Year In Review 2022

Top Story of the Year

Complied by Don Coble
Posted 12/28/22

Work on the Black Creek Water Resource Development Project finally begins

Plan to restore lake levels in Keystone Heights pushes forward after 40-year battle.


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Year In Review 2022

Top Story of the Year


Work on the Black Creek Water Resource Development Project finally begins
Plan to restore lake levels in Keystone Heights pushes forward after 40-year battle.

KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – Lake Geneva served as a backdrop to the formal announcement the Black Creek Water Resource Development Project was a reality. Once filled nearly to a small seawall, water from the lake had receded nearly 70 yards to remind residents and dignitaries why they were there.
In about two years, water levels are expected to be returned at Geneva and nearby Lake Brooklyn to the levels that made the tiny city a paradise.
“What a journey,” said former Florida Sen. and Chairman of the St. Johns River Water Management District Rob Bradley said.
After decades of irresponsible use, state, county and local officials finally forged a plan to siphon unneeded water from Black Creek and send it to the lakes in Keystone Heights. As the population grew in the Lake Region, so did the demand for water. After decades of taking, residents, particularly the Save Our Lakes Organization, created a mission to put a plug in draining the lakes while demanding water levels be replenished.
“This has been four decades or more journey,” said SOLO President Vivian Katz-James. “It’s a big day for a lot of people, not just me, but a lot of people.”
Essentially, the Black Creek project, which was created in 2017, will divert as much as 10 million gallons of water from the South Fork of the Black Creek between Seamark Ranch and the Clay County Animal Control Services on State Road 16, move it through a 17-mile pipeline and filtering system, and dump the water into Alligator Creek, which flows into Lake Brooklyn.
Three days after the formal announcement, workers already were breaking ground and starting work on the pump station about 100 yards west of the South Fork.
The Keystone Heights lakes recharge the Upper Floridian aquifer and Lower Sante Fe basin through the lake bottom, so the benefits will be felt in surrounding counties as the aquifer improves.
The project, however, took years of debate, negotiating and planning. State and Keystone Height officials, along with the Clay County Board of Commissioners, St. Johns River Water Management District, SOLO and four local utility companies – Clay County Utility Authority, Gainesville Regional Utilities, St. Johns Utilities and JEA – all had to find common ground. The completed project is expected to cost $100 million, and Bradley, Florida Reps. Bobby Payne (Palatka) and Travis Cummings (Fleming Island) helped appropriate more than $48 from the state. The utility companies agreed to pay a total $19.2 million.

Construction of the pump station started on Monday, Oct. 24, just a few yards from Black Creek.
“There were people who really didn’t want this to happen,” Bradley said. “But we brought everybody together. It didn’t matter if you were a Republican, Democrat or Independent. We didn’t care. We just wanted to save the lakes, right?”
SOLO members started attending SJRWMD meetings nearly 30 years ago. They all wore red shirts and sat in the front row, and each time, they had the same message – save the lakes. They were persistent and unapologetic, but their passion finally made a difference.
Former SJRWMD Chairman Douglas Burnett was an early advocate to save the lakes. He faced difficult challenges of getting the money and uniformed support to make the project a reality.
“This is a way, not the commotion you see on TV every day in Washington, of elected leaders working for their people and their local groups like Save Our Lakes, working for the good of the community,” Burnett said.

Story of the Year, No. 2
Baptist Medical Center Clay accepts patients minutes after opening it doors

