Timuquana Country Club, an exclusive club for the rich and powerful, landed a windfall of taxpayer dollars after the City of Jacksonville and Naval Air Station Jacksonville paid for the land near the base to not be sold.
The club is located in Ortega nestled along the St. Johns River just north of the base. Action News Jax Ben Becker investigated whether that multimillion-dollar property deal should have been allowed to happen.
Since 2020, the City of Jacksonville and the U.S. Navy have signed off on four contracts worth a combined $12,591,760 for 214 acres of Timuquana property. To put that in perspective an acre of land is about the size of a football field. The City share is $3,147,940 via state grants. It was made possible because of a 2017 ordinance introduced at the request of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry allowing the City and Navy to “collaborate on encroachment protection projects within the military influence zone of Duval County naval bases.”
The money for Timuquana is for what’s called a “restrictive easement”. According to records, the Navy and City paid Timuquana to prevent it from “selling its land for commercial and residential construction in perpetuity”.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has awarded millions of dollars in state grants all across Florida to U.S. military installations for various reasons, including security.
This comes amid growing concerns from national lawmakers, mostly Republicans, about countries like China acquiring land near bases which could be used to spy on our armed forces. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, nearly 37.6 million acres of U.S. agricultural land were foreign-owned at the end of 2020, mostly by Canada while China owned slightly less than one percent of foreign-held acres. The Navy and City said these Timuquana easements are to prohibit what they claim is “incompatible development.”
Councilwoman Randy DeFoor represents District 14, home to Timuquana and NAS JAX. Becker asked her, “Transparency is important to you?” She replied, “It is important to me.” He also asked, “Does it feel like a blank check?” DeFoor replied, “No, I don’t’ think it was a blank check.”
“Over the course of decades, I heard rumors over any given time that they were thinking of developing it,” said DeFoor. “Rumors? Nothing substantiated?” pressed Becker. “Correct,” she admitted.
“What’s happened is in many areas around the country we have seen developments around these bases that have basically resulted in bases in being terminated for safety and security concerns,” DeFoor responded. Becker discovered that’s true but not for a long time. According to the Congressional Research Service, since 1988, more than 350 bases have been designated for closing under the federal government’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. However, the last round of BRAC was way back in 2005, because Congress has refused to approve any more shutdowns since.
Becker emailed the Navy to ask for the appraisal of Timuquana’s easement purchase and to find out if taxpayers are getting a good deal, but the Navy refused stating it, “compromises confidential commercial information”. Becker also asked the City for the appraisal and was told it, “Does not have and has never had any appraisals on the Timuquana Country Club property related to these easements.” “Is the payment too much? Could be too little?” asked Action News Jax Law and Safety Expert Dale Carson. He said he is concerned that a city appraisal didn’t happen. Carson pointed out Jacksonville’s own municipal code requires at least one appraisal for land purchases above $100,000 and two for more than $500,000.
Becker requested interviews with the City of Jacksonville’s General Counsel Jason Teal and Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes but never heard back.
There’s also a state statute that appears to create a process that would possibly limit physical obstructions “within a 10-nautical-mile radius” of “public-use” or “military airports” raising the question to Carson why the multimillion-dollar payments are even needed in the first place.
“It is ultimately money we are controlling. And we’re being used as a mechanism and funnel to distribute those funds as a result we ought to know what it’s about, and why it occurs, and is it appropriate,” Carson said.
“The City as a party is really a conduit,” maintained DeFoor who said while the City has agreed to participate in the state funding for the Timuquana easements, she doesn’t believe the City has any joint ownership or property rights. But she does have an issue with the Navy. “I don’t know why the military isn’t showing what the appraisal is. I think they should,” DeFoor said.
The Navy and the City have another two years to spend about $5 million on additional Timuquana easements which may bring the total paid to approximately $17.5 million.
[SIGN UP: Action News Jax Daily Headlines Newsletter]
A Timuquana leader declined to comment on Becker’s report, but he did learn some of public money the club received is being used for course renovations which is perfectly allowable. It also makes the money nontaxable.