By Elisabeth Shirley and Madison Sloan
With less than 5,000 residents, Elkton, Florida is the epitome of a small town. Home to the St. Johns County Fairgrounds, this rural area with small communities and farmland holds onto southern living untouched by the modern development that has taken its hold on Jacksonville.
This way of life is continuously being threatened by developers, yet residents are working overtime to make sure that Elkton keeps its charm. For Elkton, a seemingly simple change like an industrial warehouse would change their entire way of living.
Long time resident Pat Hamilton is one of those working to preserve the town’s small community. In September, Hamilton was present at the St. Johns County Commission’s meeting to decide whether or not approximately 90 acres of farmland would be rezoned for an industrial warehouse.
Hamilton said it was a huge turnout and the meeting lasted several hours. Tired farmers took time out of their day to speak out against the proposal, along with other residents aware of the drastic effects it could cause.
“All those farmers, they recognized they need to get out there and protect their farming community, which is not something they have had to do before,” said Hamilton. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen groups of farmers who have been here for several generations come to these meetings.”
Hamilton said County Commissioner Sarah Arnold read an email she received the night before from a nearby farmer. The email said that if the proposal went through, it was going to ruin their way of life that they have maintained for several generations. Arnold said that in light of that, she could not support the proposal.
“Chris Shee hoped to keep [the plans] under the radar so nobody noticed. And the deal is, you say it’s 1.25 million square feet of industrial warehouse, and you don’t really know what that means until you realize the acreage of the Avenues Mall is 60 acres and this is 100,” said Hamilton.
Chris Shee bought the approximately 90 acres and hoped to get it rezoned from agriculture to light industrial in order to build warehouses for KeHe, an organic food distributor who expressed interest in the site. Shee’s proposal was denied with a 4 to 1 vote at the commission’s meeting.
The rejection was a victory for Elkton residents, but Hamilton said they will keep having to fight as more developers seek to build in St. Johns County, which is quickly growing.
“We still have a pretty nice place, but people see it as undeveloped,” said Hamilton. “They don’t recognize that there have been a ton of people and a ton of money trying to defend the south part of the county.”
According to the latest census report, between 2010 and 2020, St. Johns County’s population grew by nearly 44%, from 190,039 to 273,425. Although supporters believe industrial development creates new job opportunities for the growing population, environmental advocates are concerned with the negative impacts.
This isn’t the first time Hamilton has worked on such preservation either. He lives on the intracoastal and spent the last 25 years working on the 15 miles of conservation land that ranges from Moses Creek to Princess Place. He understands that not all development is good.
“I can eat the oysters outside of my house and it’s because we have all this conservation land, I can see manatees off my dock and I can see dolphins everyday,” said Hamilton. “It’s more important to have a farming community than it is to have urbanization developed by someone who grew up in Fort Lauderdale and just sees that as vacant land.”
Jen Lomberk with the Matanzas Riverkeeper was also in attendance at the St. Johns County Commission meeting. Like Hamilton, Lomberk made note of the overwhelming amount of local voices that were essential in the meeting’s decision.
“It showed a lot of participation from folks who live in rural St. Johns County that we don’t often see. Farmers and folks who have lived in Southwest St. Johns County for generations came out and spoke against a development proposal that would have negatively impacted their way of life,” said Lomberk.
The impact of the meeting’s decision spreads further than Elkton. Lomberk said allowing more intense development will open the door for future development in what is now the rural part of our county.
“You can think of it like dominoes. Once one falls, it knocks down everything else around it,” said Lomberk.
While there is the concern of taking away the flavor of the south part of the county, there are also environmental repercussions of allowing such development.
“St. Johns County is one of the fastest growing counties in Florida,” Lomberk said. “Unfortunately, as a general rule, more people means more pollution. More development means more trees cut down, more wetlands filled in, and more impervious surfaces. Basically, more wastewater and stormwater entering our waterways.”
Toxic algae blooms are one of the many environmental concerns when looking at the negative effects of industrial and urban development. Between 2017 and 2019, reports show a Florida red tide bloom killed around 600 sea turtles and over 200 manatees.
Fortunately, the Matanzas River has remained untouched from previous algae blooms that impacted other parts of Florida. However, with the increase in development, the threat is constantly looming.
As a non-profit organization, the Matanzas Riverkeeper helps to educate residents about development proposals that will be harmful to the health of local waterways and teaches them how to fight back against development.
“Industrial development certainly has its place in our communities. The problem with Elkton was that this was the wrong place,” said Lomberk.