Too tall, too much, and too close to the road and neighboring homes. Those were just some of the concerns that neighbors expressed to the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday about the planned expansions of the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club and The Lodge and Club at Ponte Vedra Beach.
But many other speakers said commissioners should trust the Peyton family, whose Gate Hospitality (part of the Gate Petroleum empire) owns the two resorts and private clubs, and should disregard fears that the renovation and expansion could turn Ponte Vedra into “another Miami Beach.”
The commission ultimately voted 4 to 1 to approve Gate’s request to rezone 91 acres at the two resorts into what’s called a planned unit development, allowing more flexibility, after more than four hours of testimony, debate and comment.
Commissioner Krista Joseph, who represents the resorts’ district, tried a motion to make sure the size and scale were compatible with the neighborhood, including limiting height to 43 feet and no parking garage at Ponte Vedra Boulevard and Miranda Road.
“I understand the need to renovate these properties and that it would be easier to rezone the land into a PUD,” Joseph said. “However, the provisions you are asking for are not justified given your location in the middle of a residential community, and that there are not existing conditions in the various zoning codes to prohibit it.”
Ellen Avery-Smith, representing Gate, said she would not agree to Joseph’s proposal, which received no support from the rest of the commission. Then, Board Chairman Christian Whitehurst said he had heard the concerns about height, impact to the community and whether the development might set a precedent for others to “use these standards to build anything end everything that they want to.” But he motioned to approve the project based on the evidence he heard.
“You learn that a lot has changed since 1928 when the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club was established, except for one thing: Nothing in the community, nothing in that neighborhood is quite like the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club,” he said. “It’s always been different than the surrounding homes and residences… It would be, in my view, unrealistic to expect the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club to remain the same as it has been over the last 100 years. It has to grow, it has to expand, and it has to improve.”
“I think you guys worked hard to make it right. It is compatible,” commission vice chairman Sarah Arnold told the developers as she seconded the motion.
“It’s always been there. It’s special and unique,” she said. “It is something that is going to have generational impact. It already has.”
The Gate Petroleum Co. has owned the historic oceanfront clubhouse and hotel with tennis courts and other amenities on the oceanfront since 1983.
Gate Petroleum President John Peyton, the former Jacksonville mayor, spoke early in the Tuesday afternoon public meeting, saying his is a family business that is active in the operation of the Inn and Club and the Lodge and Club, 2 miles down Ponte Vedra Boulevard.
“We use these clubs all the time. These clubs that we are discussing are legacy properties for our family,” Peyton said. “With the passage of time, challenges have come, and those include rising tides, more storms, more severe storms, aging facilities, amenities that quite frankly are not competitive in the hospitality sector, and inadequate parking.”
So the decision was made to invest in the properties to prepare them for the future, versus allowing them to “wither on the vine,” Peyton said. At the Inn and Club, the company is planning a multi-year redevelopment and renovation to add rooms, a new fitness center, new pickleball and tennis courts, a new ballroom, and parking garages. The plans would also make the facility more resilient to storm surge as well as “elevate our guest experience,” he said.
“But what was particularly important to me and our team was do all of this without changing the character, the look and the feel of the Ponte Vedra community,” Peyton told the commission.
The St. Johns County Planning and Zoning Agency approved the controversial plan in September to redevelop the two resorts over the next 30 years. That agency is an advisory group that makes recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners about property that falls under the purview of the county’s land development code.
When the commission took up the issue on Tuesday, its chambers were filled with people in support, many wearing yellow “YES” buttons. But there was also vocal opposition to the plans that include a 55-foot-tall parking garage for the Lodge and Club on Ponte Vedra Boulevard at Corona Road. And those included attorney Douglas Burnette, representing a resident whose home would be close to a planned garage..
“There are some renovations that should occur, some improvements that they should be able to have,” he said. “The question is how far down the road do we get from the need to the want?…There is a disconnect between what is being asked – the renderings, the video – and the actual meat and potatoes that’s in the text and in the map. You don’t have a detailed map, which is a problem for this, I think. And why is it so complex?”
Will the project compliment the surrounding community, including lit pickleball and tennis courts across from homes, as well as reduced setbacks that bring buildings closer to Ponte Vedra Boulevard, Burnette asked.
Elaine Ashourian, who lives near the Inn and Club, also spoke out about the project, saying it is “non-compliant on so many levels.”
“It does not enhance property development because, per St. Johns County staff, it will have dominating views from roadways or adjacent buildings,” she said. “It is not enhancing the Ponte Vedra coastal corridor. It has adverse impacts to properties within 600 feet. It will be the tallest building in the overlay district. ”
But a majority of the 43 people who spoke out during more than three hours of public comment, a majority were in favor of the plan, including some who live next to the Inne and Club.
Gate officials have held numerous town meetings with residents in the past year, as well as one-on-one meetings. Some changes were made to the plan before it was presented for a commission vote, including lowering some planned building heights and removing some land from development, Avery-Smith said.