Source Story: NCFL Independent
County Commissioners are heading to Tallahassee on Monday in an effort to block proposed legislation (that) they said at a special meeting Friday could put taxpayers throughout Nassau on the hook for the payment of parks and recreation within Rayonier’s special district known as the East Nassau Community Planning Area (ENCPA), a 24,000 acre site expected to require many acres for parks and millions of dollars to build them.
At a special meeting Friday, County Commissioners said it has lost faith in its partnership with Rayonier — through its land trust Raydient — and will travel to Tallahassee next week to block a proposal to change the way sector plans are funded. Raydient has a sector plan for East Nassau Community Planning Area (ENCPA)
The board said two bills are heading to committee next week that would change the sector plan for special districts, such as the ENCPA, and the funding for them. Residents will know the launch of the giant development project as Wildlight.
“We have to shelve everything and go (to the state capitol),” said County Attorney Michael Mullin.
According to Mr. Mullin, Senate Bill 324 and House Bill 697 would have a “significant impact” on the ENCPA’s funding.
Under SB 324, a local government may not require “a developer (to) contribute or pay for land acquisition or construction or expansion of public facilities” — such as parks.
According to Mr. Mullin, the proposals “should go off like firework – a huge firework.”
He said county lobbyist Mark Anderson brought the proposed legislation to the county “at the 11th hour.”
Mr. Mullin said he didn’t know what other special districts would be impacted by the proposed legislation. He guessed – just the ENCPA.
While the county spent years working with Rayonier on an agreement for the ENCPA, provided a 12 percent tax discount for the entire site, and supported in November 2016 by a 3-2 vote the creation of a stewardship district, which would allow the creation of a private board and the ability to sell bonds, Mr. Mullin said the partnership has been damaged, likely beyond repair.
“We believe the partnership has gone haywire,” said Mr. Mullin.
Commission Chair Pat Edwards said he supported the ENCPA and the company’s request for a stewardship district as a way to pay for recreation, which he believes is needed in Nassau County where money, he has said, is tight.
Mr. Edwards said the proposed bills were a surprise, “regardless of who slipped it in.”
Commissioner Danny Leeper, who supported the ENCPA and voted to support the stewardship district, said, “it is disturbing” because the company “made a lot of promises.”
Commissioner Justin Taylor, who voted to support the stewardship district, said he was “upset” to hear about a plan to change the rules for funding recreation.
“This is troubling,” he said. “It’s very disappointing.”
Commissioner Steve Kelley, who did not support the stewardship district, said he was “also troubled by this.”
Mr. Kelley asked Mr. Mullin who was the county’s partner – Raydient? Rayonier? The stewardship district?
Mr. Mullin said the county negotiated with Raydient. “They requested the benefit of the partnership,” he said.
“Is that the way they feel?” said Mr. Kelley.
“I have not heard a definitive answer to that,” said Mr. Mullin.
Mr. Kelley said the company had proposed growth over the next 20 to 30 years and wondered if the company would – or could – create 20 to 30 “shell companies” that wouldn’t be in a partnership with Nassau County.
Commissioner George Spicer, who did not support the stewardship district, said he would go to Tallahassee to represent the best interest of taxpayers.
As a defensive measure, County Manager Shanea Jones and Budget Director Justin Stankiewicz said the board could create a special Municipal Service Taxing Unit (MSTU) for the ENCPA’s entire 24,000-acre site and impose a millage rate up to 10 mills.
Mr. Leeper, a realtor, said the board should go high with the millage. He said that would have an adverse impact on sales within the district where the construction of hundreds of houses is underway.
Mr. Leeper also wanted to know: “Do we have the option to rescind the ENCPA?”
“I’m going to do more research,” said Mr. Mullin, who called it a “sad day” for the county.
Earlier this week, Raydient Places + Properties – did not show up for a county meeting to discuss funding options for recreational facilities within the ENCPA. On Thursday, the company’s stewardship district took a step towards issuing bonds to pay for infrastructure, according to County Manager Shanea Jones, who said she had hoped to discuss funding options with company leadership.
