Neighborhood group gives up fight in church development lawsuit

Right Size San Marco, a grass roots neighborhood group comprised of more than 1,000 members, has decided to cry “uncle” in its appeal of the City of Jacksonville’s decision to allow a good portion of the South Jacksonville Presbyterian Church campus near San Marco Square be rezoned so that a four-story, 49.5-foot tall apartment complex may be built.

In a letter sent to members of the neighborhood group Sept. 28, the group informed its supporters and donors of its decision to stop the appeal process. “Due to multiple threats of sanctions against us, as well as the judge’s ruling, we are stopping the appeal process,” wrote Right Size San Marco Founder Jon Livingston in an email to The Resident

The group had appealed the City’s zoning decision with the State of Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) and had been disappointed when on Aug. 10, Florida Administrative Judge Francine Ffolkes recommended in favor of the City of Jacksonville and its decision to approve the church’s amended application to rezone its property. The new zoning legislation, which was approved Feb. 25 by the Jacksonville City Council, 17-1, allowed for Park Place San Marco, a 133-unit, four story, 49.5-foot tall residential complex to be built within the San Marco Overlay, a zoning ordinance that mandates buildings shall not exceed 35 feet within its boundaries.

Right Size San Marco’s appeal against the city revolved around the question of whether the City Council’s vote to approve a small-scale development amendment to the 2030 Comprehensive Plan was in compliance with state law. The 2030 Comprehensive Plan overshadows the San Marco Overlay and the City Zoning Code. The site-specific amendment, which was added to the City’s future land-use map, enabled developers Harbert Realty Services of Birmingham, Ala., and Corner Lot Development Group of San Marco, to use a calculated weighted-average height, to combine the 49.5-foot tall residential building and the 26-foot tall parking garage instead using the strict height measurement of 35 feet for the apartment complex, as mandated by the San Marco Overlay. A calculated weighted-average height has never before been used in Jacksonville.

After Judge Ffolkes recommended in favor of the city, Right Size San Marco had planned to file a second appeal, a writ of certiorari, with the United States Court of Appeals to further review the case, but, after some consideration, decided to drop its second appeal.

In its letter to its supporters, Right Size San Marco explained its objective in filing the two appeals as well as its reasons for withdrawing from the legal battle. The text of the letter is as follows:

“As you know, for the past year, Right Size San Marco, along with you and over a thousand residents’ help, has been fervently trying to preserve and protect the historical character and charm of San Marco.

“It has been a tough fight that has unfortunately fallen on deaf ears.

“Both the San Marco Preservation Society and Right Size San Marco tried to persuade our city council area representative. Instead of following her constituents and the Overlay, she helped push a last-second site-specific amendment, allowing the developer to bypass local zoning codes as well as the San Marco Overlay.

“We then filed two appeals. The first appeal to the Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) in Tallahassee recently ruled in favor of the City, allowing the city council to spot zone the church property in the Comprehensive Plan.

“The Comprehensive Plan is the land-use “constitution,” dictating land use and controlling zoning for all Florida cities and counties. The Comprehensive plan was used to “end run” the quasi-judicial process and provide the City a safety net for its actions. Because the City adopted this strategy at the 11th hour, the City circumvented the usual zoning property route. The Overlay became irrelevant and useless, allowing the developer to receive precisely what they wanted.

The verdict did not focus on motives, like why the City needed to use a site-specific amendment to bypass local zoning codes and the Overlay.”

Because the Comprehensive Plan overrides all local zoning codes, the ruling in the first appeal trumps our second appeal’s argument that the City is completely ignoring the Overlay and its height restrictions. Due to that and multiple threats of sanctions from the developer’s attorney, we are withdrawing our second appeal.

In the end, the apartments 50-foot facade will become the largest building in San Marco, even higher than the proposed Publix next door. 

This ruling has established a precedent. Developers are drooling over the new weighted-average height option and using the comp plan amendment to ignore Overlays and build taller buildings throughout Jacksonville. If you can do it for this property, why not other properties?

As you can imagine, we are deeply troubled that the city council would approve legislation so they could completely ignore code they helped create. In the same city council meetings, they applauded a city councilmember’s efforts in creating a new Overlay yet approved a site-specific amendment to strike-down the San Marco Overlay. You can’t make this stuff up.

This fight has been discouraging for so many, yet there are so many positives through it all. For one, surrounding residents for miles have a passion for preserving and protecting San Marco’s unique character. This passion is rare when compared to many areas around Jacksonville. The community donated to the appeal, was present and vocal at town hall meetings, voiced their concerns at extremely long city council meetings, and even put signs up in their yards. To all of those that have supported us, thank you! We could not have done this without your support.

“We would also like to thank Council Member Matt Carlucci. As a long-time resident of this community, he understands how valuable and unique San Marco’s character is. While other council members said they wouldn’t do this in their district, yet voted along with our local representative, Mr. Carlucci was the only one that took a stand for the Overlay, even if it cost him future council votes. Thank you for your continued commitment to the area!”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)