In the northern reaches of St. Johns County, ribbons of creeks carve through stands of pine and a nexus of spartina grass before falling off into the Guana River, eventually feeding into the Tolomato River further south. Along its eastern edge, cord grass climbs the bank toward dunes that separate the Guana from the Atlantic. Within these swamps, shores, and hollows, a vast number of species find refuge: 358 birds, 41 reptiles, 21 amphibians, 44 mammals, 303 different kinds of fish and 580 plant species. Walking among the dunes or through the scrub here can seem almost spiritual.

In 1984, when the former owner, Herb Peyton, founder of Gate Petroleum, sold the land to the State of Florida, he later wrote in his autobiography, “We are returning the property to its rightful owner, the State of Florida,” because as he wrote, “God made it to be in its natural state.”

Today, 99 acres of land nestled into the Guana, known as The Outpost by locals, is set to be developed by Gate’s subsidiary, Ponte Vedra Corp.

This is the eternal story of Florida, the classic tale underscoring the folly of development. The only issue here is that the 99 acres Gate wants to develop are deemed conservation lands by the County. Gate seeks to amend that. And a group of St. Johns County residents, banded together as the organization, Save Guana Now (SGN), seek to prevent them from doing so.

Prior to the arrival of Spanish colonists in the 16th century, Guana’s thumbs of muck and cordgrass were interspersed with farms of the Timucua tribe. Later, a British Indigo plantation molded the landscape even further, and Guana quietly watched as the southern edge of America became itself. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the Tolomato River to expand the Intracoastal Waterway. By the 1920s, developers hoped to carve out a tract for suburbia here. They culled pine trees instead. Slowly, owners molded the upper basin of the river to hunt waterfowl, and by 1957, they began damming the river which formed what some call the Guana Lake or the area north of the dam.

In 1983, Gate Petroleum with Peyton at the helm acquired the land from the General American Oil Company, which had purchased the holdings from one of Jacksonville’s earliest business empires, Stockton, Whatley Davin & Co. For 16,000 acres, Gate paid $60 million. A year later, Peyton sold 8,000 acres to the State for $49 million—the land that would first form a state park then later, in 1999, become the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM NERR). Peyton retained a vast swath of properties that flank the river as it moves north toward Duval County, however. The Outpost was a parcel of land Peyton kept.

Photo: Sean Kelly Conway

It’s hard to imagine Gate gas stations as anything but ubiquitous in Jacksonville, but when Peyton opened the first station on Moncrief Road in 1960, it was an unlikely indicator of what was to come. In two decades, they’d expand into eight states, acquiring farms, lots of real estate, and construction companies, too. In 1986, they bought Blount Island, essentially one-third of the port of Jacksonville. In 1990, they put pen to paper on 28 7-11s in Jacksonville. And in 1997, they bought the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club. Gate’s holdings demonstrate how they were and remain instrumental in the development of Northeast Florida—one of the most concentrated regions of development in the entire State.

“The development has gone so far,” Nicole Crosby, co-founder of SGN, said. In the five years, she’s lived along the quiet strip of pavement leading to The Outpost, she’s watched the development spread like wildfire. So when she first caught wind of a proposal to develop The Outpost with over 200 homes, she’d had enough.

In 2014, Crosby and co-founder Gary Coulliette started raising awareness about the proposed development, and by July 2016, they formed SGN to prevent Gate from breaking ground. Today, their organization’s newsletter has more than 600 subscribers. “It’s heartening to see,” Crosby said.

Within the County’s Future Land Use Map, which outlines St. Johns County’s plans for sustainable developmental growth patterns by identifying and designating areas of current development and anticipated future developments, The Outpost is deemed conservation land, and code stipulates that it can’t be developed due to zoning. But due to a footnote that outlines how the boundaries of conservation lands are subject to determination, Gate has sued the County in order to amend the code and by proxy navigate the legal thicket in order to build the proposed 66-home development called “Vista Tranquila.”

Jane West, the environmental attorney representing SGN, said, “The precedent is statewide.” She outlined that if Gate is able to win this case, amending the code, that it could ripple outward, opening up conservation land for rezoning and development across the State. “That’s my fear,” she warned.

In a long, rather opaque legal battle that has amounted to a stalemate, Circuit Court Judge Michael Traynor, lifted the abeyance on Gate’s lawsuit in February, and the future of The Outpost hangs in the balance as their complaint moves forward, with many folks eagerly anticipating that the issue makes its way into the public purview. But what has struck West as odd is that Gate hasn’t been pushing the case or the development as aggressively as most developers do.

“We have to sit and wait,” she said, but she believed her clients were in it for the long haul.

Reflecting on the groundswell that SGN has garnered in just two years, Coulliette concluded optimistically, “People do have power.”

Gary Coulliette (left) and Nicole Crosby (right) have been raising awareness about a proposed development. Photo: Sean Kelly Conway

And although the Audubon Society, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Sierra Club, and the North Florida Land Trust have all come out in staunch opposition to Gate’s proposal, citing ghastly detriment, Gate has remained adamant that the subdivision would not affect the surrounding area, often citing that only 22 of the 99 acres are in fact subject to the conservation land use designation, which are wetlands.

A spokesperson for Gate told News4Jax that it’s currently engaged in an “open dialogue” concerning the proposed development.

In a statement sent to the local news outlet Gate said the following:

“It is false to claim that the entire 99-acre Outpost property has ever been in conservation. Consistent with the policies of its comprehensive plan and St. Johns County’s previous applications of its conditional conservation land use designation, only the jurisdictional wetlands (approximately 22.7 of the 99.3 acres) are subject to the conservation land use designation. GATE does not, and will not, propose development on those 22.7 acres. The debate and attempts to prevent development on the remaining property and to characterize the entire 99-acre parcel as sensitive conservation land is simply a land grab by some who want to utilize our private property as their own private greenway.

“In addition, numerous independent, on-site surveys and studies by environmental firms have concluded that there are no significant natural communities or habitats on the Outpost property. Wildlife seen in the adjacent Guana lake have their breeding, feeding, nesting and roosting habitat needs well met by core estuaries and upland buffers located within the GTMNERR. After four years of planning and research, we have proposed a low-density neighborhood that is sensitive to the ongoing protection of the adjacent NERR, while still allowing for the reasonable use of our private property.”  

Some folks I talked to speculated that there might be more to the story, maybe some vested interest for Gate down the road, because with the vast enterprise Gate laid claim to, what was a measly 99 acres?

West, for her part, ran through what was at stake for Gate, the Guana, and what it would ultimately mean in the arc of the State’s history. She summed it up when she pointedly asked of the parcel’s value, “Valuable to what end?”

In an essay for Harper’s in 2001 called “One Acre,” Joy Williams wrote of her home (our mutual home) on Siesta Key in Sarasota, Florida. She put it like this, “When land is developed, it ceases being land. It becomes covered, sealed, its own grave.”

As often is the case, these quiet, far-away feeling parcels like the Guana provide something for us as they do for our avian, mammalian, and reptilian friends, too—something bigger in this life. And in turn, each acre counts, because in due time, these places will become harder and harder to find, those quiet moments less frequent.

As Williams wrote of the many species that found refuge on her property as development hemmed them in, “A single acre was able to nurture so many lives, including mine.”

At the same time, population growth and development are unavoidable facts of life, here. But perhaps a compromise exists for the 99 acres down in Palm Valley. It could be a turning point, a heartening precedent.