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Dear Governor DeSantis and Members of the Florida Cabinet,
I am writing to encourage you to approve the purchase of Fish Island in St. Augustine Florida for conservation. This item will come before your Cabinet on July 25th, 2019.
Over the past year, our community has joined together to save Fish Island from an irresponsible development plan. When you consider the environmental, historical, and archaeological significance of Fish Island, there is no question that the property is a priceless investment.
In its current state, Fish Island serves as an important natural buffer for our community against hurricanes, flooding, and sea level rise. The wetlands and uplands capture nutrients and other harmful runoff from polluting the Matanzas River and provide critical habitat for plants and wildlife (including redfish, snook, trout, bald eagles, deer, and roseate spoonbills). In May, the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation selected Fish Island as one of Florida’s “11 to Save," a list of the most threatened historic properties in the State.
Please approve the funding to purchase Fish Island to protect it for future generations.
Thank you for your consideration.
Fish Island is a 72-acre parcel comprising uplands, which support a maritime forest and a bald eagle nest, and wetland areas, which support an extensive marsh habitat located on the Matanzas River on the south-eastern side of the Mickler-O'Connell (312) Bridge. In the summer of 2018, developer, D.R. Horton sought to clear-cut and fill Fish Island to construct 170 new homes. At the first Planning and Zoning Board meeting, they downplayed the ecological and historic value of the property. At the second meeting, over a hundred members of the community showed up and pushed back. The PZB unanimously denied the development proposal. D.R. Horton did not appeal that decision. Now we are working together with members of our community to permanently preserve this land.
- The people of St. Augustine have joined together to Save Fish Island, a beloved place in our community.
- The fight to save Fish Island exemplifies the role of citizen advocates in preserving Florida’s natural resources.
- Ordinary Citizens with limited funds and no legal representation, joined forces with the Matanzas Riverkeeper, became historical and environmental advocates, and engaged in an eleven-month grassroots effort to protect Fish Island from development by the largest home builder in the nation so that it may be conserved and its astonishing history preserved.
- Fish Island is situated in an area that is quickly being clear-cut and filled by developers from all directions, and is one of the last remaining undeveloped waterfront parcels of this size within our City limits.
- We are losing our natural shorelines and wildlife habitat to development all over St. Johns county.
- Fish Island is a beautiful reminder of “old Florida” landscape in an area rapidly becoming built out.
- The Matanzas River is one of the most pristine in the state and we want to keep it that way.
- Fish Island’s natural shoreline and plant life protects our beautiful Matanzas River by filtering our pollutants and run-off from nearby development.
- Fish Island is one of the last remaining wildlife habitat areas in the City of St. Augustine.
- There is an active bald eagle nest on Fish Island.
- Fish Island provides a safe haven with wildlife habitat for many animal species being threatened by loss of their habitat from surrounding development.
- Fish Island’s natural shoreline and well-established upland buffer protects Anastasia Island by serving as a natural buffer from hurricanes and storm surge.
- St Augustine residents have suffered severe flooding during Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, and repeatedly experience sunny day tidal flooding in many parts of our City.
- Located between residential development and the river, Fish Island absorbs wind and tidal forces, reducing upland flooding and damage.
- The vast wetlands and natural shoreline of Fish Island also protect the island from flooding by serving as a sponge to storm surge (1 acre of wetlands can store 1.5million gallons of storm surge).
Fish Island is named for Jesse Fish, whom, depending on the historical account, was either a savior and a saint or a traitor and a thief. Regardless of his moral fiber, it is well established that Fish was a wealthy man, and that he acquired substantial land holdings in St. Augustine (including most of Anastasia Island) during the transition between St. Augustine’s first Spanish period and its British period. Fish established his homestead and orange plantation, called El Vergel, on what we now know as Fish Island. El Vergel was likely one of the first commercial orange groves in Florida, germinating an industry that would become an economic driver and immortalize the iconic fruit as a symbol of our state.
For a more in-depth look at the history of Fish Island, see:
Fish Island’s Historical Past: A Citizen’s Perspective on What We Stand To Lose
- Fish Island is named after Jesse Fish Who live in St. Augustine during the 18th century.
- Jesse Fish came to St. Augustine from New York, alone at a young age (possibly 10-12 years of age), during the first Spanish period in 1736. (He arrived with the Walton Shipping company working on the ship, later sailing their ships, and eventually becoming the shipping agent in Spanish Florida for the Walton company, who supplied the Spanish garrison).
- He was a lifelong Protestant of British decent and because of his young age, was placed in a prominent Spanish Family to live with them, learn the Spanish language and Spanish customs.
