The Ponte Vedra Corporation, a subsidiary of GATE Petroleum Company, is not backing down on its land use change issue for The Outpost property, but it is making the sale of the land to conservationists more feasible.

In a release issued Friday, PVC announced its willingness to "self impose a three-year stay of development on the property, allowing time for public entities or private preservation groups to secure funding and purchase the property."

The approximately 100-acre parcel in northern St. Johns County has been the subject of a lawsuit and intense public debate as the owners have tried to get the land changed from a land use of Conservation to Residential-A Coastal and CV. PVC wants approval so that it can put a maximum of 66 homes on the 74 upland acres of the property.

In August, the county Planning and Zoning Agency voted 3-2 to recommend transmittal of the application to the state. The County Commission will decide on that at its Sept. 17 meeting.

At the PZA meeting, hundreds of county residents came out to oppose the land use change, and many of them expressed that opposition during about two hours of public comment. But the PZA dismissed the public opposition and environmental concerns — many of which were brought forward by citizen action group Save Guana Now — citing the property rights of the owners.

What Save Guana Now members and others would like is for the property to be purchased by the state or a conservation organization so that it is preserved instead of developed. This proposal by PVC allows groups like the North Florida Land Trust the opportunity to line up funding to keep the land in conservation.

North Florida Land Trust president Jim McCarthy said he has been in communication with PVC representatives regularly for months and was glad to see them offer the three-year stay on development.

"Our position is still the same: We want the opportunity to help acquire the property ourselves or help the state acquire it," he said Friday in an interview with The Record.

The hope is that the land trust can obtain funding from Florida Forever, much like it did in the case of Fish Island in St. Augustine.

There are some hurdles, though, which is why it was important to have some much time for negotiations. There has not been a full appraisal of the property, and the land does not currently fall within the boundaries of the Florida Forever program, requiring a boundary amendment. The surrounding land is within the boundaries, so that would probably not be difficult to obtain. It will take some time, though.

"That is a good faith effort," McCarthy said of the PVC offer. "I’m pleased to hear about it. Three years is very generous on their part."

The effort could also need time because there is no guarantee Florida Forever money will be allocated. And even if it is, McCarthy said some matching funds might be required.

"It’s not uncommon for that to happen in Florida Forever projects," he said.

Despite some willingness to facilitate a sale that would keep the land as conservation, PVC asserts that it does deserve the right to develop it. The company would like to retain that right in case a sale does not go through.

And even if a sale does happen, the land will appraise for considerably more money as a developable parcel in a desirable area than it would as conservation land.

“The company’s goal all along has been to ensure that our private property rights and our investment are protected,” said Drew Frick, president of GATE Lands, in a release.

“We know that there is a desire by some to keep our property in its current state. Our proposal to delay any development on the property for three years allows those parties time to secure funding and purchase the land. If the funds can be raised to purchase the Outpost property, both those wanting to keep the property as is and PVC would achieve positive results from this process.”

According to the release, PVC has proposed to the county that the specific terms of the stay period can be set forth in an amendment to the current settlement agreement between PVC and St. Johns County (dated April 18). PVC proposes that the terms would include, but not be limited to, granting the county the right to purchase the Outpost property before the expiration or termination of the three-year stay for a value determined through a mutually agreeable process.

As part of the process, PVC said: "as a good faith seller, will work with the county to identify and move toward securing funding from public entities or private preservation groups."

The three-year stay would commence following the approval of the terms of the amended settlement agreement and the Commission’s vote to adopt the pending Comprehensive Plan Amendment application and Planned Unit Development rezoning application for the property.

Save Guana Now president Nicole Crosby said it "supports acquisition of the Outpost property to preserve its environmental features and protect the GTM-NERR (Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve)." However, the group continues to oppose the land use and rezoning applications by PVC.

"We still need people to come to the Sept. 17 hearing to object to the proposed development and to continue to email county commissioners," Crosby said in an email to The Record. "We would love to see the property acquired, but we can’t count on that happening, and if it doesn’t get acquired, we don’t want to see a development out there that has more houses than they are currently allowed under conservation land use designation."