Developers poised to begin new projects

Pensacola News Journal, Published - February, 12, 2006

By William Rabb

Amazing plans held up by lawsuits; after almost four years of negotiations, legal wrangling and hurricanes, Navarre Beach's biggest development finally could break ground this summer. One of the last untouched stretches of sand is to become Port Navarre; 23 acres of high-rise condominiums, a hotel, shops, restaurants, marinas and, yes, a Botox ready spa and salon.

The sprawling, Destin-like community would almost double the number of residential units on Navarre Beach and would expand the number of shops there 20 or 30 times. "If it happens, it truly will be spectacular," said Santa Rosa County planner Bill DuBois, who is reviewing plans for what will amount to a $300 million city-within-a-city, with 700 condo units and 100 hotel rooms.

Roger Festa, the Atlanta-based developer best known for his housing developments in northern Georgia, described the project as "a real town center" for Navarre Beach. He estimates it will take about three years to complete. "It is going to be amazing," he said. "Nothing else like it."

If lawsuits between the current and former landowners do not derail the plans, Port Navarre will be the largest among a number of residential and commercial projects planned or under way for the hurricane-ravaged Navarre area. The projects are just the latest sign that Santa Rosa County, from the coastline to Whiting Field, is rapidly becoming one of the fastest-growing counties in the Panhandle. More than 90 projects have been approved for development in the county in the last year, and many more are on the way, records show.

But not everyone is convinced that Port Navarre will get off the ground, at least not this year. For one thing, the sound-side property is the subject of dueling lawsuits over who is the rightful owner. A lawsuit filed by previous landowner Chris Ferrara, a Louisiana businessman who is also building the first post- Katrina casino in Mississippi, contends the principals are at such odds with each other that the project is now "impossible."

A trial date has not been set in the lawsuit, which was filed in Santa Rosa Circuit Court last summer, and the court has not issued any orders to halt the project. Festa said all concerns will be resolved. Ferrara did not return calls for comment. "The lawsuit is all about greed and stupidity," Festa said. "It is not going to slow us down. We are moving ahead with things pretty quickly." Festa is so confident, he said, that he recently bought a house in Gulf Breeze.

The engineering firm of Hatch, Mott, McDonald also is proceeding with plans, said engineer Mike Broussard of the firm's Pensacola office. Developers asked county planners just last month for a variance on the amount of parking and landscaping required.

Port Navarre reflects a growing nationwide trend among upscale developers to build entire communities, from living space to offices to shopping to recreation. "The landscaping will be as nice as anything I have seen, as nice as Disney World, put it that way," Festa said. "You will see a whole skyline, not just four sticks in the ground," he said, referring to four planned condo towers centered around a commons area.

One of the amenities will be concealed parking, he said. The parking garage will be underneath the condominium units, hidden on one side by landscaped berms. On the sound side, the boardwalk and stairways to the numerous shops will hide the garage, an approach Festa said he is rarely seen in community developments. The sound side also will include a lighthouse with storage for beach equipment in the base and a penthouse on top. An amphitheater will host bands and shows. White-tablecloth restaurants will nestle alongside mom-and-pop cafes, Festa said.

High-speed ferry boats will take golfers to the finest courses on the Gulf Breeze peninsula. "We have arrangements with all the courses," he said. But no WaveRunners or Jet Skis allowed, he said. Festa has no plans for pre-selling the condominium units, although he is had plenty of people interested. "We just do not do that," he said. "That can mean the buyer's out of his money for a long time."

The only concerns so far involve traffic, Santa Rosa County officials said. One issue is whether enough parking spaces will be available. Another is whether Gulf Boulevard will have to be widened to handle all the traffic in the peak summer months. Festa has asked the county to reduce the number of required parking spaces, which can be as high as 2.5 spaces per bedroom. "Everyone's not there year-round," he said. "You do not need 2.5 spaces for every unit all the time." But the peak summer months are different, Santa Rosa's DuBois said. "That argument does not hold water with us," DuBois said. "It is got to be able to handle the peak traffic." Engineers also have had to slightly revise storm-surge plans.

The water now would flow through the garage, a plan that leaves shops and residences above virtually unscathed, engineer Broussard said. Port Navarre also will tie in nicely with Navarre's new zoning and infrastructure plans, officials say. The town of Navarre, across the sound, has launched plans for revamping the central area near U.S. 98 and State Road 87, turning it into a Destin-like town center. Festa said boats will ferry people to the center.

Next door to Port Navarre, on the west, is the wastewater treatment plant for Navarre Beach. It soon will undergo an $8 million upgrade and will have plenty of capacity for decades to come, officials said. It is unclear what will happen to the prime acreage on the beach side of the Port Navarre property, where the Holiday Inn stood before Hurricane Ivan destroyed it.

Owner Marilyn Hess said she does not yet know if Port Navarre will affect her plans. "We will have to see what is going in over there," she said. "It does sound like something that will be wonderful for us and for Navarre."

From the beaches to the hills, Santa Rosa County is in the midst of a major development boom that will not slow down for decades, planners and developers say. The towns of Navarre, Holley and Gulf Breeze all are ripe for more commercial and residential development and redevelopment, according to real estate professionals and plans filed with county officials. In the north, the hotbeds of Pace and Milton are poised for major new projects as thousands more people move annually to areas around U.S. 90, State Road 87, Avalon Boulevard and Woodbine Road.

Long-term, Quintette Road, also known as State Road 84, from Pace all the way to Cantonment, will see enormous commercial and residential growth, long-range planning experts say. In 20 years, the development along Quintette Road will rival what Nine Mile Road north of Pensacola is today, said Karen Thompson, chief of long-range planning for Escambia County. People already are buying property there for long-term investment, she said.

Besides Port Navarre, Santa Rosa Commons and Navarre Town Center, four of the biggest projects under way or planned to break ground this year are: The Boardwalk, a 20-acre condo and shopping center in Navarre, on the north side of U.S. 98, between Ortega Street and Elk's Way. Waterside and Benton-By-The-Sea, two residential developments near the western end of Navarre Beach that will include more than 200 units when completed. Ashley Place, 179 new homes to be built on the 40 acres just south of Santa Rosa Commons.

Chris Ferrara, a Louisiana businessman who is the previous owner of the property on which Port Navarre is being built, and Roger Festa, the Atlanta-based developer who now owns the property, are antagonists in a lawsuit over the project. Ferrara, a Baton-Rouge businessman, purchased the parcel in 1997 for $3.2 million, according to Santa Rosa County records. Ferrara then sold the property in March 2004 for more than $12 million to Festa and another partner in the deal, the Atlanta development firm of Avary-Wallace, the records show.

Together, Festa and Avary-Wallace paid Ferrara $6 million in cash, Ferrara's lawsuit says. Ferrara agreed to invest the other $6 million into the project and become a minority partner in return for the promise of even greater returns as Port Navarre was developed. By one account, Ferrara's eventual return would amount to more than $26 million, according to the lawsuit.

After the March 2004 sales agreement, things began to deteriorate rapidly, according to Ferrara's lawsuit. The lawsuit claims Avary-Wallace tried to "flip" its share of the project, to which Ferrara and Festa objected. Festa filed an arbitration claim against Avary-Wallace, Ferrara's lawsuit contends. Avary-Wallace countersued. After more than a year of inactivity on the project, Ferrara filed his own suit.

Ferrara, president of Back bay Development, which recently became the first firm to receive Mississippi's approval for a land-based, post-Katrina casino, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. Avary-Wallace principals did not either. Festa said he is confident the suit will be resolved.