Former developer's career is now about preserving land
By Maggie FitzRoy, Contributing Writer
Before he started preserving land, Jim McCarthy made his living developing it.
In the 1990s, he founded The Associated Builders and Contractors organization in Jacksonville and was its executive director.
He later worked for The Haskell Co., serving as vice president of business development, implementing development and design-build.
Since August 2014, McCarthy has been executive director of North Florida Land Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving important ecological, agricultural and historic lands in North Florida.
He collaborates with landowners, public agency partners and other foundations to ensure the area’s natural resources are protected.
Founded in 1999, the trust owns thousands of acres throughout the region, which McCarthy oversees, including the McGarvey/Goelz Preserve in Ponte Vedra Beach and the Nassau River Marshes and Big Talbot Island Preserves.
The land trust’s first purchase, Pescatello Island, is representative of the type of land the organization strives to protect.
A 30-acre forested island within the Timucuan Preserve, it has never been developed and now never will be.
Surrounded by salt marshes, it is home to several types of birds and can only be accessed by boat, with permission.
The land trust recently identified thousands of additional priority areas in Duval, Clay, Putnam, Flagler, Nassau and St. Johns counties.
McCarthy said he is enjoying his new career because “it’s a real opportunity to make a difference.”
But he also stresses he is still in the real estate business and still in the business of buying land. In fact, he said, his experience on the development side has proven to be an asset when it comes to preservation.
“Companies like Haskell buy to develop and build,” he said, and at the land trust, “we buy to conserve and preserve.”
But, “we can work together,” McCarthy said.
Developers increasingly recognize the value of preserved lands — protected waterways, streams and rivers — because they enhance a community’s quality of life and increase nearby property values.
As a result, he said, preserving land has become “an opportunity to share, a common goal.”
Two developers recently approached the land trust about donating or selling unused mitigation property, primarily wetlands.
And the land trust is in conversations with Gate Petroleum Co. about possibly acquiring its Outpost property at the end of Neck Road in Ponte Vedra Beach.
The wooded land, long used as a retreat, is under contract with developers who plan to build a 77-home community, but only if it can be rezoned residential.
The land trust does not get involved with zoning issues, but “if they are unsuccessful in developing it, we would be more than happy to acquire it,” McCarthy said of the property.
Ownership, however, is not the only way the land trust works to preserve land.
It also facilitates conservation easements between landowners and government agencies.
In those legally binding arrangements, a property owner retains ownership but gives up the right to develop the land, for a price or significant tax deduction.
Conservation easements are “a growing piece of our business,” McCarthy said, and the land trust has projects underway to help farmers and ranchers turn their property into easements.
The land trust has so many projects on so many fronts that the organization has doubled the size of its staff since McCarthy came aboard.
The nonprofit was based in Ponte Vedra Beach until March 2014, when the Chartrand Foundation donated a house and a lot on Gilmore Street.
Florida’s population is expected to double by 2060, according to the trust’s preservation portfolio.
So, as stated in the portfolio, it is important to protect the “scenic beauty, abundant wildlife, recreational opportunities and overall quality of life” in the region.
At Pescatello Island, the land trust maintains a trail for nature lovers that runs along the northern shore.
With permission, the public can get to it via kayak or small boat from nearby Clapboard Creek or Bogey Creek Landing, which the land trust also owns.
Protecting properties such as those drives McCarthy now.
“Eighty-four percent of the people in Jacksonville say they live here because they love the outdoors,” he said. “It’s part of who we are and where we are.”
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