Protecting a piece of history through cost-sharing

Even utopias have their flaws.

After Hurricane Irma in 2019 barreled through the historic community of Penney Farms in Clay County and flooded its streets, local leaders knew they needed to seek financial help to improve their aging and undersized drainage infrastructure.

“When Irma struck, we had so much water that it had reached the bottom of the stop sign,” says Cathie Parrott, the community’s grants coordinator and proud 17-year resident of this tight-knit retirement community. “The water was like a river running down the street, flooding the center of our town.”

Town Manager David Cooper encouraged Parrott to turn to the St. Johns River Water Management District’s Cost-Share Program for assistance. The District awarded Penney Farms a $5,000 cost-share grant to replace old hand-held water meter readers with newer, more accurate models with improved capabilities.

District Cost-Share Manager Derek Busby visits the site of a District cost-share project with Cathie Parrott, grants coordinator for the Town of Penney Farms.

In 2021, the District is once again assisting the town, providing $273,500 toward an $828,000 project that will not only upgrade the community’s stormwater system, but also will reduce the amount nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the south prong of Black Creek and ultimately, the lower St. Johns River.

Drainage structure in the process of being installed

Stormwater drains are being installed beneath roadways.

“Our cost-share funding programs help communities like Penney Farms stretch their dollars to increase their flood protection and resiliency,” says St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle. “The program also enables our partners to increase water conservation, develop alternative water supplies, improve water quality and enhance natural systems — achieving greater benefits toward our core missions than any of us could make alone.”

During the past seven years, 253 Districtwide and Rural Economic Development Initiative (REDI)/Innovative cost-share projects have been completed. The District has invested $156 million in local communities on beneficial, cost-effective partnership projects to protect water resources. This investment has resulted in a total of 144.81 million gallons per day (mgd) of alterative water supplied, 8.7 mgd of water conserved, a reduction of 1.6 million pounds per year of total nitrogen, a reduction of 282,452 pounds per year of total phosphorus, and 4,624 acres protected from flooding.

Penney Farms’ founder, James Cash Penney, would likely have appreciated the spirit of the program. But first one must understand a little bit about the man.

Penney, entrepreneur and founder of J.C. Penney stores, was the seventh of 12 children and one of six who survived to adulthood. His father was a minister and farmer. Penney vowed that if he ever made his fortune, he would build a retirement home for people like his parents: people of marginal financial means in their twilight years.

Penney made good on his promise in 1926 after he bought 120,000 acres of land in Clay County four years earlier and transformed a portion of it into a utopian farming village called Penney Farms. The real estate decline and stock market crash forced Penney to scale back his ambitions and turn the area into a retirement community for ministers in honor of his father. Today, the Penney Retirement Community is a 192-acre home to laypeople as well as clergy and missionaries.

Penney Farms is a European storybook village graced with neatly kept greens and a church built in the French Norman style at its center.

“Penney had visited Normandy on many occasions and fell in love with the French Norman style,” Parrott confides during a quick golf cart tour of the community. “The church was completed in 1927 and is one of the best examples of French Norman architecture in Florida.”

District Cost-Share Manager Derek Busby says the Penney Farms cost-share project was an ideal cost-share program candidate.

“You have a lot of senior citizens here in a community with limited funds who are impacted when the center of town floods,” he says. “This project will basically increase the capacity of the drainage system and prevent streets and buildings from being inundated.”

Adds Parrott, “The town wouldn’t survive without grants. We wouldn’t have been able to complete this stormwater project without the St. Johns River Water Management District.”

Work to improve drainage will temporarily close roads in the project area.

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