Before and After: Clay County Suburbia

August 21, 2017 0 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

When I-295 opened in 1970, Clay County was home to 32,059 residents. Today, an estimated 208,311 reside in the rapidly growing county just outside of Jacksonville. Here's a visual before and after comparison of the county's transformation into a bedroom community of Jacksonville.

The First Coast Expressway

(The remains of Middleburg Airport's grass runways, northwest of SR 21/Blanding Boulevard in 1970)

Middleburg Airport was a small satellite airfield with two 2,500-foot grass runways used to support Navy flight training during WW2. Although the airport was closed following the end of WW2, the site remained untouched until the 21st century. Today, it features a Walmart Supercenter and serves as the path of the First Coast Expressway, just north of SR 21/Blanding Boulevard.

(2017 aerial of the First Coast Expressway)

Fleming Island Naval Outer Landing Field

(The Thunderbolt Dragway in 1970)

Fleming Island NOLF was established around 1942 as a satellite airfield for NAS Jacksonville. By 1970, a part of the abandoned airport was being used for drag racing. From the 1960s until the early 1970s, the airfield was used for drag racing. Called the Thunderbolt Dragway, due to the large number of P-47 Thunderbolt war planes that were once housed there, the race track was organized by Burch Stump, Ed Taylor and Ben Zellner and operated until the early 1970s. In 1998, the abandoned airfield was a part of a 2,129-acre tract approved for the massive development of Fleming Island Plantation.

(Fleming Island in 2017)

US 17 at CR 200 in Fleming Island

(The intersection of US 17 and CR 220 in 1970)

Bordered by water or wetlands on all sides, Fleming Island was largely undeveloped around the intersection of County Road 220 and US 17 in 1970. This changed with the development of Eagle Harbor and Fleming Island Plantation over the past two decades. Today, Fleming Island ranks among the wealthiest zip codes in the Jacksonville area.

(The intersection of US 17 and CR 220 in 2017)

The former Naval Air Station Lee Field

(The former Naval Air Station Lee Field in 1970)

On September 11, 1940, the U.S. Navy made it official, opening Naval Air Station Lee Field, just south of Green Cove Springs. The Air Station was named in honor of Ensign Bejamin Lee who had lost his life in a crash at Killinghome, England, during World War I on October 28, 1918. Benjamin Lee Field was designed to train pilots for landing operations on aircraft carriers during WWII.

In 1946, thirteen (13) 1,500 foot concrete piers were built into the St. Johns River, at the cost of $10 million, to securely house the U.S. Naval Atlantic Reserve or "Mothball Fleet" of WWII U.S. Navy ships. At its height, over 600 vessels, primarily destroyers, destroyer escorts and fleet auxiliaries, were stationed at Green Cove Springs, along with more than 5,000 naval personnel and 1,000 civilian employees. Unfortunately, under his first executive order, President Lyndon B. Johnson decommissioned the facility and relocated the fleet to Texas, his home state. Soon, after the 1960 decommissioning of NAAS Green Cove Springs, the City of Green Cove Springs purchased and sold the former military installation to Julian Louis Reynolds, of Reynolds Metal Company, for the development of a multi-modal 1,700-acre industrial park served by rail, highway, water, and a private airport. Reynolds established the Reynolds Industrial Park in 1965.

(The former Naval Air Station Lee Field in 2017)

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Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Davis is a certified senior planner and graduate of Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” Davis has served with various organizations committed to improving urban communities, including the American Planning Association and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. A 2013 Next City Vanguard, Davis is the co-founder of Metro and — two websites dedicated to promoting fiscally sustainable communities — and Transform Jax, a tactical urbanist group. Contact Ennis at