Key International, a real estate investment and development company from Miami, proposed a huge “Embassy Suites” hotel on Vilano Road. They contacted for three parcels of land in the Vilano Town Center area: the .82 acres on which The Magic Beach Motel sits, a vacant, 2.08-acre parcel just north, and a .31-acre on the corner of Vilano Rd and Coastal Hwy.
Residents first heard of the proposal in July of 2021 at a Vilano Beach Main Street town meeting and were understandably concerned with several aspects of the proposal, viewed as being just “too much development” for such a small area.
Residents were still grappling with the addition of the 50 room Holiday Inn Express (originally proposed as a B&B) and the 120 room Hyatt Place (originally proposed as a small boutique hotel). Early calculations indicated that there would be over 500 rooms in 1,000 linear feet of road.
Social media lit up with questions about parking, traffic, water, sewer and general concern.
Vilano Town Center was intentionally developed as a “compact, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use district the serves Vilano Beach and surrounding areas," with regulations in the County Land Development Code, pg. III-111 “to support the creation of a downtown area that has buildings designed to reflect the unique local flavor and character of this small beach town generally reflected in the existing historic and public buildings."
Adding to the concern, the County presented concepts for an Oceanfront Park between Anahma Drive and the Atlantic Ocean, and a mixed-use townhome development directly to the west of the Hyatt Place.
While the need for economic development is a reality, residents began to voice concern over eroding quality of life for those who live here and the erosion of the original “small beach vibe” intention for Vilano Beach.
While the need for economic development is a reality, residents began to voice concern over deteriorating quality of life for those who live here and the erosion of the original “small beach vibe” intention for Vilano Beach.
St. Johns County has a process for proposing, evaluating and approving or denying development. The process starts at the pre-application point, where the concept is presented. The County staff review the proposal for compliance with the 2025 Comprehensive Land Use Plan and the Land Development Code.
If the proposal is in compliance, the process moves on to Planning & Zoning, Cultural Review and Design Review. If there are variances or exemptions to the code required, the County staff should work with the developer to adjust the proposal before sending the development forward for further review.
Cultural review then ensures that any architectural or archaeological are addressed and preserved.
Design review, specifically for Vilano Town Center, has unique and special design standards prescribed in Part 3.10.00 of the Land Development Code. This North Coastal Overlay District serves to “maintain, protect and enhance the diverse and unique character of the North Coastal Corridor and its established beach community, respect the well-documented history of the area and achieve specific goals and objective of the St. Johns County Comprehensive Plan.
Five members of the North Coastal Design Review Board, volunteers from the community, review proposals that have been green-lighted by the County staff, for compliance with the spirit and intent of the Overlay District.
The Design Review Board may approve or deny the design based strictly upon compliance with the Code. Decisions made by the Design Review Board may be appealed to the Board of County Commissioners, either by the developer who proposed the project, or by those opposed to the project.
North Beach Community Alliance successfully researched the proposed Twelvth Street B&B, learning a great deal in the process about land use and County codes. We applied that knowledge to dig into the details of the Proposed Vilano Hotel before it came before the North Coastal Design Review Board.
What we found was that there were multiple conflicts with the code. The design did not match the requirements for Florida vernacular architecture, used materials unsuited to the style, had exposed parking, along with several technical discrepancies.
The Design Review Board denied the proposal based on non-compliance with the code.
As expected, the developer appealed to the Board of County Commissioners. NBCA geared up to make certain that every discrepancy was obvious.
One of the more egregious issues identified was the number of hotel rooms within the Vilano Town Center, had the Vilano Hotel been approved. The 2025 Comprehensive Plan prescribed Vilano Beach Town Center Mixed Use District, pg. 101 to not exceed:
• 33% Retail or office space
• 33% Residential
• 30% Hotel/Motel
• 4% Civic.
The original proposal cited inaccurately cited acreage of the three parcels that would comprise the Vilano Hotel. The misrepresentation allowed the proposal to appear that it met the criteria. The accurate information exceeded the allowable acreage for Hotel/Motel.
Besides this obvious error, the loading dock would be located approximately 400 feet from the traffic list at the east end of the Vilano Bridge, running the risk of blocking traffic into the Town Center. The north side of the hotel was positioned less than 10 ft from the tree line separating residential property on the other side, and this was insufficient for emergency vehicle use.
The developer brought an architect to testify that the proposed style was, indeed, Florida vernacular. However, the County had a responsibility to hire an independent architect for that purpose, and did not do so. NBCA hired and paid an architect to refute the claim of compliance.
The takeaway from this is that issues of non-compliance with the County regulations for development were not followed, and the proposal went before the Design Review Board and, ultimately, the Board of County Commissioners was seriously flawed.
The Board of County Commissioners denied the appeal 4-0.
NBCA began the process of objecting to the Vilano Hotel with a petition. The petition was promoted on the social media app, Next Door and garnered 1,800 signatures before the appeal hearing before the Board of County Commissioners. That allowed us to confidently state that we were representing the interest of the people of Vilano and North Beach.
We also used local news outlets including the St Augustine Record and local television stations. The media was very open to our issues.
Next Door was a valuable tool for NBCA to share what we learned with the community, understand their concerns and issues, and keep them updated on progress.
In mid-December, Key International withdrew their proposal to develop the Vilano Hotel. The Commissioners had made it very clear that the largest room count they would consider was 120, comparable to the size of the Hyatt Place.
Key International indicated that a hotel that size would not be financially viable.
It is important to note that the Vilano Hotel was denied because of a LOT of hard work on the part of citizens and specialists, the funds raised by the community to support the work of NBCA, and the fact that the County’s process in reviewing the design was broken.
We can’t, and shouldn’t, be successful in opposing a plan that meets all the requirements that the County has laid out for development.
St. Johns County is where people want to live and has grown 44% since 2010. We cannot stop that development, nor should we. Economic development is what allows our community to thrive.
Vilano Beach is a treasure. Where else can you stand in the middle of the street, look east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Intracoastal Waterway without taking a step?
What we CAN do, however, is advocate for SMART growth. And that is what we will do going forward. SMART growth provides residents and visitors alike a healthy, active and fun quality of life.
NBCA will continue to watch the growth plans for Vilano and North Beach, help our residents better understand how to work with the County, and preserve the small beach vibe throughout the community.