Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm

Reporter – News Analyst

3-31-1

This is definitely NOT an April Fool’s story.

During a Special Meeting on March 31, 2015, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) reached consensus on moving forward with the complete Amelia Riverfront Park Plan. In a surprising show of unanimity the FBCC voted 5-0 in support of a motion made by Commissioner Tim Poynter and seconded by Commissioner Robin Lentz “to move forward with Parking Lot B as part of the master plan and that we investigate extending the contract that we already have in place – the dollars –to finance the sidewalks that are needed [east of the railroad tracks and north of Centre Street] and the opening of Alachua [railroad crossing].” City Attorney Tammi Bach clarified that “extending the contract” meant refinancing the same pledge remaining from the Forward Fernandina loan.

The successful motion followed a failed motion (3-2 in opposition) made by Commissioner Pat Gass and seconded by Vice Mayor Johnny Miller “to direct staff to proceed with Parking Lot B as planned and to begin looking for funding sources for the Alachua Street improvements and sidewalks, preferably without borrowing money.”

Fewer than a dozen audience members attended the meeting that lasted almost two hours, during which Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary presented results of city staff investigations into waterfront/CRA projects and possible methods to finance them.  Three people—Mike Zaffaroni, Ross Gass, and John Pelican—provided public input.

McCrary slide presentation

Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary
Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary

In response to commissioners’ requests for both history and status of projects along Front Street and the Amelia River, Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary presented a series of slides. McCrary took commissioners back to the original waterfront plan as approved in 2009 and then worked forward to current plans modified in 2012 for the Parking Lot B section of the plan. He also presented updates on railroad issues, cost estimates and financing options.

The reconfiguration of parking to add 13 more spaces in what is currently Parking Lot B will reduce the size of the park area by 8-10 feet. It may also call into question whether the change will eliminate two-way traffic between Centre and Ash Streets.

Reconfiguration of Parking Lot B showing straight in parking on both sides of a Front street relocated slightly westward,  This plan reduces park depth by 8-10 feet but adds 13 spaces over the plan approved in 2012.
Reconfiguration of Parking Lot B showing straight in parking on both sides of a Front street relocated slightly westward.  This plan reduces park depth by 8-10 feet but adds 13 spaces over the plan approved in 2012.

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While CSX Railroad has verbally agreed to the plan, the city has not yet received anything in writing to support the plan change. The current estimate is that implementing the plan for Parking Lot B will cost around $200K, excluding the cost of city workers.

Mayor Ed Boner and City Manager Joe Gerrity
Mayor Ed Boner and City Manager Joe Gerrity

Mayor Ed Boner asked whether the plans provide for stormwater. Commissioner Poynter said that during earlier consideration, the city had tentatively worked out a deal to purchase land from Rayonier for $75,000 to create a stormwater retention pond. However, the previous commission effectively squashed the plan when it returned the monies borrowed to improve the waterfront.

City Manager Joe Gerrity said that Utilities Director John Mandrick is exploring some creative ways to address stormwater, including rerouting and treating the water for reuse in watering city golf course greens. Mandrick agreed that a line is in place already to allow such a move and that the idea “warrants a good look,” but that some retention would still be needed.

Lentz expressed concerns that the new parking scheme would make the park quite small. She asked what staff recommended. McCrary said that there is not a major risk in starting work on the waterfront park with Lot B, but he wanted to see the engineering work. Gerrity added that he would not begin work on Parking Lot B now because of Shrimp Fest and summer traffic in the area.

Boner seemed to share Gerrity’s concerns about traffic disruptions along Front Street. He asked Gerrity how big a window he would need to open the Alachua crossing. Gerrity said that he would phase the work beginning with the Alachua crossing and wayside horns, proceed to build the sidewalk along the east side of the railroad tracks and work on Lot B at the same time. He said that since the portion of Front Street included in Parking Lot B would need to be closed during construction, it would be important to have another means to access the north part of Front Street, which the Alachua opening could provide. He felt that he would address public safety and railroad concerns with both the street opening and the new sidewalk.

