Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 14, 2015 2:29 p.m.
Consultant David Barth presented the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) and a dozen members of the public with his firm’s final presentation of the Parks Master Plan at a workshop on April 13, 2015. Vice Mayor Johnny Miller, who also serves as the FBCC’s liaison to the Parks and Recreation Committee, was the only commissioner not in attendance. Barth and his associate Carlos Perez have been working to create this plan since January, gathering information from site visits, community meetings and research into the city’s files. They have also searched for other comparable communities around the state and country to provide examples of how other small cities have handled similar situations.
Barth presented the FBCC with a summary of needs and priorities, a proposed vision, and potential funding strategies. He suggested both an implementation strategy and preliminary prioritization criteria to help meet residents’ top priority needs. Community Development Director Adrienne Burke explained that Barth’s work has been funded by a grant from the state Department of Economic Opportunity’s Community Planning Technical Assistance Program, and that a report is due to that office by April 30th. Burke explained that the work performed under this grant is designed to assist the city in revising its Comprehensive Plan. She said that the plan would come back to the FBCC following the state’s review and that while a formal vote to approve the plan is not required at this phase, she anticipated the opportunity to vote at a future date on the plan and on any Comprehensive Plan changes that the plan might trigger.
Barth explained that one of the obstacles to implementing park master plans is turnover in city decision makers, which often makes it difficult to keep ideas alive over time. Since master plans are designed to be reviewed every 5-10 years, they are destined to change based upon changing needs of the citizenry that accompany demographic changes. He presented the FBCC with a mini-poster reflecting a parks and recreation vision framework, suggesting that it might be blown up and posted prominently to help in keeping the vision alive.
Barth presented a pyramid to explain his proposed hierarchy of vision elements, with less expensive, more quickly achievable actions such as improved communication and improved design and maintenance, as the building blocks for moving to more complex and expensive elements such as improved connectivity and accessibility, equitable neighborhood access and building first class venues.
Commissioners and public speakers (for the most part) commended Barth on the plan, especially the need to improve communications, better maintain buildings and parks and improve accessibility.
Most controversial among his suggestions was the idea of removing ball fields from Central Park and relocating them as part of a new, larger sports complex near the city airport. Several audience members rejected the notion of transforming Buccaneer Field into a more traditional urban park design, as envisioned when the city was laid out in the 1850’s. While Barth advocated such a long-term strategy to restore the park to its original purpose as a place to relax, enjoy nature and meet with friends, some speakers said that the ball fields currently serve that purpose and add to the “Norman Rockwell” feel of Fernandina Beach.
After studying traffic patterns of both locals and visitors, Barth and Perez proposed a bold new vision for Atlantic Avenue, which would become known as Avenida de Las Banderas, or Avenue of Flags. He presented a slide illustrating that prime park areas are located along this avenue, which extends from the river to the ocean. He presented slides showing that other communities have implemented similar ideas to create an impressive street as a focal point of their community.
Other Barth proposals recommended as part of creating first class venues for the city include creating an aquatics center in place of the existing Atlantic Avenue Recreation Center. He presented maps showing how some newer neighborhoods south of Lime Street, are not close to city parklands. He promoted a vision of “park equity,” advocating that each neighborhood have a park with basic elements within walking distance.
In talking about existing city parks and recreation facilities, Barth showed slides to demonstrate that there is a variety of designs and materials in place today, dating from the 1950s to modern times. He suggested that the city should invest in developing design and landscaping standards for its public spaces, much as it requires private developers to adhere to certain standards. He suggested developing a Fernandina Beach “brand” for public buildings and parks. Generally, this suggestion, along with improved maintenance, was well received by both the FBCC and public speakers.
Mac Morriss cited the “Norman Rockwell” appeal of Fernandina Beach to both people who move here and visitors. While generally commending the plan, he felt that Fernandina Beach is the image of small town America. He questioned the values of the community meshing with the plan, that calls for standardization and moving the ball fields. He did not see the appeal of a large, open park to replace Buccaneer Field. He said, “[The plan is] a good thing for people who want to be homogenized, but we want to be unique.”
