Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 20, 2017 11:24 a.m.
Anyone who has ever dealt with Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Len Kreger understands his passion and respect for environmental issues. He has been a long time champion of stormwater improvements, protecting and preserving island beaches and last but not least, protecting sea turtles. Kreger recently embarked on a quest to preserve an undeveloped piece of land along Citrona Drive currently owned by the Nassau County School District (NCSD) that borders the Egans Creek Greenway.
This property, once acquired to meet anticipated future school growth, is no longer needed by the School District. Last December the School Board requested the vacation of the “rump” portion of Gum Street in anticipation of the sale of the property on both sides to a developer with an intention of developing a new residential subdivision consistent with the underlying Future Land Use Map (FLUM) Category of Low Density Residential and R-1 zoning. The segment of Gum Street requested for abandonment was originally platted as part of the 1857 City of Fernandina Beach Plat. The Right-Of-Way has never been used for access, has not been improved, and bisects the School Board’s property east of Citrona roughly in half.
City Commissioners were not in agreement on the request, which had been denied by the Planning Advisory Board but supported by city staff. Kreger, seconded by Commissioner Tim Poynter, moved to table the requested action, which is where the matter remains today.
But in the meantime, Kreger has been working diligently to develop a plan for a joint use public project on the property, with encouragement from the community, local industry and various government agencies. His concept: an outdoor learning laboratory.
Key to developing this plan has been the participation and encouragement of the North Florida Land Trust (NFLT), which has developed a proposal for consideration by both elected bodies. Kreger made the proposal available to the Fernandina Observer March 18, 2017. It is important to remember that the proposal has not been approved by the City of Fernandina Beach or the School Board at this writing.
The proposal appears below:
North Florida Land Trust, in consultation with a number of local citizens, has identified a potential win-win scenario that would ensure the greenspace preservation of the 15 acre parcel, as well as improve the property for the school board’s use, creating a unique educational asset which would be the first of its kind for our region, known as an Outdoor Learning Laboratory. The city will offer to construct outdoor education facilities on the property, as well as interpretive trails, and other reasonable improvements desired by and which help the school board meet their education goals. At this time, it is believed that those improvements may be funded through the use of impact fees. The city, in cooperation with the North Florida Land Trust, will also seek independent funding for the creation of an educational curriculum and teacher training program specific to the property, which will help the school meet standardized testing requirements as well as improve STEAM learning objectives. In return, the school board will provide a conservation easement to the city, facilitated by North Florida Land Trust, restricting future use of the property for development, limiting it to those uses compatible with educational and conservation purposes.
Outdoor Learning Laboratories
The purpose of an Outdoor Learning Laboratory is to inspire a child’s sense of wonder for the natural world and enhance classroom concepts through discovery learning. It should support and enhance existing school curricula. An Outdoor Learning Laboratory also fosters the sustainable use and preservation of the natural environment by laying the foundation for responsible action and helps districts by:
- Integrating language arts, math, social studies, science and the arts into environmental concepts.
- Facilitating exciting, interactive experiences with nature for students.
- Utilizing natural resources where students can observe, hypothesize, experiment, collect, analyze and interpret data, and draw conclusions.
- Provide teachers with in-service training, curriculum development, and ongoing instructional support.
- Be grounded in the local community, and use partnerships and access to local outdoor industries to introduce educational concepts grounded in local life.
The Outdoor Learning Lab would require some form of education space, such as an indoor/outdoor classroom, weatherproofed storage for educational materials, and broadly applied interpretive elements. Exactly what kind of facilities improvements should be constructed can be defined after conversation with the school board determines at what level of capacity they would like to use the facility, as well as their educational goals. Another important conceptual point for an Outdoor Learning Laboratory is that it is not a public park, it is a classroom. Public access should be as restricted or as open as the school board deems necessary to ensure an educational space free of distractions and to ensure the safety of their students. More significant than the facility space is a solid curriculum that allows teachers to easily and seamlessly incorporate the use of the Outdoor Learning Laboratory into their day to day instruction, as well as a teacher training program which best helps them use and understand the space.
The property is 15 acres of maritime oak forest and it interfaces with the Egan’s Creek marsh. These forest and marsh ecosystems, as well as the ecotone between, captures the largest ecosystem components on Amelia Island, and gives students a good platform for understanding the interaction between man and nature in their hometown. The property also has easy access to the Egan’s Creek Greenway. If possible, interpretive educational opportunities should use this access to a public greenspace and include interpretive elements along the greenway usable by the school board in its curriculum.
Conservation easements are a perpetual agreement wherein a land-owning entity agrees to never develop the property, enforceable by the conservation easement holder, but retains ownership and full use of the property to the limits of those restrictions in the conservation easement. In this case, North Florida Land Trust recommends a conservation easement that would restrict development, but leave open the possibility of the creation of conservation or education infrastructure on the property, and considers the possibility of changing needs in terms of that infrastructure over time. We recommend that the city hold the conservation easement.
NFLT has offered its assistance in presenting this proposal to the parties. Kreger is optimistic that this can happen at the March 28 joint meeting. The agenda for that meeting has not yet been published.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.