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McCrary stressed the importance of opening Alachua for traffic flow, adding that it restores the grid pattern to city streets. He told commissioners that the city has the FDOT permit to proceed with opening the rail crossing, and that the bulk of engineering work was done 3-4 years ago. He expressed his belief that opening this crossing—previously budgeted at $750K–is important for future growth.

Railroad issues: quiet zones and wayside horns

Both McCrary and Gerrity agreed that creating quiet zones along the Front Street section of rail track was probably not feasible because of costs and construction difficulties. Also, the railroad is on record as opposing quiet zones for safety reasons. The city is trying to address railroad concerns regarding restricting pedestrian access to the tracks by providing landscape buffering and a sidewalk running north three blocks on the east side of the tracks from Centre Street.

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Commissioner Robin Lentz asked about the use of wayside horns as a means to limit train noise downtown. Gerrity agreed to look at that possibility and thanked local resident Tony Crawford for his investigation into the matter. Although wayside horns might appear to be less expensive initially than complete reconfiguration of existing crossings required to create quiet zones, the horns do require some work on signalization and may not sufficiently reduce noise in the Front Street area to encourage residential or lodging activities.

Financing the improvements

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McCrary told commissioners that there are three types of municipal bonds that could be used to finance the waterfront projects:

General Obligation Bonds – secured by pledge of ad valorem taxes and referendum required for bonds maturing more than 12 months from issuance

Revenue Bonds – secured by pledge from specific sources of revenue and referendum not required

Special Assessment Bonds – a type of revenue bond payable from special assessments.

Commissioners Pat Gass and Tim Poynter led the discussion on financing, with Gass maintaining her core belief that grants or pay-as-you-go funding is the best option while Poynter claimed that initial funding needs to be provided by the city before matching grants can be sought. Gass seemed to agree, but claimed that if the city would begin the project with Parking Lot B—where funding is more or less in place—the city could then look for grants to open Alachua Street and build the sidewalk. She opined that building out Parking Lot B would stimulate CRA development and “kick-start the program.”

City Comptroller Patti Clifford told commissioners that the FBCC could agree to refinance the existing revenue bond (secured for Forward Fernandina) that is due to be paid off in three years, add a million dollars to the loan and pay it off over 15 years without needing to increase franchise fees or ad valorem taxes.

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DSCN4532Gass responded “you don’t borrow money and put it in public officials’ hands unless you tie their hands.” Poynter replied that the way to tie public officials’ hands is to enter into a contract to do the work. City Attorney Bach added that without a contract, one commission couldn’t tie the hands of a future commission.

City Manager Gerrity reminded commissioners that three of them would be in office for close to three years, providing an opportunity to follow through on commitments to use the money for the projects they intend. (Note: First terms of both Ed Boner and Pat Gass expire November 2015.)

Gass motion

After considerable discussion, Gass offered her motion, which was seconded by Vice Mayor Johnny Miller for discussion: “to direct staff to proceed with Parking Lot B as planned and to begin looking for funding sources for the Alachua Street improvements and sidewalks, preferably without borrowing money.”

Poynter said that he could not support the motion, because the city has cut its budget back so far, the only way money could be found would be to increase the millage rate.

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Gass said that the city needs to take care of “what we have” and then start looking for money. She suggested that the commissioners put the idea of a General Obligation Bond on the November ballot and talk to the people to find out if they would support paying an additional $50 per $100K of assessed valuation to pay for this project in this way. She reminded people that she and Ed Boner were elected to return the Forward Fernandina revenue bond. Boner reminded her that he did not vote ultimately to do so.

Vice Mayor Miller asked Gass why, if the commissioners know that people are behind the project, would they ask people for support via referendum, when the cost of using a revenue bond is so much lower. Miller also seemed to take issue with asking people to pay for a project that they might never see actualized during their lifetime. He suggested that if he were being asked to pay for a project, he would want to be able to use it now. Lentz echoed his concerns, saying that it would not be fair to ask people to pay ten years for something that they might not be able to ever use.

Poynter said that the debate basically boils down to a philosophical one, that there is a cost to living in a community, and you can’t isolate all the different projects, like beach renourishment, the waterfront park, and stormwater drainage. Everyone must bear the cost of living in the community. Refinancing the revenue bond would extend the life of the bond but not increase franchise fees that people are already paying.

