ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. -- Gate Petroleum, the parent company of Ponte Vedra Corp., is fighting to convert a large portion of land next to the Guana Preserve into a residential area, but they are being met with backlash by locals and conservationists.

Gate owns 99 acres of land surrounded by the Guana Preserve. The local group “Save Guana Now” says, for decades, the land has been a designated "conservation” and cannot be turned into land for residential use. But now, attorneys for Gate are pushing for a land use change so they can build 66 houses.

Gate sued the county in 2016 for not getting the zoning for its development taken care of fast enough. Since it expects more litigation, the county says its attorneys have advised them to stay quiet, however it did release a statement to First Coast News:

“Asserting their interpretation of a Residential C land use designation, the land owners filed a rezoning application requesting approximately 77 homes. The application was been reviewed at the staff level twice and, as of this date, there remains 25 outstanding technical items to address.” – Michael Ryan, Communications Director

“It’s literally chopping a hole in the middle of the preserve,” said Nicole Crosby, the co-founder of “Save Guana Now."

Crosby says her team has attorneys standing by, prepared to go to court on the issue in case it comes to that with Gate. Crosby says adding 66 homes could devastate the natural environment fragmenting habitats.

“What’s going on here on a smaller scale is what’s happening countrywide, causing animals to diminish," she said.

She says many animals could die once construction starts, and the animals that do stick around will have a hard time finding food. She also warns for the potential new residents to be aware of what they’re moving in to, as they will be surrounded by animals that could pose serious threats to their families, especially since they will feel threatened.

Gate sent First Coast News a statement in response to the ongoing debate:

“It is false to claim that the entire 99-acre Outpost property has ever been in conservation. Consistent with the policies of its comprehensive plan and St. Johns County’s previous applications of its conditional conservation land use designation, only the jurisdictional wetlands (approximately 22.7 of the 99.3 acres) are subject to the conservation land use designation. GATE does not, and will not, propose development on those 22.7 acres. The debate and attempts to prevent development on the remaining property and to characterize the entire 99-acre parcel as sensitive conservation land is simply a land grab by some who want to utilize our private property as their own private greenway.In addition, numerous independent, on-site surveys and studies by environmental firms have concluded that there are no significant natural communities or habitats on the Outpost property. Wildlife seen in the adjacent Guana lake and on existing Neck Road residences, including wading birds, have their breeding, feeding, nesting and roosting habitat needs well met by core estuaries and upland buffers located within the GTMNERR. After four years of planning and research, we have proposed a low-density neighborhood that is sensitive to the ongoing protection of the adjacent NERR, while still allowing for the reasonable use of our private property.”

After seeing Gate’s statement, Crosby sent in a response:

"Gate has repeatedly accused our organization of plotting "a land grab for their own private greenway." This preposterous statement has no basis in fact, and we have acknowledged many times that the Outpost is private property. Regarding Gate's claim that the designation of the entire 99 acres is not conservation, the county's Future Land Use Map shows that it is. Maintaining the conservation designation of this land is vital to protecting the surrounding Guana preserve and Outstanding Florida Waters. Furthermore, habitat destruction of the 76 upland acres would be devastating to this environmentally diverse and sensitive land."