Amanda Williamson - Times Union Reporter
Imagine living in quiet coastal Atlantic Beach on a neighborhood street lined with well-kept yards and friendly residents. Children here spend weekends biking past houses on their way to the nearby beach a short mile or two away. Community members stroll casually to the small, family owned businesses in the city — perhaps for a cup of coffee, a sandwich to go or even homemade ice cream.
The major traffic of Atlantic Boulevard and Third Street remains a comfortable distance away from the residential community, which sits behind a barrier of commercially-zoned property. For those most part, those businesses tend to be shops, restaurants, clothing boutiques and even a lone shoe repair shop.
But then, imagine, a 14-pump gas station moves in directly across the street.
The residents of the SaltAir community in Atlantic Beach already have — and they do not like what they see.
More than a year ago, Gate Petroleum Company purchased the 1.8 acres on Atlantic Boulevard for approximately $1.6 million, according to the Jacksonville Property Appraiser’s Office.
Though the gas company is currently working with Atlantic Beach officials to design a structure suitable for the city, residents maintain they do not want Gate to occupy the property adjacent to the popular Beach Diner.
Two weeks ago, to drive home the point, the community group Atlantic Beach Cares started collecting petitions opposing the Gate gas station and convenience store. They have already gathered more than 1,000 signatures. To compare, the city of Atlantic Beach contains nearly 10,000 registered voters. Of those, only 3,214 cast a ballot in the 2015, which means petitions signed by Atlantic Beach Cares already number a third of the total number of voters in the last election.
“We are going to fight this until the end,” said Lorraine Smith, the driving force behind the petitions. “In the past, we thought that maybe commissioners believed it was just us in the SaltAir community opposed to the gas station. The purpose of this petition is basically to prove to them that it is a widespread desire not to have Gate — or any gas station — there.”
According to Smith, the group has received petition signatures from homeowners in all three major Beach cities, from Ponte Vedra and from Jacksonville.
While Smith has encountered some people who are in favor of the gas station, she said there have been very few of them. In fact, those people tend to convert once she explains the details.
“Would you want to live next to the lights and the fumes and everything else that comes with this?” she said.
It is a question she asks anyone who doesn’t mind Gate developing the lot.
The petition states Gate Petroleum plans to built a 14-pump, 6,400-square-foot convenience store on property currently occupied by the Atlantic Palms shopping center. The company has already filed for a permit, but it has yet to be approved by city staff. Residents called for Atlantic Beach Commissioners to send the project to the Community Development Board, but a decision to do so has not been made.
“We are opposing this permit and the construction of a gas station of any type because of the devastating and negative impact it will have on our community,” the petition reads.
Concerned citizens worry the gas station will negatively impact traffic along the two-lane Sturdivant Street, which is already heavily trafficked. They believe crime could increase as transients — whether homeless or simply tourists — stop in the Salt Air subdivision to use Gate’s services.
Smith, who would be able to see the back of the gas station from her house if comes to fruition, shares several concerns with other homeowners in her area, but the concerns aren’t isolated to SaltAir. How much light pollution could a 24-hour, mega-gas station emit? How will they possibly be able to keep up with the litter they believe could be generated as a result of a nearby gas station? What about those local, family-owned businesses so many in the area love and frequent? Would living so close to the facility contaminate their air? Will crime increase?
The questions seem endless — and so far, the answers slim.
“This will change the character of Atlantic Beach forever,” Susanne Barker, a member of Atlantic Beach Cares, said. “This is something we really, really need to get right.”
In Atlantic Beach, where empty real estate comes only so often, the question is whether or not the gas station will fit in with what the city hopes to grow into. Instead, Barker sees the city as a small beachside community with a background of environmental preservation, and not a town with a need for another gas station. Many who will be directly affected already fear their property values may decline as a result — just another point included on the petition.
To underscore their opposition to Gates’ plan, residents held a town-hall style meeting at the Adele Grage Cultural Center in Atlantic Beach. More than 60 people showed. Commissioner John Stinson was also in attendance. It is not the first time residents have banded together to visually show commissioners their opposition. More than 150 community members packed City Hall on July 27, 2015, one of the first major displays by citizens of their dislike for the plan. The majority that day donned neon yellow shirts to show their support of the diner. Glenn Shuck, who lives catty-corner to where Gate may break ground, said then he hoped the visual helped the city commission understand the community is ready to fight to keep Gate out of Atlantic Beach.
Calls to several city officials were not returned as of press time. As of now, residents do not know how their petitions will impact any decision made regarding Gate.
However, Smith and Shuck both said the petitions are just one part of the process, which also includes an ongoing lawsuit between Gate Petroleum and the owners of Beach Diner.
Amanda Williamson: (904) 359-4665