Public comment

Mike Zaffaroni
Mike Zaffaroni

Mayor Boner recognized city resident Mike Zaffaroni, a businessman who also chairs the city’s CRA Advisory Board and serves as local Chamber of Commerce board chair. Zaffaroni indicated that he was only speaking for himself on this issue.

He said, “I voted for you, not because you are spitting images of me, but because I expect you to vote for the best interest of the city based upon information that you have.” He said that he has lived in the city for 6 years and plans to live here indefinitely. “I plan to be here,” he said. “I voted for you to make decisions to make us successful.” He said that moving forward is “obviously the right decision” and noted that with interest rates sometimes below 2 percent, the city would be borrowing free money. He said that it is short-term vision that prevents the city from being successful.

Ross Gass
Ross Gass

Ross Gass, who identified himself as Pat Gass’ son, also addressed the commission. “I am not as opposed to debt as my mother,” he said, adding that he would support a General Obligation Bond. He said that he did not support a policy of shifting borrowed money to other purposes than those for which it was borrowed. He said that it is not the city’s job to “sweeten the pot for developers.”

Vote and new motion

Vice Mayor Johnny Miller
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller

Miller sought and received consensus that all commissioners supported the idea of a full waterfront park build out. He added, however, that he believed that the city would need to borrow money to achieve that goal. Gass’ motion failed on a 3-2 vote, with opposition from Boner, Lentz and Poynter.

Poynter then made his motion, which Lentz seconded: “to move forward with Parking Lot B as part of the master plan and that we investigate extending the contract that we already have in place – the dollars –to finance the sidewalks that are needed [east of the railroad tracks and north of Centre Street] and the opening of Alachua [railroad crossing].” City Attorney Tammi Bach clarified that “extending the contract” meant refinancing the same pledge remaining from the Forward Fernandina loan.

Commissioners Poynter and Lentz propose second motion.
Commissioners Poynter and Lentz propose second motion.

Mayor Boner took additional public comment. Mike Zaffaroni returned to the podium and said, “I’m one of 12,500 [city residents], and I think that’s a great idea.”

John Pelican, husband of former commissioner Sarah Pelican, said, “The problem with Forward Fernandina was that it didn’t borrow enough money. It just borrowed $2M and the origination fee. And so my problem with the project is not knowing what the ultimate cost is going to be. In going forward, semi-blindly, what’s the top line on it? Is it a $5M project, a $10M project? Depending on how high it is, you kind of need to know that so you know where you’re going when you go into it. I like the Parking Lot B part. But as far as start something so that you can’t stop it [like the Boston dig project]… the people would never have approved it. Secondarily, each dollar you raise the cost of living here, it doesn’t hurt the people who are doing well here. It hurts the people who aren’t doing as well. … Finally if you start getting into a really big price tag, is that the best use of the money? Communities never have enough money, so it’s just a matter of not falling in love with a certain project to the detriment of other projects.”

As the vote was taken, Commissioner Gass hesitated, asking if she would get another chance to vote on the loan. City Attorney Bach replied that the loan would come back in the form of a resolution to include the pledge, amount and terms. Gass said she would vote yes on the current motion because she would have a future opportunity to vote on the loan.

The motion passed unanimously.

After the vote City Manager Joe Gerrity asked to speak. He said that he did not want to get into the commission discussion, but he advised commissioners that when work begins on Parking Lot B, he is not sure that the street (Front Street) will be able to remain a two way street with the parking as currently configured. “Number two,” he added, “if you do open Alachua and build the sidewalks, you do improve traffic circulation, you’ve increased the ability of pedestrians to move about safely. That’s why I’ve recommended it.”

 

 

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Marlene Chapman
Marlene Chapman (@guest_31796)
7 years ago

I just wish that we had known that this special meeting was scheduled at 4 o’clock and not at the usual 6 o’clock as the sidewalk build is near and dear to our hearts! We NEVER would have missed this meeting! We showed up at the usual time to realize what we missed. We have been fighting for this sidewalk for years, not only for our daughter who is wheelchair bound, but for the many who need this sidewalk for safety. If you check today’s Letter to the Editor in the News Leader, you’ll see that I have/will never be silenced until the sidewalk becomes a reality! Please keep tjis forward momentum going!!

