Limited Access Tollway’s New Interchange

Recently, in NE Florida, FDOT constructed a new limited access tollway called the First Coast Expressway. In St. Johns County, the proposed corridor traversed several substantial tracts owned by a few number of large landowners. In the past ten years, the NW Sector of St. Johns County has experienced record-setting population growth nationally. Many of the substantial tracts in the NW Sector have already been entitled for residential, mixed-use development obtaining land use and zoning changes as a Master Planned Community.

One of the last remaining undeveloped tracts was used by its landowner as a world-class private hunting, recreational, and entertainment property of some 2,300 acres. It was a outstandingly beautiful property of tremendous worth. Notwithstanding, the property had always appeared on FDOT’s corridor map for both an elevated portion of the new limited access tollway, but also for all of the infrastructure associated with a new tollway interchange. FDOT’s initial offer was in the amount of $7,351,500 for approximately 170 acres and contemplated that the interchange be constructed without any access to the landowner’s remainder property. FDOT’s initial appraisal did not find any severance damages to the remainder property. The elevation of the new tollway was approximately 30-feet above grade.

Although the property was not yet entitled for a Master Planned Community, the landowner contended that willing buyers and willing sellers in the marketplace would consider, based upon what was occurring elsewhere in St. Johns County regarding similarly situated properties, there to be a reasonable probability of obtaining the necessary land use and zoning changes for a Master Planned Community. So as not to place a “future value” on the property, the landowner deducted what would be a reasonable discount to the price agreed upon between buyer and seller for the cost and time that would be required to secure such approvals. Without access, the landowner contended that the new tollway would result in excess of $50,000,000 in severance damages. Essentially, as initially designed by FDOT without any interchange access, the property would suffer from all of the detriments accompanying such a project without enjoying any of the benefits.

Discussions ensued as to whether to modify the design of the interchange and whether the cost of construction should be borne by FDOT or the landowner. After negotiations, the parties agreed to a pre-suit settlement, resulting in a final award to the landowner in the amount of $23,000,000 and FDOT’s agreement to construct a full-access interchange. Further, the parties agreed to expand the acquisition footprint from approximately 170 to 190 acres and allow for joint use of the new interchange’s stormwater ponds. At the time of settlement, the monetary award paid to the landowner was the largest of any pre-suit settlement paid by FDOT in the preceding five years.

Simply put, if accepting of FDOT’s initial offer, or not preparing to engage in negotiations regarding design and construction of the new interchange, the landowner’s property rights would not have been protected.