Let’s face it – Florida isn’t getting any bigger and development isn’t slowing down. Tourists and new arrivals continue to flood the state.
People are eager to visit Florida’s unique, historic and charming cities – places like St. Augustine. But will the influx of people make it a less appealing destination?
I discussed that and other issues with Emma Dietrich. She’s a member of the Florida Public Archaeology Network and believes that rental properties and overdevelopment are already detracting from the authentic Florida experience.
My conversation with her below:
Losing Florida: Could you tell me a little about your background and your ties to the state of Florida?
Dietrich: Yeah, sure. So I’m an archaeologist with the Florida public archaeology network, and my job is to promote Florida’s buried and submerged paths, which both of those resources get impacted heavily by development within Florida.
I am not a native Floridian, but I’ve been in Florida for eight, almost nine years now, both in Pensacola, the Orlando area, and now St. Augustine. I’ve traveled quite a bit of the state and lived in a bunch of different areas of relative density for development. So I’ve seen quite a bit of changes. Both could be for the good, both could be for the worst.
Losing Florida: Well, when I’ve talked with other people, that have obviously been here over even more recent years, you know, but just over time that it is just the increasing development is so evident, like throughout the entire state and that most people I talked to obviously have, have witnessed it in one way or another.
Like you said, there’s good parts to it and then there’s obviously not so good parts. So regarding that, based on your expertise, what are the major impacts of development on culture in Florida and have you noticed other significant changes over time?
Dietrich: Yeah. So I might deviate a little bit from archaeological cultures and kind of think about more modern quality of life, styles of living, or some social justice issues. I think what I’ve seen from the past eight or nine years, and especially now living in Lincolnville, is the rise of more tourism-based development or the encouragement of redeveloping neighborhoods for short-term residencies. Not necessarily like rental systems or short-term college students, I mean weekend and week stays turning homes or neighborhoods into tourist attractions.
The concept of Airbnb has been great for people to bring tourism to small towns, but you’re seeing areas where now the housing market for people who actually want to live in small communities are being priced out of most neighborhoods.
I don’t know if you saw the big news today or yesterday and today there’s a one bedroom, one bath shack – that needs to have a full gut and get redone – that is for sale in Lincolnville for $349,000. And it has absolutely no updates. And I mean, no updates since it was probably built in the 1930s. So no electrical updates. It’s not inhabitable.
What will happen is most likely someone will purchase that property for the land, and then pull demolition by neglect.
And there’s no attempt to keep the fabric of historic neighborhoods or to keep the culture that existed. Primarily, Lincolnville was an African-American town that has been heavily gentrified already. I’m a white person who lives in Lincolnville, I rent, but I’ve seen the changes over even the past few months of living here with the amount of Airbnbs that are in place in areas that drive the market and push the original community further out.
And the historic homes are being torn down or “demolition by neglect” and in place, are ultra modern. Which suits a certain class of people that are selling for a million. And what we’re seeing is that those changes are changing the fabric of the community and the aesthetic nature of what this community would have been like, or could be like.
So there are small changes that you’re seeing just where the development is catering towards non-residents or non-locals or their advertising specifically as “this would make a great Airbnb,” “this will make a great short-term rental,” for people who are coming in to buy.
Now playing into other kinds of issues with that, Florida has had a long history and the south has had a long history of creating almost uninhabitable neighborhoods. It was a way of constructing roads and exits and highways through predominantly African-American segregated towns, or cities, or city sections to promote access to white neighborhoods.
So an exit would not be placed on 95 or I-4 to go into a primarily African-American part of town during the 1940s and 1950s, it was bi-routed and the overpass was literally designed to go over the town. So you see the effects of those Jim Crow era policies where these neighborhoods become areas where you can barely access them.
So then the community that is living there slowly starts to lose access to resources. They become food deserts, education deserts, because there’s no funding from the tourism industry where people are coming in to spend money and then leaving. So this is something that I’m just personally interested in. It’s not something that I get with work.
When it comes down to what I do for archaeological resources, one of the main impacts I see are on cemeteries. Now, I’m sure Sarah (Miller) discussed the blatant erasure of African cemeteries for development.
It’s happened everywhere, but Tampa has some really great resources about “rediscovering” these African-American cemeteries that are underneath buildings. And they were purposely erased from maps to encourage development.
And that was done in the 1920s or 1930s, but you’re also seeing where developers are coming in and are building modern apartment complexes without really fully understanding impacts of the surrounding resources.
There’s a cemetery in Orlando, and I can’t fully speak on what exactly happened, but you can see how the cemetery had flooded right after just some normal rain, but after the development of a major apartment complex right next door. So it was something where the drainage wasn’t able to handle a normal Florida, you know, a two-day sunny storm, not even a nor’easter, not even a hurricane, just a few days of steady rain. And all of the rainwater was funneled from all the driveways, parking areas, and roadways, all the non-soluble grounds. It funneled down into the cemetery, which caused the cemetery to have standing water in it for 2 days.