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_31798)
7 years ago

Marlene, if your talking about the sidewalk near the Pelican, I don’t think that was an issue last night. Could be wrong, but stream it to check. I can tell you this much about that sidewalk. It is still in the works. In fact CSX has been in contact with the City recently and working out the remaining issues. There was an issue with drainage I was told by CXS and that is being corrected. With luck it won’t be far down the road. I feel confident the City would like to get this off their plate and the fact the Rail Road works slow doesn’t really help. Keep the pressure up, it always helps

Marlene Chapman
Marlene Chapman (@guest_31801)
7 years ago

Tony,
The one thing I won’t do is give up and I’m sure that the city et al are aware of that. I’ve spoken with people in Washington DC, I’ve been in touch with CSX….yes, they do move slowly but it’s time to light the fire and get this done! I will stream to be certain that we didn’t miss anything. Thank you for your input and support.

Christine Corso
Christine Corso (@guest_32136)
7 years ago

Marlene:

I assume you are aware that the short line railroad is owned by First Coast Railroad, a unit of Genesee & Wyoming. CSX uses the line to move product. If not done already, G&W is the likely contact to investigate any issues related to the road bed.

tony crawford
tony crawford (@guest_31829)
7 years ago

With regard to the quiet zone/ wayside horn issue presently being discussed. It is becoming very apparent, very quickly that quite zones are not within our budget. They are expensive to install and expensive to maintain and they carry a potential liability with them. That leaves us with two options. The first is wayside horns, the second is to forget the whole thing. In order to make that determination there is one simple and cost effective solution. There are two companies in the USA that install the wayside horns. I have spoken to both of them. The pricing is far less than that of quiet zones. The pricing however does reflect the present signaling system now in effect at each crossing. If the present system has what is known as ” constant warning circuitry” the price is considerably less expensive. If it doesn’t, the Rail Road has to come in and do upgrades which can be expensive. All that being said, the first thing that is needed to be done ASAP is to contact the two wayside horn companies and set up a demonstration and see if they are too loud for our needs. Both these companies will come in basically for expenses and set up the horns so we can hear them. Than and only than can we tell if these horns will meet our needs. I feel that the demos should be set up during the day and in the middle of the night to see just how loud and disruptive they are. If they meet our needs than we can contact the Rail Road, find out the type of signaling circuitry we have and pin down a price from both the Rail Road ( including any annual maintenance fee ) and the cost of the installation of the horns. Than and only than can we make an educated decision. The second option if the wayside horns don’t meet our needs is to move on and put this project aside. This whole issue has nothing to do with Alachua Street, the crossing there will be what we have now or what we decide to get in the long run.

Trudie Richards
Trudie Richards (@guest_31876)
7 years ago

Thank you, Suanne, for this thorough report. You and the Observer do an amazing job informing citizens of FBCC work.

Peggy Bulger
Peggy Bulger(@peggy-bulger1949gmail-com)
7 years ago

I second that emotion! Suanne is an amazing reporter/writer

John P. Megna
John P. Megna (@guest_32035)
7 years ago

I was in attendance at this meeting. My concerns are like some comments. I served on the Parks/Rec advisory board. The first plan approved supported the park needs, parking, and Front Street w/ the opening of Alachua Street to travel. The committee felt this was a extremely well workable plan. The Commissioners also agreed and pass this plan. The committee left the Commissioners the ability to change as they saw fit. We omitted a fountain because we felt with the river there we had enough. If the majority feels a fountain will add, so be it. The lots C & D provided for the majority of green space with areas for people to enjoy and sit and listen to music on the scale of having a Band stage on the south end of the park. We were given parking estimated requirements, the plan provided for that also. We also voted against moving the Veteran’s Memorial, but a addition of named bricks would be good. I thought it was a great comment by the young man who spoke – he endorsed the planning and going ahead with the basic plan for the Commissioners to follow. Just the fact he was up beat – gave me encouragement that he will be here to enjoy the park now? and years later -with his family. The theory of paying later – does not provide for the present or future generations.

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