GREEN COVE SPRINGS – A developer has withdrawn his application for a 40-unit affordable housing development in the Ridgecrest area after more than two and a half hours of scalding insults from about 65 area residents.
The development would have provided essential housing for the 46 percent of Clay County residents that qualify for it. Residents of the Ridgecrest and surrounding neighborhoods filled the room at the Tuesday Board of County Commissioners meeting to protest a zoning change that would permit construction.
As proposed, the development would be placed on 2.8 acres on Cleveland Avenue near Orange Park and contain a picnic area and a dog park for residents.
Residents contended the affordable housing units would decrease property values, raise traffic on Cleveland Avenue and bring drugs, crime, rape, prostitution, murder, burglary and even terrorism.
“I can tell you first hand exactly how horrible this could go wrong,” said resident James Edward Munsey at the hearing. “[Affordable housing] destroys, it’s like a virus. I’ve stood there and watched people die in the streets. I’ve watched police officers get gunned down with AK-47s in the middle of the day. They’ll take on armored vehicles in the day...We can get Al-Qaeda or ISIS in there.”
The county needs more affordable housing. Of the roughly 10 affordable housing communities in Clay County, all are currently at 95 to 100 percent capacity with substantial waiting lists.
The problem is maturing beyond control, according to former affordable housing developer and Fleming Island-based Developer’s Realty Group President Jerry Agresti.
“These people don’t earn enough money to buy a house but they need a decent place to live,” Agresti said. “It’s a crisis. The county needs to make sure that all of their people get housing. It needs to be taken very, very seriously.”
“It’s going to be critical and it’s one of the things that somebody needs to get serious about otherwise it’s going to be ‘we don’t mind you working in this county, but we don’t want you living here,”’ he said.
Agresti said solving the problem isn’t just incumbent upon developers to ensure an adequate amount of workforce housing remains readily available, he said often these projects need to be subsidized through local government partnerships.
According to Agresti, construction costs have climbed 15 percent in the last year and could continue to climb.
There is necessary community cooperation that did not play out the way affordable housing developer Al Muzaurieta had hoped Tuesday.
Instead, for two and a half hours, area residents voiced their concerns and attacked Muzaurieta. One resident went as far as to compare Muzaurieta to Judas Iscariot from the Bible, saying that he was tempting commissioners with “30 pieces of silver.”
In his three-minute rebuttal, Muzaurieta countered many misconceptions, but inevitably began to bite back tears as the public talked over him from their seats.
“I get the impression that I, and my colleagues, are being perceived as the ‘they,’” Muzaurieta said. “‘They do this’ ‘those people are going to come into our area…’ I’m not the ‘they.’ I’m a member of the Orange Park community, me and my family have saved up our money to invest in the Ridgecrest community.”
“I’m just worried when we, as a group in a nice neighborhood, all look out and say ‘those people,’” Muzaurieta said. “Who is the ‘they?’ Are they black people? Hispanic people? People of different color? Who are ‘they?’”
The crowd clapped as he withdrew his application to build the affordable housing community in the Ridgecrest area. Some whistled, others hugged one another and stamped their feet. Muzaurieta left the commission chambers immediately afterwards.
Commissioner Gayward Hendry spoke directly to the protestors following the debacle, saying he was proud to live in a country where citizens can voice their concerns divorced from the fear of repercussion.
“Where you live in a sanctuary for each one of you,” Hendry said. “You don’t want your lives interrupted, you don’t want your lives turned upside down no matter how slim the chance, and that I can fully agree with.”
“I think our country does need a workforce housing policy, but it’s got to be in the right place and it’s got to be compatible with the county,” said Commissioner Mike Cella.
Cella hoped Muzaurieta would look elsewhere in the county for a more suitable location for his development. Muzaurieta already owns the Parkridge Apartment complex located less than a mile away from his proposed facility. He left no indication whether he would pursue further development in the county, but chances remain high that he will not.