Local blogger Dave Scott was among the most vocal objectors to the master plan as presented. He said that the proposal to move the ball fields ranked among the worst the FBCC has considered in a long line of what he termed bizarre projects. He disagreed with the idea that transforming Buccaneer Field into a traditional urban park would encourage neighbors to improve their property. He suggested that problem is better enforced through code enforcement. He said that grant funding for these projects represented state funding through local taxes. He said, “Moving the ball parks to the airport makes as much sense as the weather man saying the temperature at the airport is 85 degrees. People don’t live at the airport.” He advocated making the cosmetic changes suggested in the plan.
Other speakers Michael and Jennifer Harrison commended Barth on the plan. Michael Harrison commended the emphasis on a higher regard for the city’s public spaces. “We need to encourage more pride in our public realm,” he said. He also supported the proposed First Class Facilities that called for centralizing certain activities in a single place, allowing for better investment and better facilities. He also supported the plan’s proposal to leverage funds from various departments to meet a specific goal, such as improving stormwater retention while also improving parks. Jennifer Harrison congratulated Barth on putting together a great vision that would not be achieved within her lifetime. She said she understood the controversy over the ball fields, but envisioned Central Park as a community living room. She said that the issue is really about providing first class facilities. With respect to accessibility, she stressed that the area targeted for a new sports complex is nearer to those areas that are experiencing the greatest growth today and also close to the Parkway, making it more accessible to people coming from the mainland. She questioned the economic impact to downtown from people who use today’s ball fields at Buccaneer Field.
Betsie Huben said that ball fields keep the lights on and people in the neighborhood, improving safety and accessibility for youngsters. She questioned the wisdom of spending money to move the activities to a different part of town when the city always seems to be looking for money. She also felt that creating a new Central Park seemed to be in conflict with the creation of a new waterfront park.
Scott Moore liked aspects of the plan but also stressed the investment in the current ball fields. He said Buccaneer Field provides a first class baseball venue and has been the site for playoffs and other games that bring in visitors. Sue Rowan liked many of the elements, especially the emphasis on look and design. She, too, advocated for keeping the ballparks in their current location. She and Moore both stressed that there is a sense of a neighborhood ball field and that it is a public gathering space. She said that with all the controversies in the city that pit groups against each other, “[Moving the ball fields] is a new fight that you don’t want to take on.”
Following public comment, the commissioners weighed in. First to speak was Robin Lentz, who spoke to the difficulty of dealing with change. She called attention to the park system in Atlanta and Gwinnett County, encouraging people to open their minds to the possibility of building something new and better 5-10 years down the line. She cautioned the audience that “we are jumping to a lot of conclusions,” while admitting that she herself has not yet made up her mind whether the city should move on this matter.
Commissioner Tim Poynter said that he was confident that the existing ball fields could be improved by paying more attention to the surrounding streets, building sidewalks, improving the parking lots and landscaping. He said that he loved the idea of cleaning up and taking care of what the city already has. He said that the community must take pride in its parks and recreation facilities. He cited the newly completed Veterans Memorial at Central Park that serves as an entrance to the park as well as incorporating the chimney from the former Boy Scout Hut/American Legion Post to remind citizens of their history. Poynter also said that in looking down the road, the city might find it no longer needs more, better ball fields. What exists in Buccaneer Field may be adequate, even more than adequate, for needs of a changing population.
Commissioner Pat Gass said that she liked the plan overall, but reminded people that a master plan gets revisited every 5-10 years. She said that she does not want to move the ball fields today, but talk of moving them is years away. She also endorsed a “pay-as-you-go” funding plan to make phased improvements.
Mayor Ed Boner said that he liked the idea of introducing standard design to new city facilities and following a standard landscaping plan. He reiterated the importance of downtown economic development in deciding to move any activity away from the downtown area. He also expressed concerns in dealing with the FAA and airport matters in building a new athletic complex near the airport.
David Barth commended the commissioners for wanting to move forward on some aspects of the plan immediately, like design standardization, landscaping requirements, maintenance and better communication. He suggested that at some future time the city might want to consider conducting a statistically valid survey to query the citizens on their wants and needs for parks and recreational activities. He said that the city needs another level of analysis before proceeding with higher-level projects.
Poynter said, “I’m not sure that we need much more of anything. We just need to take better care of what we have.”
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.