“The public needs to know they could be taxed at a much higher rate,” she said.
Shanea Jones, the county manager, made clear that the taxing imposed from the MSTU would only apply to the ENCPA.
How did this all begin though? The full timeline of events is as follows.
One day after the state registration in September 2015 of Citizens for a Better Nassau County, a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization pushing “smart” growth through private capital development, Rayonier, Inc., told the County Commission that it would seek approval from the legislature to create an independent development district for its 24,000-acre pine forest stretching from Yulee to the state line.
The stewardship district – later known as Wildlight – would protect the company from state zoning and land use rules and allow the sale of tax-free capital bonds to build infrastructure, such as roadways, sidewalks, utility lines and drainage systems. It is a significant approach to development and it required legislative approval. A company executive, who for years has been leading the effort to develop the site, known as the East Nassau Community Planning Area (ENCPA) (and in marketing friendly terms as Wildlight, at least for the first development site), told the county commission at the Sept. 16, 2015 meeting that Rayonier would follow a model used by developers of Walt Disney World.
“Ever hear of Reedy Creek?” said Dan Camp, director project management for strategic real estate. “That’s what this is.”
The Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) launched in the 1960s to plan, create and govern Disney development. Today, some 50 years on, the RCID continues to call the shots at its amusement parks and surrounding development without much interference from the state.
Last fall, while teeing up the request for a special district within the ENCPA, Rayonier executives pledged support for Citizens for a Better Nassau County, joining local business leaders and school officials as Coalition Members for the non-profit, which formed on Sept. 15, 2015, according to state records. While no one has said the one-day timing between the creation of the citizens group and Rayonier’s push for the Stewardship District is anything more than a coincidence, as of today, the citizens group is still active and Rayonier’s request – once pulled off the table with no support from then State Representative Janet Adkins – was back for consideration.
Company executives presented a 104-page piece of legislation for the creation of the East Nassau Stewardship District that they planned to pass in 2017. First however, they needed the support of the Nassau County Commission. Rayonier executives presented the legislative plan for the development district on November 22, 2016. While the board was not expected to vote at the workshop, it was an important gathering. The public will again have a look at a plan that is expected to put Nassau County on a path for massive development without government oversight. According to the draft legislation, the Stewardship District would have its own five-member governing board whose members would only need to be residents of the state.
Rayonier went to the commission in Sept. the previous year for a letter of support – and received one. But in October 2015, the company ran into questions about fees and district control from State Representative Janet Adkins. Ms. Adkins discussed the request with a house committee and also asked Rayonier to hold public meetings, secure approval by resolution from the school board, and ask the governor’s office for a review, according to a series of letters she exchanged in October the previous year with the company’s legal office, according to documents released in a records request.
In the exchange, Rayonier’s Vice President and General Legal Counsel Mark Bridwell said okay to the governor’s review but rejected public meetings and a school board review, saying that meetings would “only serve to confuse and create unwarranted concerns among county residents.”
Bridwell said the company has worked hard on a Public Private Partnership with the county on the ENCPA development plans and that residents will have access to the conservation network, parks, hiking and biking trails. According to Bridwell, this is a question about money: “The county cannot afford to fund and maintain these, and while the parks, trails and many other amenities would be enjoyed by all county residents, they will be funded entirely by property owners in the East Nassau Stewardship District.”
During the following meeting to determine the vote on the stewardship district, speakers came to the podium to express concerns over the creation of the stewardship district.
Joe Zimmerman, who ran unsuccessfully for the commission, questioned whether the powers granted by the Stewardship District were legal under state law. “I am perplexed why we would give such broad powers to a private company. Why are these powers needed?”
Commissioner Pat Edwards had little tolerance for these concerns and he delivered a public rebuke. He also challenged people to open their wallets.
“You’re scared or you don’t want to grow. You don’t want anybody here,” he said. “If you have a lot of money, go buy it all and do what you want to do with it.”
Mr. Edwards also dismissed calls for a public referendum.
