Tempers rise alongside water in San Jose Forest

There is deepening anguish brewing with several of the residents of San Jose Forest, the once tranquil neighborhood near Christopher Creek and Nathan Krestul Park.

A few months ago, they had a forest that buffered a portion of their neighborhood from the traffic noise of San Jose Boulevard. It was a prolific wetlands area that effectively managed the water run-off of the neighborhood it was connected to. The forest contained a thicket of 50-foot cypress trees, dense vegetation and a host of wildlife including frogs, squirrels, owls, and birds of every description. And, by definition, it must have also contained snakes and mosquitos.

Today, there are no snakes. There are no old growth cypress trees, no frogs or squirrels, no dense vegetation, no Great Horned Owls or bright red cardinals. Today, only the mosquitos are left. The mosquitos, lots of unmanaged water, and a berm of smelly soil.

The residents of San Jose Forest awoke one morning this past March to the sounds of chainsaws and heavy equipment to witness the forest being cut down. To their shock and dismay, the destruction didn’t stop with tree cutting.

All the vegetation was destroyed and removed, and the land was scraped clean. Then, tons of what appeared to be soil, but had the smell and consistency of reconstituted sewage, was dumped on the barren strip of land, which brought the elevation four to six feet above the neighboring yards. Within 10 days, the “forest” that was part and parcel of the San Jose Forest community was gone. And in the backyards of six homes abutting this new development, residents suddenly had to deal with some ominous problems.

The new development, known as San Jose Estates, promises “Luxury Single Family Homes starting in the mid $400,000s.” The entire subdivision consists of six parcels covering slightly less than two acres. Included with each home purchase is a membership to Epping Forest Yacht and Country Club, which is a short walk across the street.

The property has had a puzzling history. It was formally categorized, by the City of Jacksonville, as “Wasteland” or “Jurisdictional Wetlands.” (There is an artesian spring on the site.) No property taxes had been paid on it for years. It has had three separate owners since 2002, with the latest sale coming April 28, 2016, when the property was purchased from Christiana Forest SJ LLC, by San Jose Estates, LLC for a price tag of just $165,000. It has since been rezoned as RLD-90: residential low density with 90-foot setbacks.

For the past six months, six families with homes abutting the new development have been inundated with several feet of water that threatens to destroy their properties. The combination of an elevation that is too high, a lack of vegetation, the destruction of a natural wetland, and the lack of an efficient drainage system have turned what was once a functioning wetland and wildlife habitat into a scourge of water, mud and insects that are encroaching on the established neighborhood to the east. Recent heavy rains, along with the unchanneled artesian spring on the new site, continue to create water-filled backyards for several of the residents of San Jose Forest.

David Robison, one of the affected residents of this intrusion, said, “We now have lost the use of our property, and all of our properties have been significantly devalued…this project has scarred San Jose Forest and my property in particular. Having a 6-foot fill mound behind my house does not foster a sense of community.”

Kevin Conner, another resident whose home abuts the new development, said, “No one is listening. Our elected officials have completely refused to address serious citizen concerns of our private property being severely and negatively impacted and devalued by a development that has been fully approved and authorized by the city.”

Standing in the backyards of the affected homes, it is clear that drainage remains woefully inadequate. Deep water comes up to within a few feet of the Robison swimming pool during a rainstorm.

Lori Boyer, District 5 Councilwoman, said although the Public Works Department deemed the engineering solution viable, she pushed to make sure “all the I’s were dotted and T’s were crossed, because it looks like it will be a problem.”

Because there was no zoning change, there was no basis for the City to refuse the permitting, she said. Boyer also said the current process allows permitting without a timeline or temporary measures to prevent damage.

“It’s a bigger issue of building in low areas,” Boyer said. “FEMA requires builders to build higher; look what’s happening in Houston. It’s totally about our desires to build in what was formerly wetlands.”

Although an underground storm water vault and a catch basin were designed for the property, the Robison family, the Conner family, and a neighbor who did not wish to be identified, stated they have not seen any sophisticated drain system installed that will solve the drainage problem.

“This mound of dirt is an assault on my senses,” said Robison’s wife, Lynn, “and when it rains, like it has several times during the last few months, our backyard is covered in deep water that smells terrible and has a yellow froth on it. I believe it has given my dog parasites. He has been on antibiotics trying to get over it. I’ve contacted the Board of Health.”

Encroaching water and mud, and possible parasitic conditions of unknown origin are just one of the worries affecting the neighborhood. The runoff from the higher elevation of the land in question is now also flooding La Vaca Road where a JEA pump station becomes inundated with water every time it rains. This pump station is within several hundred feet of the Robisons’ home, and services the neighboring area.

What happens when a pump station becomes flooded? Will the entire neighborhood be at risk? “That’s a question no one has answered to date,” said Robison. 

San Jose Estates is a limited liability company owned by Feras Mouded, a Fort Caroline-based real estate broker. His phone has apparently been disconnected, and he hasn’t answered any email requests for a resolution or even simple commentary. Worried and frustrated residents in the affected area have attempted to get answers from the City, but nearly all attempts have been ignored.

“We have been living with this mess since March 3, 2017,” said Robison, “and all we have to show for it are naked vacant lots, open pits, smelly landfill, and water taking over our back yards. And no one from the Building Department has responded to our formal complaints.” He also noted that early flooding complaints were handled by the project engineer with the promises of remediation, but that never happened. 

The rift between the residents of San Jose Forest who are living with the disruption and damage caused by this project, the city officials who have allowed this to happen, and the owners of the property, seems to grow deeper with each passing day.

Conner has an eight-year-old son who would like to play in his backyard. But when it rains, he has no backyard. What is the solution? There are many questions, and to date, very few answers and very little communication being offered by the City.

Many San Jose Forest residents are upset  the City of Jacksonville agreed to allow a developer build on the wetlands in front of their subdivision. They’ve questioned how someone can issue a permit on land that was, for years, classified as wasteland. They wonder whether this area is buildable at all, because it lies in a flood zone and has an artesian system on it.

“Face it, [the city] has wrecked a dynamic ecosystem that was more than a just a wetland. It was an urban water filter and a large water storage area as well. It is going to take more than just a little fill to fix the problem. Why is everyone so willing to let this developer continue to flood our property?” said Robison.

By Lloyd Lemons,
Resident Community News

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