Jim Davis: A career building Indian River County’s infrastructure

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Imagine Indian River County with no beach parks, just a handful of paved roads on the barrier island, a drawbridge across the Indian River Lagoon from Royal Palm Pointe, and the 17th Street Bridge barely under construction.

That’s what Jim Davis found when he moved to Vero Beach in 1977 to begin making a career out of building the infrastructure that today we all take for granted. Davis has had a unique vantage from which to both shape and observe how the Indian River County we know today has grown and changed. On Sept. 30, Davis will retire after 29 years as the top public works official of Indian River County.

“The composition of the City (of Vero Beach) was pretty much the same, but the County was very rural,” he said. “The old citrus people and families were the few permanent residents who lived on the barrier island. Mostly, it was citrus and snowbirds.

“The Moorings was already developed, but between the city line and the Moorings, there wasn’t much built and south of the Moorings there was almost nothing there,” Davis said. “The northern barrier island was mostly citrus, but along North A1A in particular, there were some hammock areas that were not invaded by citrus. It was very quaint and scenic.”

Davis today is one of a dozen registered engineers scattered throughout the county public works, utilities and solid waste departments, but at the time he was hired, he was the only engineer employed by the whole county government. Davis was lured away from the City of Vero Beach, where he had been hired by Cliff Suthard as his assistant.

This variety of engineering experience prepared Davis, as well as anyone could be prepared, for the “jack of all trades” position he accepted as the county’s first Director of Utilities on January 1, 1981. Alma Lee Loy, who served as a County Commissioner from 1968 to 1980, had spoken to him about engineering opportunities at the county.

In the early days, Davis not only inspected bridges, but handled any other county project that might require the services of an engineer. He was called on to devise solutions not only to utility problems, but also to aid with the tasks of the property appraiser, building department, traffic engineering, parks, beaches or anything else that needed to be done.

“We had one guy who knew how to operate the surveying equipment and he and I would go out and plot something out, I would do the drawings by hand and then I’d supervise the construction,” he said. “It was a do-it-yourself operation.”

In the fall of 1982, according to Davis, county commissioners hired consultants to plot out the county’s organizational needs. The plans they laid out called for new departments such as Public Works.

Davis supervised the establishment of the County’s utility system, which was launched in 1983. A much more modern system than the City’s utility infrastructure, mostly built in the year’s following World War II, the lines and plants that Davis put into place still serve County utility customers well today.

According to Davis, one thing Indian River County always had was a thoroughly professional and active Planning and Zoning Commission. He worked with the commissioners and other officials to codify most of the building regulations and county ordinances that exist today.

As growth occurred, however, the County was confronted with the need to build more durable roads and expand utilities. It was becoming clear that developers should bear some of the burden of these costs.

“I developed the impact fee program, the program originated in 1986 when I was told to put one together for the county because the development was occurring without much thought about the infrastructure that would be needed,” Davis said.

Though it was tough to turn down the platted projects for more and more luxury, low-density developments on the beach which would bring millions in ad valorem taxes to the county, there was one looming issue that may well mark Davis’ most enduring contribution to the county.

Davis and the County Commissioners realized that every inch of beach in the unincorporated area was being gobbled up and locked up behind gated community after gated community. There was a concern that residents who don’t live directly on the ocean would have no public access to the county’s beautiful beaches.

“A bond referendum was passed and we started buying up beach access and parcels to develop beach parks,” Davis said. “Wabasso Beach was developed, along with Treasure Shores, Golden Sands, Round Island, the Tracking Station, Turtle Trail and Seagrape Trail.”

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