By Martie Thompson
News spread quickly the first week of September in the NW St. Johns County area of Fruit Cove about RISE Development’s proposal to build a multi-level apartment complex on Fruit Cove Road. Currently zoned OR (Open Rural), a rezoning would have to be granted by the county for this development to take place — but neighbors are clear in their desire for no rezoning to occur. A Facebook group (Save Fruit Cove), a website (www.savefruitcove.com), a petition at Change.org, as well as a planning meeting to organize and assign duties were accomplished within a week.
A preliminary community meeting was announced by the developer for Sept. 14, but later postponed, apparently due to capacity issues at the proposed meeting venue. As of press date, the meeting has not been rescheduled, but a Save Fruit Cove resident planning meeting held that same night was attended by approximately 300 homeowners.
Matt Marshall, vice president of development with RISE said, “We’re evaluating next steps and will communicate with the community when appropriate.”
According to St. Johns County Commissioner for District 1 Christian Whitehurst, this proposed development is so early that any official processes haven’t even started yet.
“RISE is yet to even file an application,” Whitehurst said. “It’s important for people to understand that by law, I’m not allowed to comment on whether I’m in favor or opposed to any development, including this one. But I would never vote to approve anything I thought would be detrimental to a community.”
Whitehurst pointed out that he’s been a part of this community for 23 years and is well aware of the special character of Fruit Cove Road. He’s been impressed by the organization and professionalism of the community in their opposition.
Magan Hartley and her husband John are among three homeowners who haven’t sold their land and she has been instrumental in getting the word out about the proposed development. She said her family had just moved into their “dream home” on Fruit Cove Road in December 2020 and the first she became aware of the proposed development was when a third party broker walked through her gate in March 2021 and found her in her backyard. He asked if she would entertain an offer to sell, since “all of her neighbors” had sold. She was shocked, but said to send an offer and she’d talk it over with her husband.
“Six very stressful weeks later, we came home to an envelope shoved in our front door which contained an offer that wasn’t nearly enough to even make us whole or to find another place to live,” Magan Hartley said. “We responded ‘no.’”
Hartley said it was a full year later, in April 2022, that she saw the surveyors out around the area. She then posted on NextDoor that a company had secured the land around them and planned a development. She advised neighbors to keep an eye out for a community meeting, all the while dealing with stress and sadness over the uncertainty as to the future of their home and their investment. It wasn’t until the very end of August, when the community meeting signs were posted, that the situation really gained traction.
“Somebody, I’m not sure who, posted the Community Meeting signs on Facebook and it just exploded,” Hartley said. “All of a sudden 100 neighbors who had 100 friends were rallying. I’ve always loved Fruit Cove, but I had no idea how much everyone here loves what they have. It’s truly a special place and we are ready to fight to keep it.”
According to Al Abbatiello, a well known local advocate for maintaining the historical nature of the area and chairman of the William Bartram Scenic & Historic Highway Management Group, Fruit Cove is the gateway to St. Johns County, the Bartram Trail Scenic Highway and the historic St. Johns River, an American Heritage River — a place where older homes blend comfortably with newer homes, wildlife and the 100-year-old trees still dotting the area.
“Our way of life includes small farms and gardens; some residents have goats, chickens, dogs, and horses,” Abbatiello said. “Every residential development in this area, including Julington Creek Plantation, was designed to keep the area beautiful while growing as a thriving community. Much of this is due to the original Northwest Sector Plan where residents and the Scenic Highway organization worked with county government to preserve this area from unnecessary development while keeping it as scenic as possible.”
Hartley wants everyone in NW St. Johns County to know that this proposed project, incompatible to the area, could set a precedent for years to come and she advises everyone to pay attention.
“If you have just put down roots here, it should be just as important to you as the people who have lived here a long time,” Hartley said. “It’s really been encouraging to see the support we’ve received so far, but this is just the beginning. Please pay attention — check websites, show up to county meetings — and not just for this project, but for all of them. We need to fight for what we have left of what Fruit Cove used to be.”
Visit www.savefruitcove.com or Save Fruit Cove on Facebook for the latest information.
[Editor’s Note: This is not the only issue facing Fruit Cove. There is presently a proposal for rezoning for a rowing club at the base of the Julington Creek Bridge to include a proposed 35-foot tall structure for storage of crew rowing boats.]
Photo by Martie Thompson
Magan Hartley outside her home on Fruit Cove Road.