AUG 14, 2011

A great article today in the St Augustine Record! 

St Augustine's (St Johns County) Growth Is Doubling This Year -
County is 4th Fastest Growing County In State!

"The number of commercial development permits issued by St. Johns County's Building Services Division this year is nearly twice those of 2010, while residential home permits are up nearly 10 percent.

Gregg Russell, owner of Advanced Insulation of Central Florida, sees this as economic improvement. His crews spray foam insulation into attics to make them up to 50 percent more efficient.

"We're definitely moving in the right direction," Russell said. "(Our business) is up 40 percent over last year."

This positive news has caught the attention of county officials, who hope it's the beginning of a regional economic boom and the end result of their tinkering with growth incentives.

According to the Florida Building Materials Association, St. Johns County is now in fourth place among 67 Florida counties in the number of residential permits issued.

By June, there were 1,015 residential building permits issued against 989 issued over all of 2010. The first, second and third finishers are Hillsborough, Sumter and Orange counties.

St. Johns County issued 610 commercial permits, while in all of 2010, there were 358.

This growth in commercial and residential building activity seems to be a "regional boom" that's a result of the county's natural beauty, great schools, and pro-business adjustments the County Commission made over time.

Assistant County Administrator Darrell Locklear said the commission's No. 1 goal is to attract business investment and thereby lower the property tax burden on residents.

"(The commission) reduced non-essential impact fees, revised concurrency requirements for more flexibility and ease of approval, revised the land development code to be more business-friendly and improved the county's incentive package," he said.

Quality of Life

Locklear said he asked builders in the area why they chose to build in St. Johns County.

"They pretty much all gave me the same answer: Quality of life. We've had the best school system in Florida for three years in a row now, beautiful parks and natural resources, the beach, the Intracoastal, low crime, historic St. Augustine and our closeness to Jacksonville."

Two recent examples of companies seeking business incentives are Hospital Corporation of America, which wants to build a stand-alone emergency room, and a Jacksonville developer who wants to build Silver Creek, a large assisted living center.

Both would provide high-paying jobs and a stable tax base.

"Our permitting system sometimes was given a bad rap," Locklear said. "But we've had projects that went through a rezoning, plans review and building permit applications in 42 days."

Glenn Hastings, executive director of the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council, said St. Johns has much to offer incoming companies: An educated workforce, a desirable place to live, an Industrial Development Authority eager to make million-dollar business loans and a county government glad to have them.

"More and more, local entities are working together," Hastings said. "We're finally all on the same page. That should be the key to getting a lot more done. There's good reason for optimism here."

Northern growth

Roger Osteen, chairman of the PARC Group, which developed Nocatee, said north St. Johns County has been an important market since they developed Nocatee in 1999 and began building there in 2005.

When the recession hit in 2008, sales slowed considerably. But now?

"We're selling an average of six homes per week. We'll sell 275 this year," Osteen said, explaining that the county's schools "are certainly a significant advantage and asset, as are the beaches. People tend to gravitate toward the coast. Nocatee is a very central place."

According to Howard White, St. Johns County's building official and director of building services, St. Johns is behind Hillsborough, Sumter and Orange counties, but "their permitting numbers are dropping, while ours are in the ascendancy. We're on track to double 2010's numbers. Builders are cautiously optimistic. We've had a steady increase in permits across the board. That's created a little bit of excitement in our world."

Other counties and states are seeing virtually no growth, while St. Johns chugs ahead, he said.

"Part of that is the pent-up frustration on the part of builders. Most activity is in the northeast and northwest sectors of the county such as Aberdeen, Nocatee and Durbin Creek," he said. "This county is still essentially rural."

White said there's not much speculative building going on by big national developers.

"They've learned their lesson. (Builders) are telling us they are selling their product," he said.

The residential problem

Officials have said often that they need more business and industry, not houses. Residential areas require infrastructure such as drainage, water lines, roads, police and fire protection.

But commercial properties pay more in taxes than they use in services. Residential is the opposite.

White said they go hand-in-hand. "When housing starts increase, commercial permits increase. That's what we're seeing," he said.

One aspect of the mini-boom has him excited, he said. "A great number of abandoned projects are being purchased by new investors or developers (who are) re-permitting them. There are about 150 abandoned projects in the county. That's a huge indication to us that things are turning around."

Real estate brokers are also feeling positive.

Chuck Pacetti, president of the St. Johns County Board of Realtors, said sales year-to-date compared to last year are "up tremendously. There's been no decline in property values or sales volume. There's a small inventory of homes on the market, which has stabilized value."

The "northern sector" is very active, especially to Jacksonville residents, due to the St. Johns County school system. "We've always been a bedroom community of Jacksonville," he said.

According to his statistics, 2,539 homes were listed for sale since Jan. 1, versus 3,123 for the same period in 2010, a 19 percent decrease. In addition, 1,463 homes were sold during the same period versus 1,306 in 2010, a 12 percent increase.

"The median sales price to-date is $165,000, which is virtually unchanged for the same period last year," Pacetti said. "It appears from those figures that our residential resale market has stabilized and starting to improve. The supply of available homes is shrinking, while demand is increasing. (Also), interest rates remain low for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, (we) are well positioned to continue the trend of improvement with regards to the real estate market."

Here is the link to the original story in The St Augustine Record--CLICK HERE