Editor’s note: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace.
— Steve’s Marketplace —
Despite high-speed growth in recent years, Nassau County’s homebuilding engine is hardly slowing down, or taking a pit stop.
In fact, homebuilding activity in the once-rural county appears to be accelerating, particularly with Wildlight and other Rayonier projects. And when you consider the $2 billion revitalization project planned for downtown Jacksonville, Nassau County becomes even more attractive from a spillover effect.
“You should be investing in Nassau because it’s a 30-minute drive (to Jacksonville),” says Jessie Spradley, the executive officer of the Northeast Florida Builders Association, or NEFBA. “I think Nassau has a very attractive future, especially for those folks betting on downtown.”
Nassau County is more than just a bedroom community to Jacksonville. It’s the deluxe master bedroom, with ease of access to Jacksonville by way of I-95, Highway 17, U.S. 1, and scenic Heckscher Drive. Along with plenty of available space in Yulee and on the west side.
Especially when compared to crowded neighbors like St. Johns and Clay counties. For years, St. Johns has been one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. And it still is. “But I do think people are looking at Nassau County with interest,” Spradley says.
However, certain parts of Nassau are problematic for new development. Especially Fernandina Beach, with rigid building codes and over-zealous inspectors. And anti-growth forces on the Fernandina Beach City Commission and in the community.
“Fernandina Beach keeps me pretty busy,” Spradley says. “We’ve spent a lot of time with the city talking about different issues.”
The latest hurdle was a dramatic increase in impact fees proposed for Fernandina Beach. NEFBA representatives successfully argued the fees for updating the water/wastewater facilities were inappropriate. Impact fees are designed to increase capacity, not to update older facilities.
“I think the message got to them that the fee they were pursuing wasn’t right,” Spradley says. “What they are using the impact fees for is a stretch. By state statute that’s not what impact fees are for.”
Spradley sees impact fees regularly misused. “Impact fees are a terrible way to tax things,” Spradley says. Only the initial homebuyer pays the impact fees, as builders usually roll these costs into the selling prices. However, subsequent buyers of the same properties pay nothing.
Communities are either growing, shrinking, or stagnating. And it’s not always about new homes or businesses. Older, rundown buildings must be improved or replaced, to keep a town looking fresh. The objective is to control growth/revitalization, not to stop it.
Over-reaching city officials are hurting themselves when they fight any kind of development by trying to “make this process difficult,” Spradley says. “They think they’re hurting us. We work for the people of Fernandina Beach, for the citizens, for the businesses.”
NEFBA itself is an economic locomotive. The local group is the largest homebuilders’ association in Florida – and the fifth largest in the U.S. Of the 650 associations nationally, it ranks between Dallas and Atlanta.
Moving forward, “Northeast Florida looks good,” Spradley says. However, on a short- to intermediate-term horizon, Spradley says there are questions, regarding politics, interest rates, inflation, etc.
There is a housing deficit locally, created during the Great Recession of 2008. That means there are more buyers than available new homes. With rising prices, higher interest rates and a limited supply, there is a bear-hug squeeze on new-home buyers in particular.
On a national level, the economic prospects vary by region. However, “Our national economist is giving a pretty sunny outlook for building in general through 2030,” Spradley says.
Yet few places have the favorable dynamics of Northeast Florida. The residential growth is being followed by commercial expansion. New companies moving here provide jobs – for the new residents.
While homebuilding here has slowed from a peak of several years ago, it is still solid despite higher mortgage rates. Recently, some 1,300 single-family builder permits were issued in a four-county area of Duval, St. Johns, Clay and Nassau.
“The majority of growth is in those four counties,” Spradley says. NEFBA also represents the smaller counties of Baker, Putnam, Bradford and Union. These are mostly rural, and in some ways want to remain that way.
“Some of it is by design,” Spradley says about rural counties. “I’m sure a lot of people would love to develop out there, but can you get it approved?”
Steve Nicklas is the managing partner of Nicklas Wealth Management in Fernandina Beach. He is also an award-winning columnist. His columns also regularly appear in weekly newspapers in Northeast Florida and in Southeast Georgia, and on his website at www.SteveNicklasMarketplace.com. He has published a book, “All About Money,” of his favorite columns from the past 20 years. The book is available on Amazon. He has also done financial reports for area radio stations and for National Public Radio in Jacksonville. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 904-753-0236.)