Now, the apartment managers or owners did respond and they did put a pump in to pump the water out. But again, it’s another kind of impact on culture. It was an African-American cemetery, privately owned and operated, and so it’s just these changes, this increasing development to continuously build because of tourism, or because of the staff that is needed to fund the tourism trade, or people who are just looking to move to Florida.
It’s getting harder and harder to meet the demands, and as I’m sure you are well aware, rental markets are insane in Florida and everywhere else. So there’s a demand and people are just building.
Losing Florida: Right. I’m from New York originally and I did a story of a New Yorker who moved to Florida. She moved about 30 years ago, and I got her perspective of the change in development over time. I was trying to highlight what you’re saying, this mass exodus to Florida, especially from the Northeastern region, and this demand for living space. Obviously, these developers want to appease the demands of people, and at the same time, they also encourage people to come here. So there’s all of these different factors that are impacting the state in not so good ways.
And of course you can’t say that there’s no good that comes from it, but when it comes to things like cultural aspects, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for them to be able to just remain and stay authentic like you were saying with Lincolnville. It’s very unfortunate to see that instead of, you know, with the one place that you mentioned that the one bedroom, one bath, instead of trying to recover that, or to at least resemble it to an extent. As you said, somebody will probably come in and just put an entirely new, modern structure there.
Dietrich: Yeah. And there are attempts to talk about Lincolnville because it is close to losing its historic district nomination because they’re tearing down too many historic buildings. Two of the last properties that are for sale in Lincolnville that are historic are that one bedroom, one bath shack, but the other one is another that’s going to be demolition by neglect. It’s already falling apart, but it is the first African-American school in Lincolnville. So it is culturally significant, and no one will give permission for it to be torn down. But it will eventually be a, “Well, what was I supposed to do?”
Or in some cases I’ve heard stories where the developer or whoever purchases property, they’ll tear it down and then just pay the small fee that gets associated and continue on, because in the long run, they’ll recoup their money.
Losing Florida: Right, because they can, type of thing.
Dietrich: Exactly, because there are no real regulations or threats that come into play. If someone’s coming in with the amount of money that they can purchase the property and rehab it, they’re not going to care if they’re getting, “oh, well, okay, you’re going to get a $15,000 fine.” It’s just going to be tacked onto their other expenses, knowing that the property can be sold or rented out at an astronomical rate, and they can recoup that within the next five years.
So there are a lot of those kinds of pushes, where developers aren’t necessarily concerned with the culture or the historic nature of a neighborhood, it’s bottom line driven for them. And we know St. Augustine is a tourism based town that needs that, but there’s no regulations in play for the city to limit how private property is used as income-making.
The street I live on in Lincolnville has five Airbnbs on it. So my one side of the block and the other side of the block has five, and there are maybe 15 houses. One of the things that struck me as funny was a part of the neighborhood app, during Halloween, people were complaining about the fact that there were no trick-or-treaters.
And it’s because there aren’t any opportunities for families to live in Lincolnville anymore.
There’s no easy way to purchase a single family home to start out because the first chance that people get is people who will have the slush funds will purchase a vacation home. I think that’s another thing that developers tend to cater to is people who are not going to be long-term residents, or they’re going to be residents enough to get the tax breaks, not having to pay state taxes in New England or the Northeast.
So I see a lot of that happening as well, where “snowbirds” will live here for just the amount of time that’s necessary for them to claim Florida residency, but the bulk of their time is spent somewhere else, and then their places sit empty.
Losing Florida: So you’re saying that the developers don’t want long-term residents?
Dietrich: I’ve just seen some developers, not just in Lincolnville but the entire state of Florida, who promote “this is a great investment opportunity,” or “this is a great vacation home” or they’re advertising “get your condo in Miami beach so you can come down here every once in a while.”
Losing Florida: Got it. So they’re just catering to the interests of residents who don’t want a full-time place. They just want a place to come and stay or whatever.
Dietrich: Yeah. And Florida does have a really good case with our snowbirds, they’re amazing. We love them. That’s the whole part of Florida culture is to have your snowbirds.
You come down and live and exist, but then most snowbirds still contribute to the Florida economy in a big way. I think what we’re seeing is these pushes for short-term rental homes like Airbnb, VRBO, which I use all the time. I love them.
But we’re seeing that there needs to be some sort of regulation on how many can be in a city block, but there’s no way to regulate that. It’s just going to be out of control until there really is no way for people to live and work in a lot of Florida’s tourism-based towns.
