St. Joe gets warning letter for environmental issues at Watersound Origins

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

INLET BEACH — After three inspections of ongoing development of Watersound Origins, a massive residential project in the southeastern edge of Walton County, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has issued a warning letter to the St. Joe Co., the project's developer.

The May 11 letter states that the inspections in Phase 7 of the project, located east of Splash Drive and south of Sawbuck Drive, revealed "possible violations" of state environmental laws and of state administrative regulations regarding the permitting of activities involving environmental resources.

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The warning letter is "... part of an agency investigation, preliminary to agency action ..." in accordance with state statutes.

Specifically, the letter notifies St. Joe that during inspections on March 17, March 29 and May 3, FDEP personnel noted both "unauthorized activities in wetlands" and "water quality violations (that) occurred as a result of dewatering activities."

In real estate development, dewatering is the process of removing surface water and/or groundwater (water found underground in cracks and other spaces in soil, sand and rock) from a site.

In recent weeks, residents near Watersound Origins, which is located north and east of U.S. Highway 98 near Inlet Beach, have reported silt flowing into nearby Lake Powell, which at 800 acres is the largest coastal dune lake in the world and also a state-designated Pristine Florida Waterway.

Coastal dune lakes, which connect with nearby bodies of salt water (in the case of Lake Powell, the Gulf of Mexico) through periodic breaches across beaches, are an exceedingly rare ecological phenomenon, existing in only a few places on Earth.

An aerial photo shows land cleared for the St. Joe Co. Watersound Origins residential development next to Lake Powell at the Walton-Bay County line.

Rich Jaffe of the Inlet Beach Neighborhood Association, one of the people who contacted the FDEP and other government agencies with concerns about St. Joe's work near Lake Powell, said silt has been infiltrating the lake from Watersound Origins and is creating a real concern about "what happens to the (aquatic) life forces in the lake" over time.

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Moving forward, Jaffe said he and other residents around the lake, while not expecting work on the development to stop, do expect St. Joe to exercise due diligence with regard to the lake. In the meantime, Jaffe added that he and his neighbors will watch St. Joe's work at the site closely. 

"We live here," Jaffe said. "They're just trying to make money here."

An aerial photo shows land cleared for the St. Joe Watersound Origins development next to Lake Powell in South Walton County. St. Joe recently received a warning letter from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and says it has taken steps to ensure that issues are being addressed.

St. Joe did not have anyone available for comment when contacted late last week, according to Mike Kerrigan, the company's vice president of marketing and communications. The company did, however, email a statement to the Daily News.

"Upon notice of the off-site disturbances, we began taking corrective action," the company said in the statement. "We discussed our concerns with the independent site contractor that is performing the work for this project and emphasized the importance of immediately correcting the problems."

The statement also noted that St. Joe representatives "... met on site with an environmental consultant, the site contractor and FDEP to review the corrective actions."

In the days since, the company said the environmental consultant is performing daily stormwater and SWPP/NPDES (federal Storm Water Pollution Plan/National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) inspections and water quality testing.

The company added in the statement that it is "... committed to completing the corrective actions recommended by FDEP as quickly as possible and continue to monitor the performance of the independent contractors performing the work."

Bu Jaffe remained skeptical in a brief Saturday interview, noting that no one from St. Joe has spoken with neighborhood residents.

"Should we trust them? Why?," Jaffe asked.