Dredging plans for Lakewood area creek lack cohesive desire by residents

Dredging plans for Lakewood area creek lack cohesive desire by residents
Barlow Curran in his backyard pointing out berm created when creek was originally dredged and moved in 1953. Area beyond berm is marshland where the creek originally ran.

The lack of flow in once-navigable Christopher Creek begs for dredging, but while there are several options available which could make that happen, there is no cohesive wish among property owners on the Lakewood area creek’s banks.

Some residents enjoy the wildlife which has settled in the area and are afraid dredging will destroy their habitat. Other property owners are fearful of an increase in property taxes or a special assessment for a dredging project.

Christopher Creek’s navigable access to the St. Johns River was part of what drew developers to the area after World War II veterans began looking for homes in the suburbs.

In 1953, Crabtree Construction Company bought and began developing the Lakewood subdivision that is bounded on the north by Miramar and the south by Christopher Creek, and lies between San Jose Boulevard and St. Augustine Road.

Aerial of Christopher Creek shows the portion east of San Jose Boulevard that has a marshy island created by decades of silt build-up.

Aerial of Christopher Creek shows the portion east of San Jose Boulevard that has a marshy island created by decades of silt build-up.

To create as much waterfront property as possible, the company dredged and relocated part of Christopher Creek to give it more branches for creekfront lots and the potential for docks, bulkheads and boats.

Barlow Curran can point out which part of the creek is natural and which was manmade, because his father was vice president of Crabtree Construction Company and oversaw the Lakewood development. “The creek is straight as an arrow in front of my property because it is manmade there,” Curran said. He can point out the berm that was created from dirt dredged to create the creek. On the other side of the berm is marshland from what used to be the creek.

“We moved into the home that my father built in 1954 when I was two,” Curran said. He and his wife now live in the same house. “I used to take a 14-foot boat with a 35-horsepower outboard motor out into Christopher Creek, go under the bridge on what is now called San Jose Boulevard and into the St. Johns River,” Curran remembered.

That’s no longer the case. The creek that once was as much as 6-feet deep in the center is now silted up to the point that it has a sandbar at high tide. Curran has taken down his dock, but kept the pilings in the hope that he can put up a dock and take out a boat again someday.

Curran also remembers alligators, largemouth bass, brim and bull frogs. “Residents today are just as glad that the alligators are gone,” Curran said. The water life found in deeper freshwater is largely gone. In its place are resident and wading birds such as wood ducks, great blue and white herons, snowy egrets, wood storks and roseate spoonbills. “I watch the ibises feed on fiddler crabs and minnows when the water is at low tide.”

While the birdlife may be interesting, many waterfront residents want to take advantage of the creek today by boating on it and fishing in it as did those who first bought the 1950s Lakewood houses. People visiting Nathan Krestul Park want to launch boats, too, as the signage for the park indicates they should be able to do.

Toni Woods, who lives on Christopher Creek Road, shared her thoughts with District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer in an email last July. “I put my kayak into the creek at the park last weekend and even the channel to the river was so shallow I got stuck,” she said. “I would be happy to help any way I can to make it so it can be paddled again as it once was.”

During Hurricane Irma, the creek rose over the bulkhead of Tom Henley’s San Marie Drive South property, and up into the lower level of the house.

During Hurricane Irma, the creek rose over the bulkhead of Tom Henley’s San Marie Drive South property, and up into the lower level of the house.

Silt issue goes back decades

Varying suppositions exist as to why the creek has become silted. One theory is that when the retention pond at the head of Christopher Creek was created for Walgreens at University and St. Augustine it sent lots of sediment down the creek. The City filed an environmental resource permit (ERP) application in December 2014 for a temporary sedimentation basin at Nathan Krestul Park to address the problem caused by the retention pond.

However, in July 2015, the City withdrew the ERP application and there were no other application submittals for a project related to Christopher Creek sedimentation, according to Teresa Holifield Monson, public communications coordinator for St. Johns River Water Management District.

“I think the retention pond is just a one part of the problem,” Curran said. “The creek was filling up with silt before that pond was built. My father always believed that the silting started when the San Jose Forest homes on the south bank of Christopher Creek were built.” Those homes built in the 1960s sit on high lots and have steep runoffs into the creek.

But even the Lakewood subdivision itself is subject to runoffs. All of the homes north of Christopher Creek sit at higher elevations designed to have water run down into the creek. And more and more development has happened in the area.

“The creek has not been maintained for its full drainage capacity,” Curran said. “Plus, more development equals more concrete and less natural land to absorb the water.”

With storms seemingly occurring more often and with greater intensity, at least two residents have more reasons than recreational enjoyment to push for having the creek dredged. Tom Henley’s waterfront property is on San Marie Drive South across from Nathan Krestul Park.

“During Hurricane Irma, my entire backyard flooded all the way up into the first level of my house, even though I have a bulkhead,” Henley said. And yet, at normal levels the water is so low that he finally sold his boat.

“I tried talking to St. Johns River Management District, but no one seems interested,” he said. “Councilmember Lori Boyer is the only one who has expressed any interest.”

Three trees fell into the creek near Curran’s house also during the hurricane. “I called the City’s Public Works Department and told them that the trees were blocking the creek which would be a drainage problem for the whole neighborhood,” he said. “They came out right away to cut the trees up and haul them off. That would seem to indicate that the City thinks it is responsible for the creek.”

“To my understanding, the fact that the creek was dredged and relocated would make a good case for a maintenance dredge today,” said Alaina Johanson, who lives on Segovia Avenue.

Shot from Nathan Krestul Park, this view shows how Christopher Creek branches around a marshy island, before flowing under San Jose Boulevard toward the St. Johns River.

Shot from Nathan Krestul Park, this view shows how Christopher Creek branches around a marshy island, before flowing under San Jose Boulevard toward the St. Johns River.

Funding a dredging project

How to get the dredging approved and funded is the question and concern. There are four ways this could potentially happen, according to Boyer. 

The easiest route would be for the City to modify the current proposal to dredge Nathan Krestul Park so that it includes maintenance dredging of the entire creek.

Residents could pursue an ecosystem restoration project with the Corps of Engineers in which the Corps pays 75 percent of the cost and the City or others – such as the property owners – pay 25 percent. This option would take longer. One dredging project recently approved for Fishweir Creek took about 10 years to get accomplished.

Another option is to create a special assessment district as was done for Millers Creek in St. Nicholas. Residents funded the dredging through assessments on their properties. In this option, the City contributes 12.5 percent to the effort. This could be accomplished within a few years.

 The City could include the dredge in the Capital Improvement Program of the City and bear the full cost. To be included in the CIP, however, the project has to score competitively against other demands for roads, parks, etc. To be successful, a concerted lobbying effort by the neighborhood would be needed.


By Karen J. Rieley
Resident Community News

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