Magazine Post: An Essential Balance

An Essential Balance

Responsible development requires concern for sustainability

In 2015, the United Nations adopted 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) as part of a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that, by 2030, all people will enjoy peace and prosperity.

The goals, then, may be more aspirational than achievable, but they do provide a framework worthy of pursuit and one that relates closely in several regards to the activities of developers in Northwest Florida, including the most land-rich of them all, the St. Joe Company.

Among the 17 goals, here are four with strong application to regional development activity:

SUSTAINABLE CITIES AND COMMUNITIES. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

LIFE BELOW WATER. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

LIFE ON LAND. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems; sustainably manage forests; combat desertification; halt and reverse land degradation; halt biodiversity loss.

GOOD HEALTH AND WELL-BEING. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all people at all ages.

“We live here, our families live here, and we grew up here, so it’s important to us intrinsically to preserve and maintain the environment in pristine condition as much as we can.”

Catherine McCloy, St. Joe’s director of planning and development
Photos courtesy of Watersound Club

As the developer of coastal and near-coastal tracts of land and the owner of vast environmentally significant acreages that historically have been home to rich communities of plant and animal life, the St. Joe Company, headquartered in Panama City Beach, Florida, feels a responsibility to safeguard the environment even as it proceeds to create neighborhoods, establish businesses and bring about a new city.   

“Beyond federal, state and local requirements, we have internal frameworks and guidelines that we abide by,” said Catherine McCloy, St. Joe’s director of planning and development. “We live here, our families live here, and we grew up here, so it’s important to us intrinsically to preserve and maintain the environment in pristine condition as much as we can.”

Ten years before the United Nations adopted its SDGs, the St. Joe Company, working with state and federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, voluntarily established regional general permits and ecosystem management agreements.

“They set aside certain areas for conservation,” McCloy explained. “There are thresholds on how much wetlands we impact. We abide by stormwater management guidelines that are 50 percent more strict than those required by government regulators. They add up to an environmental planning framework that affects how we plan and how we move forward with development.”

St. Joe is in the unique position of being able to set aside thousands of contiguous acres for conservation purposes versus isolated little green spaces. Of the 110,000 acres in its state-approved West Bay Sector Plan, 53,000 acres are reserved for conservation.

“What entity other than a government agency is able and willing to set aside that amount of land for restoration and preservation?” McCloy rhetorically asked.

An Ecosystem Management Agreement executed between the St. Joe Company and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection relies heavily on the concept of Conservation Units, said to be “areas of high quality habitat and landscape function, which have been identified and are to be excluded from development.”

Conservation Units specified by the agreement link wildlife corridors and protect uplands and wetlands from St. Andrew Bay to the Point Washington State Forest and Devil’s Swamp mitigation bank. (St. Joe, as the owner of the bank, sells mitigation credits to smaller developers so that they can satisfy regulators’ set-aside requirements.)

Further connections extend to Northwest Florida Water Management District lands and eventually the Choctawhatchee floodplain and Bay systems.

“The result is a two-pronged ‘Bay to Bay’ wildlife corridor which helps preserve the ecological integrity of two of Northwest Florida’s most rapidly developing watersheds,” the agreement notes.

The Ecosystem Management Agreement team identified five ecological criteria for analyzing and selecting areas for inclusion in Conservation Units: regional significance, biodiversity, water quality, essential fish habitat and nursery/living marine resources.

Agreements, McCloy said, apply to developments both little and big — an addition to St. Joe’s Breakfast Point residential neighborhood located within blocks of its corporate headquarters, on one hand, or on the other, the projected 170,000-unit Latitude Margaritaville Watersound, the equivalent of a midsized city under development north of Panama City Beach.      

Wetlands delineations, soil analyses, flora and fauna inventories and the locations of water bodies, creeks and tributaries all figure in the compiling of agreements.

McCloy, in her role, gets involved in drafting site plans, including provisions for pocket parks, conservation areas and stormwater retention ponds.

“We take into consideration wetlands, topography and where water naturally wants to go,” she said. “We plan around the environmental features that are in place, extend roadway networks and fill in with lots in between.”

From the standpoint of a developer selling residential lots, lifestyle considerations are important. Homeowners enjoy looking out a window to see a great white egret alight at the edge of a blue pond. It slows their heart rates down a bit.

St. Joe, in its planning, has allowed for hundreds of miles of trails with connections to the Gayle’s Trails system in Panama City Beach. The Latitude Margaritaville project is laced with walking and other trails.

“We look at things holistically and plan for the long term,” McCloy said.

To the extent that they succeed, birds and bees, magnolias and mankind, stand to benefit. 

Steve Bornhoft is the executive editor at Rowland Publishing in Tallahassee.


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