Zoning in historic area still a fight

After nearly eight years, a controversial proposal to change zoning in American Beach to make building easier still hasn't been decided.

At an emotional public hearing Tuesday, many American Beach residents said the county could endanger the area's status on the National Register of Historic Places by changing current zoning. Those residents asked the planning and zoning board to consult with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the state historic preservation officer before making any decisions.

"It was not our intent to destroy American Beach," said Tom Ford, planning and zoning vice chairman. "Our only intent was to help."

Ford, who led the two-hour public hearing, asked the public to return at 7 p.m. Sept. 3 for a continuation of the hearing at the county annex building on Page's Dairy Road in Yulee. The board also agreed to hold a workshop at Franklintown United Methodist Church on Lewis Street before the September hearing to allow American Beach residents and property owners to voice their concerns. County planners have yet to set a date for the workshop.

The dogfight over preserving history and moving toward the future has been going on for decades.

American Beach property owners who applied for the zoning changes say they are with restrictions that force them to request a variance from the county each time they want to build on their land. They say the variances cost them time and taxpayers money.

The American Beach Property Owners Association applied for the creation of an "overlay district" that would reduce construction restrictions and setback requirements in the area. The boundaries of the district are Burney Park on the south, Florida A1A on the west and Amelia Island Parkway on the north, excluding the Osprey Village planned unit development.

If approved, the overlay would change land-use designations, including minimum lot widths, maximum heights, lot coverage, allowed uses, conditional uses and permitted uses. It wouldn't change owners' lot boundaries or sizes.

But residents of American Beach say the residents -- not the property owners association -- know what's best.

Bobby Dollison, who owns American Beach Villas on Greeg Street, said American Beach property owners are no more special than property owners throughout the county.

"You can build on American Beach," Dollison said. "There are $200,000 homes being built without a variance, without an overlay. So there is no need for an overlay."

Although some of American Beach is zoned for commercial use, most of the area is zoned for residential, single-family homes, or RS-2. Because most of American Beach is platted into 50- by 100-foot lots, as originally designed by the pension bureau of the Afro-American Life Insurance Co. during the Great Depression, many existing structures don't meet current county zoning requirements. The county would have to grant a variance or exception for any changes to the property.

RS-2 zoning calls for a minimum 75-foot lot width and maximum 35 percent lot coverage for structures. The proposed overlay would reduce the minimum lot width to 50 feet, bringing current lots up to code, and increasing the maximum lot coverage to 55 percent, allowing the construction of larger buildings.

MaVynee Betsch, great-granddaughter of one of American Beach's founders, said the area deliberately was designed to allow residents to enjoy the ocean breeze and view. She said property owners knew they were buying small lots, and were aware of the restrictions, before the purchases.

Betsch said she doesn't want her community to become another Amelia Island Plantation or Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island.

"This is historic," Betsch said. "We're not going to be cookie-cutter. Please respect the historic reason for these lots."

American Beach, a resort area created for African-Americans in the 1930s, when beaches were segregated, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in January. The community was recognized for its ethnic heritage and community planning and development.

Historic Sites Specialist Bob Jones of the state's Bureau of Historic Preservation said the way American Beach was platted is what makes it historically significant.

"American Beach is outstanding for ethnic heritage relating to black-segregated society prior to the Civil Rights Act, and they [the founders] had the wherewithal in developing property to develop a resort," Jones said. "American Beach is the premier Florida segregated beach."

While the bureau of historic preservation isn't a regulatory agency and can't issue mandates to the county, Jones said legislation that affects the development of the community could affect its place on the national register.

Property owners who want to develop their land say historic significance should be preserved, but not over the safety of its residents.

"If a hurricane came through, all the historical status in the world would not help you rebuild," Jacksonville resident and American Beach property owner Quentin Jones said. "Property owners have to have the right to develop their property as they want to."

Ford also emphasized the impact a hurricane could have on community rebuilding if the overlay weren't approved.

"If there was a hurricane, all of you would be in here asking for a variance, and it could take months to get that done," Ford said.

He asked residents and property owners to try the find a compromise that would benefit all of American Beach and not just each individual.

"We're trying to find something compatible to the good of the community," Ford said.

Staff writer Alison Trinidad can be reached at (904) 261-7606, extension 105, or via e-mail at atrinidadjacksonville.com.

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