Judge denies motion to dismiss lawsuit filed by Wildlight developer against Nassau County

Dispute is over who will pay for park construction and maintenance.

  • By Max Marbut
  • | 3:45 p.m. March 27, 2020
  • | 5 Free Articles Remaining!
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Circuit Judge James Daniel denied a defendant's motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed against Nassau County by the developer of Wildlight, the 2,900-acre master-planned community in Yulee.

Daniel ruled March 3.

Gregory Stewart with Nabors Gibin & Nickerson, attorneys for Nassau County, did not return a phone call and email for comment.

Raydient LLC and nine other entities owned by Rayonier, the developer, filed the lawsuit in November 2018.

Raydient alleges that the Nassau County Board of Commissioners is attempting to make Rayonier pay for park construction and maintenance throughout the county as a condition of developing Wildlight.

That was not required in the original land use agreement the commission approved for Wildlight.

Construction began four years ago for Wildlight's first phase

It comprises1,000 homes and apartments; an elementary school for up to 800 students; a grocery-anchored retail center; a bank; a day care center; an early learning center; a 106-room hotel; 350 acres of preserved open space; and two corporate headquarters.

According to the lawsuit:

In 2011, Nassau County approved creation of the East Nassau Community Planning Area on about 24,000 acres of timberland owned by Raydient.

The community planning area is a sector plan governed by state law and became part of the county's Comprehensive Plan. Up to 24,000 residential units and 11 million square feet of commercial space may be developed within the area.

During the approval process, county ordinances required Raydient to pay recreational impact fees and to donate land to the county for the construction of community and regional parks and recreation facilities.

Raydient says it paid the impact fees and donated 12,000 acres, more than the required amount of land to the county.

In 2013, the commission approved the first development order for Raydient's headquarters, some commercial development and a few residential units.

In 2015, Raydient and the commission agreed to create a stewardship district, a limited form of government over an area of development that can create, finance and maintain public infrastructure.

Created by the Legislature, the district is empowered to issue bonds, levy fees and assessments or implement taxes.

Site preparation began in spring 2016 for Wildlight's first phase.

The complaint states that Raydient submitted an application in 2016 for approval of the second phase of the project.

The second phase, 1,080 acres, included 1,500 active adult units with on-site recreation mitigation. Active adult units typically put little to no pressure on a county's school and park facilities, said Rayonier spokesman Alejandro Barbero.

During the approval process, disagreement began between Raydient and the county over the planning, building and funding of community and regional parks in the ENCPA.

Raydient contends that Nassau county had a deficiency in its public parks and recreational facilities.

The county retroactively sought to have Raydient and/or the stewardship district finance the community and regional parks in the East Nassau Community Planning Area rather than exclusively through developer park and recreation impact fees and countywide taxes.

As a condition for approving the second stewardship district, Nassau County officials specifically demanded that Raydient and/or the district pay $13 million to $15 million for the construction and maintenance of the public parks and facilities.

Raydient declined and insisted that the county's comprehensive plan and applicable ordinances required it to only donate land.

Despite their inability to reach a consensus on who should pay for public parks and recreational facilities in the East Nassau  Community Planning Area, Raydient and the commission successfully lobbied the Legislature in 2017 to enact HB 1075 to create the East Nassau Stewardship District.

The bill granted the Stewardship District Board of Supervisors the power to provide public parks and public facilities for indoor and outdoor recreational, cultural and educational uses.

Raydient says the county continued to deny approval of Raydient's application for the second development unless Raydient and the stewardship district agreed to commit $13 million to $15 million to the county for community and regional parks in the community planning area.

According to the complaint, the county asserted that HB 1075 transferred to Raydient and the district the county's obligation to create and maintain parks and recreation facilities in the community planning area.

Raydient maintained its position that its obligation under the county's Comprehensive Plan and applicable land use provisions was to donate the land for community and regional park facilities. Raydient further insisted that HB 1075 did nothing to alter the county's responsibility to fund, build and maintain park facilities through impact fees and countywide taxes.

The county communicated to Raydient that it would not process any further proposals concerning the project until Raydient agreed to fund future public recreation improvements within the ENCPA.

Raydient withdrew its application for the second phase.

“DSAP No. 2 is now a lost opportunity for us and the county,” Barbero said.

The dispute continued with Raydient taking the position that it was not obligated to provide park facilities in the community planning area beyond its original land donation, nor was it mandatory under HB 1075 to use the power given to the stewardship district to finance and construct public facilities.

According to the lawsuit, in retaliation for Raydient's efforts, the commission enacted an ordinance creating the community planning area Recreational Municipal Service Taxing Unit.

It authorizes the commission to collect annual ad valorem taxes on real and personal property within the East Nassau Community Planning Area to fund recreation services, maintenance and facilities within the taxing unit.

Raydient says the commission intends for parks and recreational facilities in the community planning area to serve all county residents regardless of whether they own land in it.

The commission also intends to use the tax for public parks and recreational facilities located throughout the county and will not restrict the use of those funds to facilities located within the community planning area.

The complaint asks the court to declare the tax district invalid because it represents potential coercion that might result in a private landowner abandoning its federal and state constitutional rights to just compensation for a government taking property in exchange for the government issuing land-use permits.

Raydient contends that Nassau County's actions violate the federal and state constitutions as well as Florida law and should be declared invalid.

The company asks the court to declare that it nor the stewardship district have an obligation to build or maintain parks within the community planning area.

“We are delivering on the promises we made. More than a decade ago, Nassau County and Rayonier agreed to work on a framework to foster economic development in the county, which led to the establishment of the 24,000-acre ENCPA to promote a higher quality of development, create jobs and bring private nonresidential investment,” Barbero said.

He said as the lawsuit continues, Rayonier remains committed to the project and to economic development in Nassau County.

“Today, Wildlight is progressing largely according to plan. There are now two new HQ buildings, a bank, a multitenant space and a state-of-the-art UF medical facility,” Barbero said in an email.

“There are also apartments, day care, early learning center and YMCA facilities under construction. A hotel will also soon break ground. All these represent new taxes and high-paying jobs that benefit the county,” he said.




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