Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 19, 2017 8:45 p.m.
After more than ten years of talking about the need to increase density in the Central Business District, it finally happened Tuesday night as the Fernandina Beach City Commission voted 4-1 to approve Ordinance 2017-02 on Second Reading during their second April 2017 Regular Meeting. City Hall Commission Chambers were packed with both proponents and opponents to the change, which will now allow two residential units–one more than currently allowed– to be built over Centre Street commercial buildings.
The FBCC devoted about 90 minutes of their 3-hour meeting to this item. Senior City Planner Kelly Gibson opened the discussion with a slide presentation to provide information to both commissioners and audience members on the scope and impact of the proposed changes.
Twenty speakers addressed the commissioners during the public hearing. Half of them fully supported the change, five claimed to support the change if the FBCC would first address the downtown parking issues, and the remaining five opposed the change.
When the final vote was taken, only Vice Mayor Len Kreger voted in opposition. Kreger explained that his vote was on procedural matters only, not the actual change. He reminded commissioners that in some cases multiple public meetings have been held prior to FBCC consideration of land use changes. He cited the changes for the 8th Street Corridor, where a vote followed meetings held over two years, as example. Other commissioners disagreed, citing complaints and concerns that have been raised about the need to increase downtown density over more than ten years.
At the end of the meeting, City Manager Dale Martin said that by passing this ordinance, the commissioners have now completed all but one of the goals they collectively set at their 2016 goal setting session. The one remaining: opening the Alachua Street rail crossing.
Kelly Gibson’s presentation
During a 27-slide presentation, Gibson presented facts and myths relating to the proposed density increase. She explained that while to some it might seem high, moving from the currently allowed 8 residential units per acre to 34 was the absolute minimum increase necessary to achieve the oft-stated goal of two residential units on a 25×100-foot platted lot of record.
She emphasized the following points:
- The increased density would only apply to the Central Business District (CBD – C-3 zoning);
- Parking requirements remain the same. Those CBD properties located within the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) are required to provide onsite parking. Otherwise, CBD parking is only required for lodging establishments. Downtown retail and restaurants have no requirement to provide parking;
- Existing height limitations still apply;
- Changes to historic district structures must still be reviewed by the city’s Historic District Council;
- ADA, Florida Building Code and Fire Codes apply to all buildings;
- The city’s tree protection ordinance requires a 10 percent minimum landscaped area for new construction; and
- There is a requirement for stormwater management permitting and onsite retention.
Gibson took pains to focus viewers on the size of the area covered by the density increase and to show visually how many of the platted lots are already developed as government (4.34 acres in 14 parcels), religious (7.25 acres in 17 parcels), and lodging accommodations (4.49 acres in 13 parcels). Only 2.65 acres in 22 parcels, or .5 percent of the total area, is vacant and available for development.
She said that there is a potential for fewer than 260 additional residential dwelling units in the CBD on currently vacant lots or areas of likely redevelopment. With respect to parking, she said that there are 900 city-owned spaces available. She also cited studies showing that residential units impact traffic less than commercial units. People who live in downtowns may have one car instead of two, or even forgo a private automobile. If that same unit is occupied by professional offices or retail, the traffic generated is higher.
Those who supported the density increase cited the positive impact such a change would have on business recruitment, continued use and preservation of historic buildings, building the city’s tax base, providing places for young professionals who will live in smaller spaces to enjoy a more vibrant lifestyle, and meeting the demand of a broad spectrum of people who want to live in a walkable community.
Several builder/developers spoke. In addition to meeting demands for in town living, they emphasized that after the tourists leave, the people who live here are the ones who keep businesses thriving. Spurgeon Richardson said that even with the density increase, it is still a challenge to meet all the code requirements and deliver a product that hits the right price point. Chip Sasser noted that the trend to move away from the city centers has reversed itself. Today more people want to live in a livelier setting.
While car dependence has always been the rule, some speakers challenged that for future city dwellers, many of whom would prefer to walk or bike and rely on services like Uber or Lyft when car transport is necessary.
Jeff Kurtz and Chip Sasser both stressed the importance of walkable cities. Kurtz, who lives and works downtown, says that he walks past empty parking spots routinely every day. Sasser said that the city has a walking problem, not a parking problem.
