Green Cove Springs is worthy of intelligent long-range growth, imaginative planning

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GREEN COVE SPRINGS – This city is at a crossroads. And what leaders and longtime residents fear most is those crossroads are getting clogged with traffic and uncontrolled growth.

Green Cove Springs is a small town that wants to think big. Or is it a town with big plans that manages to keep its smallish identity? Maybe a little of both.

Clay County is growing at an alarming rate. For now, it’s manageable, but the real challenge is to think beyond now. Any city or county that’s not focused 10 years in advance is already falling behind.

That’s where Green Cove Springs currently finds itself.

New communities are sprouting west and south of the city. Thousands of homes are planned, as well as the First Coast Expressway and a shopping center that will make the more than 175 stores at St. Johns Town Center seem like a weekend flea market. That means more shopping, restaurants, jobs and, of course, money. It also means a lot more traffic and challenges to an infrastructure that’s already struggling to keep pace.

The city council last week wrestled with the prospect of more traffic entering U.S. Highway 17 near the Cove Plaza when a developer asked for zoning for a 9.4-acre plot behind the shopping center to be changed to accommodate the possible construction of as many as 112 “high-end” condominiums. The request came weeks after D.R. Horton won tentative approval to continue with plans for as many as 1,200 new homes at its Ayrshire Development on the old Gustafson dairy farm.

Developments already are under construction in Lake Asbury and along County Road 315. New homes are destined for State Road 16 to Starke, along State Road 21 from Middleburg to Keystone Heights and south on U.S. 17 toward Palatka. It’s coming whether the city likes it or not because it’s the only land that’s available.

So instead of fighting it, we should get ahead of it.

There are legitimate concerns. U.S. 17 from S.R. 16 to the Black Creek bridge isn’t conducive for widening. For now, the roadway can manage the traffic because there is very little to attract cars to the downtown area, especially at night. Try to find something to eat after 9 p.m. that doesn’t include the phrase: “Pull up to the next window, please.” In short, there is no nightlife in the downtown area. There are no trendy clubs, bars or restaurants. It’s like businesses roll up their sidewalks when the street lights come on. It’s so bad, Waffle House stays away.

Councilman Van Royal doesn’t like to see so residents and visitors go through Green Cove Springs to enjoy the benefits on nearby Fleming Island. Others risk life and limb on the Shands Bridge for St. Augustine. Royal knows the financial stability of a community is its ability to keep people close to home. He’s correct.

It’s true: if they build it, they will come. And when they get here, they’re going to want more options than a convenience store hot dog for dinner.

Traffic truly is a big test for the city. The First Coast Expressway is supposed to bring people to the city. It also can take them away if they don’t skillfully plan for it.

Green Cove Springs should be a destination. It’s a cozy place with so much history and natural beauty. I like it so much I will move here in a couple of months and retire. For now, Green Cove Springs is a victim of its own charm. It’s why I want to live there. It’s why thousands of others want to live there, too.

But once I get there, I won’t become one of those old-timers who believe Green Cove Springs could accommodate me, but getting to big to take in anyone else.

Don’t let inevitable growth be the downfall of a great city. Let it be the catalyst for expansive and intelligent planning. We need to find a way to accommodate growth while keeping the simple life that makes it so attractive.

It’s a delicate balance, for sure. But if we all work together – longtime residents and newcomers alike – we can find a solution. Green Cove Springs is worth it – for everybody.

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