“The people voted for us to make these decisions,” he said. “If we don’t make the right decisions, they’ll vote us out.”
Mr. Edwards said the speakers did not vote for him. “It’s sad to say, many of the people who spoke tonight, you didn’t vote for one of us, you voted against us,” he said.
Why would they do that? Mr. Edwards was ready with an answer.
“…because you don’t want growth in Nassau County,” he said.
Commissioner George Spicer had a different response to the public speakers’ comments. He succinctly told his colleagues that he worked for taxpayers. Commissioners George Spicer and Steve Kelley went on to vote against the ENCPA, but lost in a 3-2 vote.
In December of 2016, after approval by the Nassau County Commission – the two lawmakers who represent Nassau County in the state capitol said Rayonier’s plan to set-up a private governing board to develop a 24,000 acre pine forest from Yulee to the state line with funding help from bond sales is an excellent idea and they will bring the plan to their colleagues in Tallahassee for consideration during the 2017 legislative session.
State Senator Aaron Bean and State Representative Cord Byrd approved Rayonier’s request for the Stewardship District at the legislative delegation meeting held Thursday afternoon, though residents who stepped to the public speaker podium asked them not to do that.
The meeting was chaired by freshman legislator Mr. Byrd, but Mr. Bean, the seasoned politician, largely took control and he called Rayonier’s lawyer Jonathan Johnson of Hopping Green & Sams, who specializes in community districts back to the podium to address the public concerns, including “sovereign immunity” from the County Commission.
“Fiction,” said Johnson, in a slide presentation claiming, “the district may augment or enhance those provided by the county but cannot supplant them.”
How about expanding the boundaries? It can expand, he said, in his ‘fact versus fiction’ presentation but only “with explicit permission from the County Commission and passage of subsequent legislation.”
Will the district reduce tax revenue? “Not true,” he said in the slide show. But here’s where his information gets slippery. The entire district has already been granted by the board a 12 percent discount on ad valorem property taxes. And it is important to be clear that no one has said that this discount is going away. This includes Mr. Bean, Mr. Byrd, the County Commission, the County Attorney, who worked on the East Nassau development district while a private attorney for Rayonier, and Mr. Johnson, who explained it this way in his slide show:
How about legal liabilities? There are “caps on tort,” said Mr. Johnson, about civil wrongs that cause a person harm, “but not environmental penalties.”
The East Nassau Community Planning Area (ENCPA) was first discussed about a decade ago and a “sector plan” was approved more than five years ago. The first development site, known as the Wildlight district, is underway with construction of the new Wildlight Elementary School, opened in August of 2017, and Rayonier’s new headquarters.
Mr. Bean asked if the site is being developed whether the Stewardship District is granted or not (though he knows the answer). Yes, said Mr. Johnson.
The Stewardship District is important because it will give the company authority to sell bonds. Mr. Johnson said that Goldman Sachs and State Farm would be among likely bond buyers. The money would pay for infrastructure, such as roads, and people who live and work in the district would see assessments. In discussion, it was mentioned that the tax collector would recover the fees and return them to the district.
Mr. Byrd, who had recently won election at the time, asked if developers would follow guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Protection. Mr. Johnson said yes.
According to campaign treasurer reports, Mr. Byrd, an attorney, received several thousand dollars in campaign contributions from Rayonier Inc., a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). Mr. Byrd said he read the proposed legislation for the Stewardship District several times.
“This is going to preserve the quality of life in Nassau County,” he said. “It’s fully legal.”
Mr. Bean said that he and Mr. Byrd met with Rayonier executives and local officials. “I think this is going to be a positive thing for Nassau County,” he said.
Representative Byrd proposed and The House approved HB 1075. The Senate approved it’s version of it’s counterpart bill codifying it into law in 2017.
Another question that remains currently unknown to Nassau Politics is why the Representative Byrd or State Senator Aaron Bean hadn’t informed county commissioners or their lobbyists of this pending legislation.
Sources: It should be noted that the original article and photo detailing the February 16th meeting was published by the NCFL Independent. To read the original article click HERE.