Local architect Jose Miranda, who has worked extensively on historic rehabilitation projects in addition to new construction, told the commissioners, “With change comes a great deal of fear. I’m speaking just of my own personal experience living on the island for 25 years and practicing as an architect. One of the biggest detriments to being able to develop and improve our economic base has been the lack of density in the downtown area. I cannot speak more positively about the proposed ordinance. … We have to broaden the tax base in order to have viability going forward. Obviously, land is at a premium. We have to do more with less.”
Miranda went on to cite checks and balances in place to restrain development plans. He praised work of what he termed “the most professional ever” city staff and Historic District Council. He said that if there is ever talk of tearing down historic structures in the CBD, he would be the first one standing in front of the bulldozer.
Randy Bowman, co-owner of Buy-Go, the new grocery that will occupy the former Fred’s on 8th Street, cited his positive experience in living on Centre Street and the desire of many people to live in a place where they can also work and play. He said that his household went from a two to one car family during that time.
Not everyone saw the same benefits of increased density. Some even suggested a ballot referendum.
Parking remained the biggest obstacle, according to the opponents of the change. Some speakers suggested that the city needed to commission a parking study to precede any density increase. Despite Gibson’s explanations, several speakers could not see the need to go from 8 units per acre to 34 units per acre. Attorney Frank Santry suggested creating an overlay district just to allow Centre Street commercial buildings to double the number of allowable residential units from one to two. Several speakers endorsed this approach.
Lynn Williams expressed doubt that existing water and sewer pipes were adequate to handle more residential units in the CBD. Chip Ross said that no affordable housing analysis had been done. Dale Spencer reminded commissioners that downtown parking was not the exclusive right of people who lived downtown.
Greg Roland expressed fear that the density change could change the character of downtown Fernandina Beach. He also feared that the additional residential units would appeal to the second home market and lead to a proliferation of short-term rentals in the downtown area.
Julie Ferreira opined that the live/work downtown idea works well in a big city, but that any housing provided would be beyond the means of the people who work in the Fernandina Beach downtown.
Toward the end of public comment, Chuck Hall expressed mixed feelings on the proposal. He said that he did not think the density increase had been properly vetted. “We have got to address this parking issue before we start cramming more and more residences into this area,” he said, allowing that businesses would benefit. As he left the podium, he thanked the commissioners for the work they put in on behalf of the citizens. “It’s a thankless job,” he said, “and I would not want to do it.”
Vice Mayor Kreger reminded commissioners and the audience that he would vote against the item for procedural reasons. He said that the previous density change had come about after a series of public meetings and workshops, which he felt had been beneficial to increasing the public’s understanding of the proposal. Such a procedure had not been followed in this case. “For that reason and that alone, I will vote against it,” he said.
Commissioner Tim Poynter said, “[Downtown density increase] has been addressed on and off since I’ve lived here. I don’t see four more public meetings, talking about the same things, talking about the misinformation that continues to be put out.” Poynter allowed that 34 units per acre sounds like a big number, but referred back to Gibson’s presentation to remind audience members that it was the minimum increase needed to allow for one additional residential unit over downtown businesses. He spoke to the number of 1600 residential units that some claim could be built downtown. “You get that number if you tear down everything that already has been built downtown,” he said, “and then you rebuild to the maximum allowable height with the maximum number of dwellings. But then everything is torn down, and that does not make a whole lot of sense.”
“Right now,” Poynter said, “you are allowed one residential unit above a [Centre Street] store. But you could have 20 offices. Restaurants have no parking requirements. On a vacant lot in the CBD you can build as high as 45 feet, but you can only put in one residential unit. People [in the audience] can snicker, but if you have a restaurant or an office, many people can come and go throughout the day. If it is a residence, people leave in the morning and return in the evening. This is a very restricted area we are talking about. I appreciate everyone’s comments, but I am satisfied with everything that has been presented. I intend to vote yes.”
Commissioners John Miller and Roy Smith had no comments.
Mayor Robin Lentz said, “I would like to second what Commissioner Poynter is saying. I believe in the data that Ms. Gibson has presented. Many of you [in the audience] made several excellent points about the parking. Moving forward, I am going to vote yes on this, but it is a priority to address parking through more code changes.”
Poynter moved approval and Miller seconded his motion. When the vote was called, only Vice Mayor Kreger opposed. The density increase was approved on second and final reading on April 18, 2017.
Editor’s Note: We encourage our readers to watch the density presentation below given by Senior Planner Kelly Gibson of the City of Fernandina Beach.
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.