ORANGE PARK – Keystone Heights Mayor Karen Lake had to drive 31 miles on Wednesday, Jan. 18, to attend the Clay County Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of Clay at the Thrasher-Horne …
ORANGE PARK – Keystone Heights Mayor Karen Lake had to drive 31 miles on Wednesday, Jan. 18, to attend the Clay County Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of Clay at the Thrasher-Horne Center.
By the time she took the microphone to talk about her city’s successes and challenges, she seemed a bit frazzled.
“I have to tell you, I got in my car and I headed up north on (State Road) 21 and there was traffic, they’re paving the roads from (S.R.) 16 to Keystone. Then you move into Middleburg at a traffic light, and oh my gosh, I think it’s been 15 minutes or so. You guys got some serious traffic happening.”
Everyone on stage shook their heads in agreement. So did the standing-room-only crowd of more than 100.
Growth not only brings new opportunities, business and money to the county, but it also brings the challenges of managing growth. Lake, along with mayors Randy Anderson of Orange Park, Matt Johnson of Green Cove Springs, Thomas DeVille of Penney Farms and County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Condon all were concerned about the price of expansion.
With most of Oakleaf already developed, the biggest concerns are for the southern end of the county. According to Condon, more than 10,000 home permits already have been planned in the Lake Asbury area.
Nearby, Johnson said Green Cove Springs is bracing to double its population in the next 25 years. Yet, the city is determined to keep its small-town feel.
“First thing we did with the comprehensive plan that takes us 25 years out,” he said. “The population is expected to double in 25 years and Green Cove Springs, so we’re getting ready for that.
“One thing we’re doing, and I don’t just take it for granted, down (U.S. Highway) 17 you’re going to pass Walnut Street you’re going to take a second look. What’s that it’s going to catch your eye is we have a streetscape redesign. For Walnut Street, for instance, from Palmetto across 17 over to Magnolia, you’re going to see real brick and then eventually all the way down to the pier and all the way back. You’re going to see a whole new redesign of Walnut Street and the focus is going to be to take people to Spring Park to the river. You’re going to see a lot of eye-catching things in Green Cove Springs that have not been there before.”
“Growth is coming. Now is the time for Green Cove Springs to be a destination place. Again, not just on special events, but I would say on a regular weeknight or a weekend night as well.”
Anderson said his town has worked to address flooding issues, removing the final 45 septic tanks and incorporating them to the town’s sewage system and buying green spaces.
“Over the past 40 years we’ve had a lot of issues with flooding,” he said. About in 2022, we started purchasing seven wetland properties and that’s going to be our key to controlling flooding within a town and focusing on what else we need to do and putting a lot of money towards the stormwater.”
Anderson said Orange Park has applied for grants from the St. Johns River Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to help pay for removing the septic tanks.
“We will have 100% coverage for switching these 45 properties over to water and sewer service of the town,” he said. “So hopefully by the end of the year or beginning of next year, those 45 residents will be switched over.”
Condon, who also lives near Keystone Heights, said growth has become a major project for the county commission. She said she hears from disgruntled residents at every meeting about roadway construction projects that never seem to end, traffic, challenges to the infrastructure and seemingly uncontrolled growth.
“You know when you get a phone call from your husband, and he wants to know if I can this traffic fixed,” Condon said. “With all of the traffic that goes around Clay County, we feel your pain – whether they’re state projects or county projects. But with growth comes the need for good services around the county.”
All representatives were happy to talk about their municipality’s successes.
Lake said the recently-started Black Creek Restoration plan which will funnel water from the south fork of the Black Creek to lakes Geneva and Butler will prove to be a boon for the entire county and surrounding areas. She also said there were major improvements made at the Keystone Beach Pavillion, as well as the addition of pickleball courts.
DeVille said Penney Farms is continuing to map out infrastructure plans that weren’t recorded when the town was established in 1926.
Anderson said Orange Park rebuilt Clarke Park, added a new hardware store and has more than 9,000 cars passing through town every day.
In addition to its downtown comprehensive plan, Green Cove Springs soon will reap the benefits of the First Coast Expressway once it’s completed south of the city limits. Major commerce, including a Town Center-like development, is likely to follow.
Condon said the BCC recently passed an impact fee so new residents will help share the financial responsibility for expanding roads and building new schools, fire stations and libraries, hiring new sheriff’s office deputies and expanding electrical and water services.
“Maybe my favorite thing about it is that we were able to protect 250 acres of land from ever being developed (in Middleburg) into homes to protect the natural beauty of Clay County,” Condon said. “The North Florida Land Trust bought 800 acres, so we have over 1,000 acres where they’re going to let us build trails through there. Across the road will be our Regional Sports Park. We’re going to have eight multipurpose fields.
“This is huge for Clay County because nowhere in Northeast Florida can any kind of sports complex for soccer, lacrosse, those kinds of things.”