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New Jungle Trail subdivision proposed on enticing site of former citrus groves

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of August 10, 2023)

Just when it seems like the island is built out, with no more room for major development, an enterprising John’s Island resident has found a hidden tract tucked in off the Jungle Trail large enough to build a new subdivision.

The 19.6-acre parcel is notched into the southern edge of the Capt. Forster Hammock Preserver just north of Island Club. It is one of the last scraps of agricultural land left on the island, which once was a garden of citrus groves in its northern sections.

There is no guarantee the subdivision, named Oak Hammock, will be built – at least not as proposed.

The land would have to be rezoned, which would require two public hearings where neighbors and conservationists could raise objections, and the county was not impressed by the preliminary plans submitted earlier this year, deeming them unclear and incomplete.

“They’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Indian River County interim Assistant Planning Director Ryan Sweeney.

But if the developer is able to clear all the typical hurdles and move ahead with his plan, it is easy to imagine eventual residents enjoying a serene future in beautiful new homes on large lots in the heart of the island’s old citrus belt, where the most famous grapefruits in the world once were grown.

As proposed, the development would include 15 lots ranging from .71 acre to 1.07 acres, with one oddball .39-acre lot. Plans show a “future dock” on the river that looks like it would have a boat slip for each home, with a gazebo at the end, out over the water.

The preliminary plans don’t say anything about the style or size of homes in the subdivision but county code and common sense probably dictate high-quality housing in a consistent architectural style. Most of the large lots could accommodate houses 10,000 square feet or larger, according to county regulations.

Longtime JI resident Alan Wilkinson formed Island Manor Development LLC to purchase the property at the end of March 2022. A week later, on April 5, 2022, he closed on the former grove land, paying $4.5 million. Premier Citrus LLC was the seller.

Years earlier, the land belonged to prominent island residents and citrus pioneers George and Janette Lier, who were among the founders of the town of Orchid.

Under his new LLC, Wilkinson hired MVB Engineering to draw up preliminary plans to start the permitting process. Indian River County’s Technical Review Committee looked at the plans in June and sent the applicant 66 questions and comments in response, requesting more information or pointing out relevant county requirements.

The county said the plans would have to be reworked and resubmitted because they did not include enough information to either approve or disapprove of the project.

At the same time, planners suggested Wilkinson change the subdivision from PD (planned development) to R3, a more conventional residential layout that would have 30 or 40 homes on smaller lots, because it would be easier to get approved – not a great sign for the current plan.

The county also noted that “the applicant must provide written approval from Island Club of Vero Beach HOA Board of Directors for access to the project through their privately-owned and maintained roadway called Island Club Manor.”

The Oak Hammock site does not extend to A1A and is prohibited by county regulations from having its entrance on Jungle Trail, so construction workers and future residents will have to turn off the state highway onto Island Club Manor to reach the entrance of the new subdivision.

The Oak Hammock property is one of the last patches of land zoned for agriculture on the barrier island. The county zoning map shows four A1 parcels totaling about 80 acres but the biggest of those, a 45 acre piece north of Windsor, is being developed as Windsor’s North Village, a 40-home enclave that will complete the that community’s build-out.

Another 12.3-acre piece has passed into the hands of the federal government as conservation land adjacent to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

That leaves only the Oak Hammock property and a 10.6- acre piece on the south side of Route 510 next to Orchid Cove subdivision.

That’s quite a change from 80 or 100 years ago when most of the northern island was citrus groves, hundreds and hundreds of acres of dark green trees that filled the air with heavenly perfume when they bloomed and filled bushel baskets, wagons and railroad cars with grapefruits, oranges and lemons when the fruit ripened.

“Pretty much everything north of 510 was groves,” said Indian River County Property Appraiser Wesley Davis, whose family had 300 acres of groves on the mainland at one time, and who knows as much about the county’s agricultural history as anyone. “Citrus covered most of the land where Orchid, Windsor and Pelican Island Refuge are today.”

“There were a lot of groves south of 510 too, but most of them were smaller, 10- and 20-acre operations,” adds Indian River County historian Ruth Stanbridge. “Citrus was king and you could earn a living and raise a family on 10 or 20 acres.”

During the pre-greening heyday of the industry, half the grapefruits in the world were grown in Indian River and St. Lucie counties. Indian River citrus was widely renowned and Orchid Island citrus was a special, elite category within that prestigious brand.

“Orchid Island fruit was literally the best citrus fruit ever seen, famous around the world,” says Davis. “It had to do with the climate and the soil, the chemicals in the soil. It was perfect to grow grapefruit.

“It was kind of flat fruit more than round, thin-skinned with little pulp, pretty much all sweet juice. When you look at the brix (sugar content) and pounds solids (another measure of sugar content), there was just nothing else like it and probably never will be.”

The fruit, grown in part on the Oak Hammock parcel, went around the globe, to at least 23 different countries, according to the Indian River Citrus League – which formed in the 1930s to trademark the Indian River Citrus label and stop other Florida growers from falsely using it to increase the value of their fruit.

If Wilkinson is able to develop Oak Hammock, residents will live in one of the most historic parts of the island, among remnants of the busy citrus decades, which began in the early 20th century and wound down on the island in the 1980s and 1990s, as grove land was converted to new residential communities.

They will be next door to the county’s 111-acre Capt. Forster Preserve and just down the road from Jones Pier Conservation Area, which includes historic structures and a replica of the pier where island growers shipped their fruit to the mainland and far-off markets.

They will have easy access to Jungle Trail, a 7.5-mile shell road that grove owners built early in the 20th century to get their fruit from the north island to the pier.

Stanbridge says the quiet roadway, which is part of the Indian River Scenic Byway and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, “captures a sense of ‘Old Florida’ better than anyplace else on the barrier island.”

She said the Oak Hammock parcel likely at one point belonged to George Dale before it belonged to the Liers. Dale operated the Jungle Treasure House Tearoom and antique shop, a tourist hotspot built out over the water across the Jungle Trail from Wilkinson’s property.

“He had sailed all around the world and had curios from all over that he brought back that were offered for sale,” Stanbridge says.

The first wooden bridge to the island opened in 1920 near where the Barber Bridge is today, followed in 1924 by the Winter Beach bridge.

Once cars had access to the island, the picturesque Jungle Trail drew a steady stream of tourists and locals and the tearoom thrived up until the war years when it seems to have faltered, according to Stanbridge.

It isn’t clear from the paperwork submitted to the county whether Wilkinson plans to develop the Oak Hammock land and sell lots to individuals or a single builder or build the subdivision himself with a builder partner.  Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

According to the county’s comments, no agency environmental, stormwater or Florida Department of Transportation permits were submitted with the plan, and a county land development permit has not yet been issued.

Sweeney says the comments were sent to the applicant on June 21 and the county is waiting for responses back. He said if a developer is really on the ball and motivated, all of the paperwork could be completed in about six months.

Given all the obstacles, including completing an acceptable set of plans, getting comments on those and revising them, obtaining all the necessary permits, getting the property rezoned and trying to work out a deal with Island Club for access, that timeframe seems unlikely.

Staff writer Lisa Zahner contributed to this story.