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Port St. Joe Community Divided On Development Of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

The paper mill is in the background of the image. Smoke rolls off the mill's tower toward a giant field in front of the plant.
Robie, Ray W.
Florida Memory Project

Big changes are coming to North Port St. Joe and not everyone is onboard.

Residents from opposite sides of a controversial development issue packed into Port St. Joe’s Commission meeting on August 6. The city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is currently zoned for mixed-use, meaning property can be used for residences or businesses. In 2016, a small group of locals formed the North Port St. Joe Project Area Coalition (PAC). They set out to define where the commercial district should end and the residential one should begin—and that’s causing nearby homeowners to wonder if they will be displaced by the new boundaries.

“I had no knowledge or nothing and received no notice about rezoning. My home has been in this community for well over 70 years. 70! What in the world I want to commercialize my own property for? I can barely pay the taxes I’m paying now,” one homeowner told commissioners.

The PAC has presented its plans to the city and now the city is considering changes to the land use map. John Hendry is a consultant for the PAC. He says the new language will protect current residents rather than displace them.

“What we did was to say okay, the underlying use remains mixed-use but what we want to do is create—make sure that we’re really clear about three zones. The first one is the commercial zone which runs between avenues A and C,” says Hendry. “We wanted to preserve the part of the street that was dedicated to residential occupation so we made that a separate zone."

The third zone is transitional. It would link the commercial and residential districts. Tensions rose during the City Commission meeting when residents said they never received a notice of the possible land use change.

“I feel like we should know something before anyone votes,” said a resident during the commission meeting.

The city’s planning consultant Ray Greer says the city fulfilled its legal requirements. This includes publishing a notice in the newspaper, but not everyone has a subscription.

“They have notified all property owners of the future land use map amendment including the ability to opt out of it,” says Greer.

Chester Davis sits with his wife in the commission meeting.
Credit Robbie Gaffney / WFSU
Chester Davis and his wife attended Port St. Joe's Commission Meeting on August 2.

President of the PAC, Chester Davis says despite the controversy, the new language is the first step to restoring the area.

“We just had it going on in common words. Like I said, everything worked within its own self, like the grocery store was owned by local people that lived above the grocery store. The tavern and the bars had apartments above it. So everything there was just lively. I mean it was a good place to grow up,” says Davis.

During Davis’ childhood, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was Main Street. It served as a bustling community center that had everything from grocery stores to a dentist's office. The nearby paper mill served as the main source of job security. It closed in the late 90's and Davis says the economy never recovered.

“The buildings has become unlivable most of them are torn down. The history... We have had is no longer visible. You can’t see what we used to have at all,” says Davis.

The Jesse Ball duPont fund has been a main stakeholder for North Port St. Joe’s development efforts ever since its founders died. The company financed a survey that identified the community as blighted. PAC consultant Hendry explains this further.

“Low property values, low lot values and just a sense that the neighborhood had been left behind,” says Hendry.

Letha stands in front of her car.
Credit Robbie Gaffney / WFSU
Letha Mathews showed up early to the commission meeting on August 2.

Residents like Letha Mathews joined the PAC after buying property on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. However, one Woodward Avenue resident says miscommunication among neighbors has divided not only Port St. Joe, but other areas as well, “We’ve seen these issues over in our neighborhood... Kind of turning us against each other as neighbors. We’re seeing it now here. You’re seeing it over in Highland View.”

Port St. Joe’s City Commissioners voted to adopt the new land use amendment. The city’s next step is to review whether the PAC rezoning plan is viable.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.