First published in the Flagler College Gargoyle on November 23, 2013.
Received a Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence award in the Southeast region for In-Depth Reporting.
Written as a student for Publications Workshop.
Reporting, interviews, photography and writing were done solely by Matt Keene.
A few miles northwest of Downtown St. Augustine is a pond shaped like a tear.
Its edges are fringed with cattails overlooked by reaching pine trees and southern red maples bursting with fall color. Small birds flit through scrub brush; ducks glide through the windswept water. A narrow stretch of land bisects the pond, rising just high enough above the water level to be crowded in mature floodplain forest. This small pond is a habitat for bass, otter and migratory birds. It is a calm space where turtles live. And, if the Florida Department of Transportation gets their way, it will be sliced in half by a six-lane highway known as State Road 313.
SR 313 intends to provide an urban roadway running parallel to US 1 and Interstate 95, approximately two miles east of I-95 and two miles west of US 1. The road would connect to SR 207 at the southern end. The northern end would connect to US 1 just north of the St Augustine Airport. According to FDOT officials, the 9.3-mile-long road is needed to relieve traffic on US 1.
The road will be too large for the soft, damp shoreline of the pond. It will crowd out the habitat and the pine and maple will be bulldozed, the quiet waters will be filled in. Although Gina Busscher, the spokesperson for FDOT, says that the road is needed to relieve congestion along US 1, residents of Mission Trace, a small community bordering the pond and backed up to the proposed road, feel otherwise and have diligently questioned the construction project, citing the cost to taxpayers, the degraded quality of life and the deadening effect the road will have on the environment.
Areas of the Twelve Mile Swamp contain mature water hickory, cypress, swamp chestnut oak and ash. Only minimal surveys have been completed, but these have identified 13 listed endangered and threatened species, including the Florida black bear.
“I’ve seen osprey diving and pulling up fish. I’ve seen bald eagles. There’s a couple otters that call that pond home,” said Steve Brennan, a Mission Trace resident. “All of that gets disrupted and they’ve got to go somewhere, you know? What are we taking away from nature to give to [FDOT] to build a road we don’t need?”
Brennan’s home — one of only a few — overlooks the pond. His backyard is a quiet place with a garden ready for fall planting. The manicured ground slopes west towards the pond before giving in to a chaotic freedom of cattails.
“It’s right there. It’s a 250-foot right-of-way. It’s 42 feet from my back yard to the first stretch of pavement. Six lanes wide. 65 to 70 miles an hour. Limited access highway,” says Brennan.
Instead of sunsets where light shimmers off smooth water, Brennan’s sunsets would reflect off the glinting windshields of passing traffic. Brennan’s opposition to the road doesn’t stop in his backyard, however.
“I don’t want to see the road built at all. We don’t need it, it’s costly and it’s got too many negatives associated with it and not enough positives,” said Brennan.
Brennan touts the nature of a limited-access highway, where few opportunities to get on or off the road equate to few reasons to build businesses alongside the road, since “nobody’s going to put up stores along the side of the road because you can’t get off to get to the store.”
The need for a US 1 bypass has been discussed for more than three decades. The first segment of the project was completed in the Fall of 1990, running from US 1 to SR 207. From there, the project has been under development for several years as FDOT continues to purchase land to secure the road’s right-of-way. FDOT’s most recent estimates place the cost at around $82 million.
Just north of Mission Trace, on the otherside of SR 16 — and directly in the path of the future road — is the Twelve Mile Swamp Conservation Area. The Twelve Mile Swamp is more than 20,000 acres in size, contains seven archeological sites and is the headwaters to six unique creeks, two of which flow into the Matanzas River, running right past Downtown St. Augustine.
Pileated woodpeckers, barred owls, white-tailed deer, turkey and bobcats all inhabit the area. Modeling estimates conducted by the St. Johns River Water Management District show that the eastern portion of the conservation area — the section most likely to see impact from SR 313 — contributes between one and four inches of water per year to the Floridan Aquifer. This is one of the world’s most productive aquifers and the reservoir of water responsible for providing drinking water to the cities of St. Augustine, Jacksonville, Flagler Beach, Gainesville, Tampa, Orlando, Tallahassee, as well as numerous other communities throughout the state.
St Johns County’s water supply is managed by SJRWMD, the same body that manages the Twelve Mile Swamp Conservation Area. The lands were purchased using Florida Forever funds, in recognition of the area’s importance to water quality for Northeast Florida. SJRWMD states that their primary objectives in the Twelve Mile Swamp are to “restore, maintain, and protect native natural communities and diversity” and to “improve water quality and maintain flood protection by preserving important wetland areas.”
With this in mind, SJRWMD acknowledges the future potential of SR 313, addressing it in their District Lands Assessment Implementation Plan. In the plan, they state that “if the road is constructed, a portion of the eastern side of the conservation area will likely be impacted.” In recognition of this impact, SJRWMD recommends that all land east of SR 313—531 acres—be sold.
“There is a bigger environmental issue here,” said Timothy Johnson, a religion professor at Flagler College and homeowner in Mission Trace. “This is not just about my house.”
Johnson has a deep appreciation for St. Johns County, recognizing it as a special place. He sees SR 313 as a quality of life issue, stating that “I’m not against development. But there are ethical issues in regards to the use of the land that simply can’t be swept aside.” Johnson cites the wetlands and the migratory birds. He recalls the bass that swim in the pond, calling the spot “a really pristine area.”
Homeowners in Mission Trace call the project a “boondoggle.” They reject the idea that the road needs to be built simply because its been in the works for so many years. Brennan says that US 1 isn’t used for North-South commuters, unless they are specifically heading for the medical or shopping centers near SR 312, or heading downtown for the tourism, restaurants and shops.
Johnson calls for managed development, asking residents to think about the impact increased development will have on the county — and on the residents’ quality of life.
“Managed development includes the preservation of a certain quality of life that’s irreplacable,” Johnson said. “After a certain point in time, you can’t go back.”