I remember there was a conversation, I don’t know if you know about this or heard of it, where the city commissioners were talking about building a “service industry development” where it would be basically apartment complexes designed for folks who were going to be the workforce for St. Augustine tourism. So people could live there with slightly better rent options, if you’re a bartender, or a server, or a tour guide. The idea was for the actual service industry in St. Augustine would have their own living space.
The idea got shut down real fast, and it sounds really, really ridiculous and kind of awful, but they were just like,
“Oh, we’ll just build outside of St. Augustine and have all of these people be able to commute in to do the work.”
Losing Florida: Wow, that would’ve been very interesting. I can see how the idea maybe seemed appealing, but it wouldn’t have been an ideal scenario I don’t think.
You said something about how there’s not really any limit to the rental properties, or the people that come in and establish these rental properties… At any point in the future, because of how much space they’re taking up, do you think that anything will be put in place ever to regulate that and limit the amount of rental properties that can be in certain areas?
Dietrich: I thought so, at one point, because there are some signs that people have on their property saying, “This is a neighborhood, not your vacation home.”
There’s a house right by Flagler College that has a little homemade sign up that says that. So I thought that maybe there would be something pushing towards the city commissioners, there’s a hotline for people to complain about specific Airbnbs, or people who are violating tenancy laws because if a private home is built for a mass occupancy of so many people, they can’t go over that for fire regulations as an Airbnb.
They’re not hotels. They’re meant to be small family homes.
So there are regulations that way, but the Florida government state legislation just passed a bill that says any city ordinance cannot impact a business’s bottom-line. It was apparently a catch-all legislation that passed because of people complaining about cities passing plastic bag bans and straw bans. Then the business owners who were upset about having those bans at play would go to their state representative and be like, “this is the issue,” and so they’d fight for it.
I guess the state legislature put forth this bill that any city ordinance that impacts private businesses’ bottom-line, they can sue the city. And what I didn’t think about was somebody mentioned how it could come into play, where if St. Augustine put something on Airbnbs, like an amount of limits or that they have to require parking because a lot of these places only have street parking. And if they pass something where an Airbnb is required to have their own parking, that could “impact the business’s bottom-line,” and therefore they could sue the city.
So it may make passing something through city council a little bit harder or undesirable to put forth that fight because there is the threat of being sued, and they have the right to stand on it. I think it’s something like if it impacts 20% of their bottom-line…
Losing Florida: Wow. Well, with the parking, I’m sure there are other cities that have the same issue, but St. Augustine especially, parking is just really difficult downtown and obviously back in Lincolnville. Sure there’s street parking, but it’s not that accessible.
Dietrich: Yeah, and in regards to culture, there are so many definitions of what the culture of Florida is.
And I think what people tend to forget about is that the tourism industry is part of Florida’s culture. And people come to Florida for that culture. People come to St. Augustine for the historic city, the historic charm, the sleepy seaside, Southern, coastal vibe. People go to Orlando and Disney for that Disney culture that does exist.
But when it comes down to maintaining what the tourism industry is expecting, there needs to be some sort of control on how development spreads because it does impact the overall landscape that people are seeing.
There are already some limitations on how tall people can build apartments or how tall buildings can be placed in St. Augustine or other cities, but they really have to think about how they’re designed and how they look, because if you’re going through old town in St. Augustine and all of a sudden there’s like a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired ultra modern building. It sticks out. It is not what is supposed to be there.
And it does affect the tourists’ view of what St. Augustine is, or other cities. There needs to be more discussion about Florida’s fabric, its historical nature, its charm and the reasons why people come to Florida, and how it’s changing because of the rapid development.
Losing Florida: Right. It’s kind of a paradox because obviously tourism is driven by everything that you’re saying, the charm, authenticity, and history here, and then at the same time, in order to accommodate the residents and tourists, developers ultimately impact that charm in not so great ways. So the two things kind of go against each other because in order to keep the charm, you can’t have that much development and that many people coming at once. It’s definitely a difficult situation.
Dietrich: Yeah. It’s a Catch-22, and I think why it’s not discussed as much is because it is that scenario where you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.
What are you going to do, limit the amount of people who come? Then all of a sudden you’re limiting local businesses’ bottom-line by not being able to really keep the tourism trade going, but then you’re also squeezing out where people can stay in St. Augustine, both those who are living here and those who are visiting.
Losing Florida: I mean, when you look around St. Augustine in general, there are just so many hotels going up and it seems like it’s never ending. On one hand, it’s good that they’re going to be able to accommodate more people, but on the other, when you think about the infrastructure of St. Augustine, and also just the downtown area, it physically cannot hold that many people.
Dietrich: No, not at all. And there was even a point back in either the 1980s or 1990s where they discussed taking the Bridge of Lions out to accommodate more people and that flow of traffic.
