NASSAU COUNTY -- Nassau and St. Johns counties have a lot in common -- A-rated school districts, top resort and tourist destinations and oceanfront views. But, experts say, it's housing prices that make them increasingly different.
While the rest of the Jacksonville metropolitan statistical area continued to experience a slump in home sales in November, Nassau saw a 13 percent increase in sales of existing homes compared with November 2005, according to the latest data available from the Real Estate Strategy Center of North Florida Inc. New home sales were up 14.6 percent in Nassau County while St. Johns County saw only a 5.7 percent increase and the rest of the MSA saw a decline.
Those numbers indicate that people seeking a suburban lifestyle and an easy commute to work in Jacksonville are being lured away from St. Johns County -- the fastest-growing and most expensive county in the MSA -- to Nassau County by lower home prices and better infrastructure planning, said Ray Rodriguez, president of the Real Estate Strategy Center.
"It's more affordable," Rodriguez said. "The bottom line is people prefer to travel north."
According to Rodriguez's data, the majority of the existing home purchases in Nassau County are of houses between 1,500 and 1,750 square feet. At $160 per square foot, homes in that range are on average about $13 less per square foot in Nassau County than comparably sized homes at $173.46 in St. Johns.
By contrast, in the 2,000-square-foot to 2,500-square-foot range, Nassau County is $18 more per square foot than the $184.71 cost in St. Johns County.
A study that county officials published in 2003 called "Growth and Development Trends in Nassau County" estimated the population would mushroom to 83,300 permanent residents by 2010, based on development plans for more than 10,000 homes not yet built.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Nassau County had 64,746 residents in 2005, compared with 57,663 in 2000. Nassau County Planning Director Walter Fufidio said that with the continued pace of growth, which includes a 3.7 percent increase from 2005 to 2006, he expected an even greater population for 2010.
Nassau County officials compare their county more to Flagler County, which lies just south of the Jacksonville MSA, than to St. Johns. Once considered a rural retirement community, Flagler has earned the status of fastest-growing county in the nation several years in a row. But that growth has brought growing pains such as bottleneck traffic jams and a race to build new schools.
Newly elected Nassau County Commissioner Mike Boyle, who made the focus of his campaign the need to find strategies to maintain growth, said Nassau is already experiencing some similar growing pains. County officials hope those pains will be addressed by Fufidio, who was the planning and zoning director in Flagler County.
Even before Fufidio's arrival in Nassau, officials developed a special taxing district called a municipal service benefit unit, not based on ad valorem taxes, that will pay for the transportation improvements needed in preparation for the more than 10,000 new residential units in the coming years. Among the improvements is a four-lane highway called Amelia Concourse that will connect County Road 107 to State Road A1A in the area where much of the growth is expected.
"County officials recognize that additional improvements are going to be required," Fufidio said.
Still, county officials and residents must decide whether Nassau County will be a bedroom community, a retirement community, develop an identity all its own or a mixture of all three, Boyle said.
"What identity does Nassau want?" he said. "That's the question I think we're grappling with."