Millers Creek project takes one step forward

Not everyone may be happy, but residents living along Millers Creek in one St. Nicholas neighborhood are one official step closer to seeing the waterways usable once more.

Ordinance 2014-700, which was approved by City Council on Feb. 10, 2015, creates the Millers Creek Special District, with the purpose of “continuing maintenance of that portion of Millers Creek adjacent to the properties within the District’s boundaries to enable continued access to the St. Johns River.”

According to District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer, the ordinance, which states that Millers Creek can be dredged, is “definitely effective.”

The Special District meets its purpose by dredging canals and the access channels to the St. Johns River, along with maintaining a jetty and navigational aids.

The Special District has a lifespan under Florida statutes, noted Boyer.

“Residents may determine, after dredging, to not maintain the Special District. It’s largely up to area residents and if the cost is beneficial, they will continue to support it,” she said.

A board of seven supervisors who live within the district were appointed by City Council. They are Jonathan Wright, Nathan Thilges, Rene Pulido, Derik Flint, Christopher Rose, Kay Gilmour, and Juan Daniel Pulido.

The initial group of supervisors hold their seats until the general election in 2016, at which time new candidates may declare their intentions to run for a seat.

The waterways improvement won’t come without a price, though. The ordinance grants the supervisors a number of needed legal powers, such as acquiring or selling property, and employing engineers, attorneys, or other consultants necessary to carry out the project. The ordinance also gives supervisors “the authority to impose a non-ad valorem assessment…up to $3,000 annually” for residential lots and parcels with canal access easements.

Non-ad valorem taxes are assessed according to the benefit received by each residential unit for improvement projects such as dredging to open a waterway, new lighting, or new paving, for example. However, the ordinance does not specify the mechanism for determining which units will be assessed less than the maximum of $3,000 annually, and which will pay the full amount.

By law, the new taxing district must hold public meetings to address concerns and answer questions, and residents in the affected areas must be notified. The next Millers Creek project meeting is scheduled for Sept. 14, 2015, time and location to be announced.

Benefit for some, burden for others

The 28 properties to be assessed include 19 on Mayfair Road, five on Gay Avenue, and four on Morier Street. The assessments have benefits for some of those property owners. According to Boyer, once finished, the affected property owners will finally have navigable access to waterways. Currently, some of the residents have docks but can’t access the water, or have to wait for high tide to navigate to the river.

The number of residents within the district who use the canals and creek for recreational boating access is not noted in the ordinance.

As for the potential for an increase of property value, homes with usable docks and waterways could sell for more than those with unusable docks. For example, boating from the area to the marina at Metropolitan Park to see a Jaguars game, or attend concerts or other events, might make an attractive selling point to a potential buyer of a property in the District.

Joe Joseph, a St. Nicholas property owner, points out that when the dredging is finished, there will be positive results, including the protection of current property values. “People will be able to enjoy the creek, they’ll be able to fish, and they’ll be able to boat,” Joseph said. “We would see the return of wildlife – we used to have manatees in there all the time.”

Conversely, concerns among some residents that are yet to be addressed include the financial impact of the non-ad valorem assessments on the elderly and their heirs’ ability to retain the property, as well as whether the assessments will negatively impact a particular unit’s value before the project is finished.

Liability issues surrounding a jetty and navigational aids, which are part of the project, are not mentioned in the ordinance. However, districts acting as quasi-governmental entities could fall under Florida Statute (f.s.) 768.28. The statute caps monetary liability, allows entities to receive assistance from the Department of Financial Services to help with claims, and allows an entity to appeal a ruling, among other legal rights.

Many steps ahead

Though the project has the green light to go ahead, bringing in equipment for the required hydraulic dredging to remove three feet of sediment, deposited over the last 60 years throughout the Millers Creek waterway, requires many more steps.

According to Boyer, before the project can move ahead, a number of meetings with the Army Corps of Engineers, surveyors, and those involved in engineering permitting and construction must take place before dredging equipment is moved in.

According to an anonymous source inside the district, a number of issues require further clarity, which future meetings may address.

The funding mechanism is in question; because the project could cost upwards of one million dollars, how can that amount be met with a maximum $3,000 assessment from the 28-household district?

There are also concerns about the district’s fate, such as when a senior resident dies and the family cannot afford the assessment and has to sell the property, or when a current resident moves way and a new resident moves into the district but has no use for the waterway. Should that resident also be assessed?

Ultimately, working through the meetings, mechanics, and residents’ concerns about the project could take more than a year. However, as Joseph stated, the project “is still in its infancy.”

By Vince Iampietro
Resident Community News

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