That’s a perfect example of altering the historic nature of a town for tourism that would take away a literal tourist attraction. And they were thinking of trying to expand the bridge, which would allow for more people to flow in and out. But the city is not designed to have a 100,000 people visit.
It’s impossible to have those demands unless you make those major development changes to roadways and everything else, which is not going to happen.
Losing Florida: Right. I guess for just one final question, looking forward, is there anything major that you would like to see happen with development and culture and just this whole back and forth disarray? Anything that stands out to you that you would like to see?
Dietrich: What I would like to see moving forward is to have more of an open conversation regarding historical and cultural resources before private land gets developed.
One good thing about St. Augustine is they do have an archaeology ordinance. So when development does happen, they do need to go through the permitting process to get the archaeologists to do an excavation. So we can document more of that history before it’s lost, but I’d really like to see conversations happening at a wider scale about how to promote healthier living between the tourism industry and the local residents, and to see what can be done to maybe create incentivization programs.
If someone’s going to rent out the house that they have, instead of doing it as an Airbnb, maybe they could get a tax credit of some kind, where if they own a property and want to rent it, maybe to somebody who’s going to be staying her for 9 months, almost like targeting college kids. If they’re able to rent it to them, they could get a tax credit to help them with the cleaning process or to incentivize people who do have these properties to not go the Airbnb route.
I think there’s even something that’s being pushed that is like a historic tax credit where people can apply to get almost like a reimbursement of some kind if you plan to stick within historic restoration. A lot of cities and states have these tax credits that incentivize people restoring properties rather than developing and building new ones.
My other partial pet peeve is when people come down and build, they don’t build in the “historic Florida” sense, meaning, they don’t take into account the humidity, the cross breezes, they’re solely relying on air conditioning. And so they’re not designed for Southern living, but these historic houses are. So all the windows have a mirrored window to create cross breezes. They will naturally cool themselves because of how they’re raised.
So seeing if more people were going to develop with those ideas in mind, making sure you do have some Southern architecture innovation. Especially when it comes to a hurricane, I’m going to be sitting pretty if I’m out of power for a week, I’ll still have a nice, cool house because I’ll have cross breezes.
Anyone else who’s living in a more modern-build will not have that design in place.
Losing Florida: Right. And I think people probably come here not even thinking or caring to establish that. They just want to have a nice, new, modern looking house, but they don’t think about the actual environmental components that go into it.
Hopefully there are some places that have utilized that old Southern architecture, but I mean, when you look around, especially in these new neighborhoods, a lot of these places are super modern.
Dietrich: And what people want are quick builds. When development communities build, there’s also the landscaping at play.
And one of our big issues with red tide and everything else comes from fertilizers, soil, sods, and people putting in non-native species. Then having to run water, irrigation systems, pesticides and everything else that drains into the Florida soils, into the aquifer, into our riverways, and it causes general small scale pollution that is considered benign, but it’s still something that is impactful and it is a big development issue.
You build a development community that has that golf course and to keep your lush golfing green nice and green, you’re dumping it full of pesticides and weed eaters and everything else. And all of that drains into the Florida water systems. So if people were to think more “Florida natural,” I think we’d also see some better changes in the overall health of Florida’s environment.
Losing Florida: Absolutely. Well, because people come here and there’s just this lack of awareness, right?
Dietrich: Yeah. It’s unintentional, people aren’t aware of these overarching issues. When I moved to Florida, I sure as shit wasn’t! I didn’t know how close water systems are, how the ground level works, the hydrology in Florida is vastly different.
That’s another thing, developers need to start taking in better hydrological reports before building. So when they do construct these properties, there is proper drainage and movement of water, both underground and above ground. They’re not taking into consideration rainfall, as well as the rising water table.
If you’re getting 12 inches of rain over a weekend, sure it’s 12 inches, but it raises the water table underneath you as well. I don’t think a lot of people are conscious of that when they’re developing, because most places in the United States don’t have such sandy soil, or it just sits on top.
Losing Florida: Well and the overarching thing that I’m trying to focus on is just the awareness around everything. More awareness, more education, just promoting these ideas for developers, tourists, and residents. And literally anyone can benefit from this information to hopefully create a greater movement to be more aware and conscious of the many impacts of development on Florida.
And to maybe help initiate some things that will help resolve the issues between development and culture and authentic Florida.
Dietrich: Yeah. I agree. I think a good awareness and compassion campaign would be brilliant. And even when you search to move to a new place, everyone’s like,
“Here’s the best reasons why to move to Florida.”
When it really should be like, “If you move to Florida, here’s what you should be aware of…”
To encourage people to think this through.
Story by McKenna Moonan. Photos: Wikipedia; National Steel Bridge Alliance.