Blacks Fight To Block Developers, Save Heritage

When MaVynee Betsch heard developers’ plans to build a golf course and luxury housing here, she went to the media and stirred what has become a cauldron of local and national controversy.

During segregation this was Florida’s only beach resort for blacks. Betsch (whose first name is pronounced May-Veen) is the great-granddaughter of the beach’s founder.

“This place is a part of black heritage and culture, and they can’t just take that away,” said Betsch, exultant in the afterglow of recent sympathetic coverage on National Public Radio and in USA Today. The debate centers on a parcel of land sold during bankruptcy proceedings in the 1980s by the Afro-American Insurance Co., which provided the funding for the establishment of American Beach.

That land is owned by the Amelia Island Co., which also owns a nearby luxury resort, Amelia Island Plantation. The Amelia Island Co. wants to build 50 to 60 luxury single-family homes and a five-hole golf course.

But Betsch and other residents say the firm is trying to squeeze them off the land, thus robbing African-Americans of an important cultural and historic landmark.

American Beach is a featured stop on Florida’s Black Heritage Trail, which, according to Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, is a guide to “landmark sites representing black contributions” to the state’s heritage.

Representative Bill Moore denies the Amelia Island Co. is doing anything discriminatory or unfair and cites compromises and reductions in scope of the proposed development. He points out that the development would be at the south end of the existing community of American Beach, not on it.

Amelia Island residents of all backgrounds are divided. One 17-year resident of Amelia Island Plantation suggests the fight is about publicity, and that the area is so unsafe and unsightly that development is essential.

American Beach homeowner Franklin Bell says he has nothing against development in general, but he “worries about encroachment and displacement.”

That worry is the crux of the argument: When does compromise become surrender? While Betsch and others call for a return of the land to the community, Moore points out that Afro-American Insurance did indeed sell the property, and that the Amelia Island Co. has every right to develop on it if the firm abides by local and state regulations.

But Rita Kovacevich, a Fernandina Beach resident, says she understands why American Beach residents feel that if they acquiesce now, they may lose everything later. And she agrees that preservation of the beach is important.

“This island,” Kovacevich says, “does not need another private golf course. It would be a shame to think that the charm that attracted us here at first – the homogenous, small-town feel with no one being pushed down – has disappeared.”

Meanwhile, Betsch is applying to have American Beach placed on the National Register of Historic Places.