, litter and lower property values to the homeowners.

“Obviously, we are not happy,” Smits said. “The truth is they tried to sneak in a fast one.”

Shinkre said the county’s not out to trick anyone. He said the survey is just the first step in the evaluation process. And after looking at the area, the county is now “trending away” from putting a small parking lot there. There could be one small lot on the east side of the road.

He added that it was unfortunate that the residents learned only part of the story from the surveyors, who weren’t briefed on the entire project or the order of events. There is a community meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the GTM Research Reserve Visitor Center to discuss all aspects of the Army Corps project.

Also, any plan Shinkre’s team comes up with must be approved by the County Commission before the building of any parking begins.

“It was not our intent to inform the community in that fashion,” Shinkre said. “We have a process in place. We would not do anything ahead of making sure the community understands (what is happening).”

Still, some residents are skeptical.

“The residents of this neighborhood on both sides of the highway (A1A) are adamantly opposed,” Ickes said. “They’re still intent on creating a super dangerous situation just to put in four or five parking spaces. In my mind, it doesn’t get any more absurd than that.”

Shinkre said he understands that new parking sites can make some residents unhappy, but he said he has a responsibility to the entire tax base to at least consider ways to save the county millions of dollars. Also, there’s a deadline to get the new access added by the end of the year.

“We understand nobody likes parking next to their houses,” he said. “We understand that. It’s a balance that I have to do between the economics that provide the funding and community interest.”

A little less controversial, the county also plans to add 25 more spots to the North Beach Park and another 20 or so just south of there in a new park.

Shinkre said he doesn’t know if the plan he eventually presents to the Commission will have enough beach access to get to the 68 percent of funding, but he’s keeping that as the goal for now. He added that his objective it to make whatever changes necessary as unobtrusive and small-scale as possible.

“I’m not trying to solve the master plan parking problem,” Shinkre said. “My goal is to maximize the formula to get the most funding.”

See The St. Augustine Record article . . .