FLEMING ISLAND – Darin Roark’s dream of building an intricate, yet contemporary, medical facility was, at long last, at the finish line two weeks before Christmas. Except for buffing out a few scuff marks, laying sod and fluffing pillows, the work is done.
His mind had been filled with ideas, plans and challenges since hospital and county officials broke ground nearly two years ago on the $235 million project that also included transforming the old VyStar building west of the hospital into a health center.
“I usually get about two hours of sleep,” Roark said while walking through the hospital two days before the ribbon cutting. “I get up and go running for about an hour and then I’m here. I’ve been running on adrenaline. This project is personal.”
Roark is the hospital president. He’s walked through the site since the first scoop of dirt was moved and the first nail was driven. He’s been down every hallway and checked behind every door since construction workers started framing the 102 patient rooms. The plans are committed to memory so all work stayed on target.
Portions of the Baptist Clay were operational before the official opening. The laboratory has been open for more than a week. The pharmacy is ready to go. Nurses and technicians spent weeks in training, often sharing the same hallways with men in yellow vests and hard hats who were making sure every wall was straight and sound.
A couple of hours before the official opening on Dec. 19, Fleming Island’s Gil Aguayo was rushed to the hospital after his glucose level “crashed.” As officials got ready to open the doors, Aguayo already had been admitted as the first patient.
It didn’t take Baptist Clay long to welcome its first birth. Baby Waylon was born on Dec. 20, and he and his mother, Savannah, were both in good spirits following the delivery.
“We want the bonding to take part from the minute that baby comes out of the womb,” maternity nurse Sarah Surrency said. “We are going to have skin-to-skin care bonding. The entire stay, there is no moving and shuffling of departments when that baby's delivered. Mama and baby stay together and they stay
in the same room.”
If there are complications, NCIU is next door.
“We're just so blessed with this technology,” supervisor Letitia Croce. “This is brand new. To me, and I've been in NICU for almost 15 years, this is the best of the best. We have so much of the newest that I'm a little speechless. I'm super excited to be a part of it.”
The health place next door also has several available services. Just last week, the Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine Center where healing is possible for even the most complex wounds.
The Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine Center at Baptist Clay provide comprehensive care to patients with chronic or acute wounds, foot ulcers, venous insufficiency, diabetic ulcers, wounds caused by radiation, trauma and more.
Eventually, health place will be home to Baptist doctors, as well as meeting rooms for classes, healthy living programs and other medical services.
The new hospital cost $175 million, Roark said, and with the conversion of health place, “We’re all in at $235 million.”
There currently are 585 employees and Roark said that soon will grow to 600. And with it comes a shift in challenges from building a hospital to running one.

Story of the Year, No. 3

Former Sheriff Daniels acquitted of lying to investigators, tampering with evidence

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Saying he was grateful a Clay County jury found him not guilty on all seven charges stemming from a six-year extramarital affair, Former Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels compared his three-year ordeal to the persecution of former president Donald Trump and called out the abuse of power by government entities.
The state tried to convince jurists he lied to investigators about the affair and that he wanted his former mistress arrested for stalking. Prosecutors also said he attempted to destroy and tamper with evidence.
Daniels’ defense team said he was trying to hide information about the affair from his wife to save his marriage.
The jury needed less than three hours on Thursday, Sept. 15, to agree with Daniels. While he admitted his personal life and reputation were tarnished by the affair, he felt vindicated of breaking any laws.
Known for his bravado, Daniels said, in part, after the verdict:
“I would like to thank the jury for their service and thank all of the people of Florida for their support during this challenging time for me and for my family. The abuse and overreach that I have had to endure over the past three years is an example of what happens when sectors of our government go unchecked. If this abuse of power by government entities can happen to a duly elected sheriff, then it can happen to anyone. I pledge to all Floridians and people from across the country who offered their support during these trying times, that I will continue to fight for them to ensure that we all receive equal justice under the law. This abuse cost me my job that I loved and it cost Clay County their sheriff.”
His mistress, Cierra Smith, and Clay County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Christopher Ruby testified Daniels ordered Smith the be arrested for stalking him. She was stopped on May 6, 2019, in an Oakleaf Village Parkway parking lot and taken to the Clay County Jail. Smith said Daniels asked to meet her to get a copy of a CD of an internal investigation at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office where it was likely he would be identified as having an affair when both Smith and Daniels worked for JSO.
Smith wasn’t charged or booked after other agency officials said there wasn’t any probable cause. CCSO then drove Smith home.
Within days, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation. They obtained a warrant for seven charges, and the sheriff was arrested on Aug. 13, 2020 – just five days before the 2020 primary. He wound up losing to Michelle Cook by 3,121 votes.
The state found more than 2,000 texts and voice messages between the couple.
Prosecutors said Daniels lied to Ruby at the scene, telling him he attempted to get a restraining order against Smith earlier in the day. However, the Clay County Clerk’s Office said there were no records of any requests.
Assistant State Attorney Toby Hunt told the jury Daniels took action to alter evidence, including asking a CCSO tech to wipe out records on his agency-issued phone.
Defense attorney Matthew Kachergus said anything erased or hidden by Daniels was to keep his wife from learning the sorted details of their relationship.
After the verdict, Daniels hugged his defense team.
“I feel good. I promise a press conference at a later time,” Daniels said.


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