After some last-minute pot-stirring, Port St. Joe commissioners are due to take final action Tuesday on a plan to rezone Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
The rezoning is seen by proponents, which based on public meetings includes the majority of residents, as a critical first step to restoring the historic and economic viability of the neighborhood of North Port St. Joe while revitalizing a community plagued by blight.
“This is about doing something positive to restore our community,” said Pastor Chester Davis, president of the North Port St. Joe-Project Area Coalition, which has spearheaded a process of updating a 2006 community master plan.
“We are just trying to revitalize North Port St. Joe to what it used to be.”
And the city has been on a fast-train, or as fast a train as government provides, to approving a concept it has supported since it was first put before the city’s Planning and Development Review (PDRB).
“This is something we need to keep moving forward,” said Commissioner David Ashbrook at the time.
After PDRB approval, the full Commission approved to transmit the rezoning plan to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
The state agency approved the plan without comment.
“I have never had that happen to any project of mine,” said John Hendry, a former vice-president with the St. Joe Co., who has worked as a consultant for the NPSJ-PAC.
The city undertook an assessment of infrastructure needs should the plan’s increase in density limits be approved: as proposed, density limits in some areas of the rezoned corridor could increase from 15 to 25 units per acre.
Next up was Ray Greer, the city’s planner, who held a workshop for impacted property owners and conducted a formal survey of more than 100 impacted property owners.
A point of contention for dissenters was the return rate on the surveys.
Over the past month during public meetings, resident Amy Rogers, having never spoken in opposition before, contended property owners did not understand the survey, suggesting a majority of people believed no response would represent a no vote.
Rogers, along with Nathan Peters, Jr., who also has not publicly voiced opposition before the past month, has contended residents have not been considered in the ongoing discussions.
The NPSJ-PAC provided at least 27 signed surveys supporting the rezoning.
Despite the formal and informal efforts since 2016, commissioners have heard in recent weeks a handful of residents, Rogers and Peters leading the charge, to slow down the process.
Their disinformation campaign has included contending property owners and residents were not aware the rezoning was being considered and that rezoning would require some residents to turn their property over to commercial interests.
Rogers and Peters, while personally attacking members of the NPSJ-PAC, coaxed commissioners into holding an additional workshop on the topic.
Last week’s workshop surely did not play out as opponents of rezoning hoped.
Pastor David Woods from the Church of God in Christ and representing the North Port St. Joe Ministerial Alliance, said the NPSJ-PAC had been transparent in its efforts.
“Speaking for the Ministerial Alliance, we are very comfortable with the plan,” Woods said.
The “I didn’t know” argument, several supporters of the plan noted, was undermined by the process the city had undertaken, including a series public meetings and workshops a series of town hall meetings held by the NPSJ-PAC.
The last gasp of dissent was contradicted by the plan, which had been built upon concepts first drafted into a 2006 Master Plan, of which Rogers and Peters were key supporters.
Rezoning will not bring seizure of property or eminent domain, no property owner will be forced to convert their property to any use should they choose not, proponents of the plan noted.
The plan’s foundation is the mixed-use zoning which has been in place along MLK for nearly a decade ago when the city updated its comprehensive plan.
A central tenet from there for Hendry and the NPSJ-PAC) was preserving the historic and current mix on MLK; predominantly commercial areas between Avenues A and D and predominantly residential areas from Avenue D north.
What the plan added, density, will make the area more attractive to developers, proponents argued.
“The plan aims to restore the street to what it was,” Hendry said. “We didn’t want a one-size-fits-all zoning so we could preserve what is there. We want to preserve the sense of neighborhood.
“The higher density will be more enticing to investors.”
For example, allowing a property owner to sell, rent or lease residential units on a second and third floor will make constructing that storefront on the first floor more attractive and viable.
On top of the underlying mixed-use zoning currently in place, rezoning would create “overlay” districts, three zones which would have specific land use regulations dictating the residential/commercial mix within that district.
The plan provides elements to create workforce or affordable housing within the neighborhood and a framework to expand lodging and dining options.
Upon city final approval of the plan Tuesday, next steps would include seeking investment into the area which the NPSJ-PAC has been working on for over a year, including an application to Triumph Gulf Coast.
The overall goal remains unchanged; the rezoning is simply part of the tool kit for eliminating the blight that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the city proper.
“It is essential the neighborhood, the city and the county come up with the best way of eliminating this blight,” Hendry said. “There will have to be a coherent and integrated plan for this.
“This needs the support of everybody. We want everybody to come together in a positive way to determine how to fix this.”