- Much later in life he married the Harbor Master’s daughter (Sarah Warner) and had two children. (Their union eventually ended in separation, and Jesse Fish has been described as living the remaining years of his life in a reclusive way at El Vergel on Fish Island.)
- In the mid 1700s Fish developed a what would become a world-renowned commercial orange Plantation, “El Vergel” on the land we now know as, Fish Island.
- Due to the expanse of the land for which he claimed deeds over the course of his life (some 10,00acres – all of Anastasia Island except the Kings quarries; and by 1764 also held transferred deeds from exiting Spaniards of some 180-plus properties in the Colonial City on the mainland), he could easily be considered an 18th Century land baron. Jesse Fish lived in St. Augustine for the next 54 years until his death in 1790. He was buried on Fish Island, but his tomb has reportedly, since been vandalized.
- Fish Island has been listed on the national register for historic places since 1972.
- Fish Island has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1972 due to its significance in Florida's history through 3 distinct historical periods. (First Spanish Period, British Occupation, and Second Spanish Period).
- On May 21, 2019, Fish Island was named one of the 11 most threatened historic properties in Florida and earned a listing as one of the 2019 “11 to Save” by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation.
- On May 21, 2019 Fish Island was selected from a larger than usual number of nominations from all over the State of Florida, as one of the most threatened historic properties in the entire State, earning it a listing as one of Florida’s 2019 “11 to Save” by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, one of the most well-respected Preservation organizations in our State. This is an important validation prioritizing the need to preserve Fish Island.
- Fish Island is important in Florida’s history as the site of the very beginning of Florida’s commercial orang industry.
- By the mid 1700s (1748 or 1750), on the land we know as Fish Island, Jesse Fish had established what would become a world-renowned commercial orange plantation, called El Vergel. This is considered to be the site of Florida's first orange grove (proclaimed in a 1975 Resolution by the Directors of the St Augustine Historical Society), and likely represents the very beginnings of the commercial orange industry in both Florida and in the nation. (California not shipping oranges commercially until the 1800s.)
- Fish has been described by historians as "Florida's first orange baron."
- By 1770 Fish was shipping oranges as far away as London, where they were sought after for their sweetness and thin skins in the making of a popular libation, called “shrub.” Some reports say he had upwards of 3000 orange trees on his groves at El Vergel.
- Fish Island is very likely the site of unmarked burials of both enslaved African people and Protestant people, who could not be buried in the Catholic cemetery at that time.
- Remnants of two tombs were discovered on Fish Island in the past (one believed to have been the burial site of Jesse Fish and the other – unknown)
- A descendent of Jesse Fish, has evidence that at least two of his Protestant ancestors were buried somewhere on Fish Island.
- Based on historical records, Fish introduced the largest number of enslaved African people registered into Spanish Florida in the ten-year period before the British Occupation (1752-1763). (Landers, Jane – Black Society in Spanish Florida, 1999).
- He registered 133 African people, and at least three separate Spanish census records show his ownership of “Slaves” on the El Vergel Plantation.
- Many archeological discoveries have been found on Fish Island, some dating back 4000 years.
- Remnants believed to be from a blockhouse have been described in previous archeological surveys, as well as the presence of 8 tiny structures to the North of the main house that can be seen on the Dorr Map (1859). The area approximately 100 to 300 ft North of the larger structure (believed to have been the main plantation house), is the area of the “proposed slave or worker quarters.” (Cultural Resource Assessment of Fish Island: The 18th Century Plantation Home of Jesse Fish (8SJ62) commissioned by City of St Augustine, 2001)
- Previous Archeological surveys conducted on Fish Island have described discovered artifacts dating back 4000 years, as well as very limited remnants of the Fish plantation house, a blockhouse, a coquina block well, a wharf, canals leading from the waterway into the island, a system of submerged channels (used to transport goods and people), and two burial tombs.
- Jesse Fish was once one of the wealthiest men in St. Augustine.
- By 1764 Fish owned all of Anastasia Island (some 10,000 acres), except for the King's quarries, and most of the properties in the colonial town on the mainland (what is now the downtown area).
- An early map (after 1764) of downtown St Augustine, shows that Fish owned most of the properties, including his one-time ownership of what is now considered to be, the oldest house and current home of the St Augustine Historical Society.
- When the British arrived in 1763, the Spaniards were given 18 months to sell their property, before they left Spanish Florida, and many transferred their titles to Fish, who was to act as an agent on their behalf (whether he did so in good faith has been greatly debated).
An Eagle's Eye View of Fish Island: