Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 15, 2015 4:42 p.m.

Audience members begin filing in for the 2.5 hour PAB meeting on April 14.
Audience members begin filing in for the 2.5 hour PAB meeting on April 14.

Fernandina Beach City Hall was packed last night as citizens, property owners and representatives of the port and the mills awaited the Planning Advisory Board’s (PAB) recommendations on the so-called Ross/Hall proposed amendments (PAB Case 2014-21) to the Land Development Code (LDC) regarding certain hazardous materials, their storage and uses. After listening to 17 public speakers and considerable debate among themselves regarding the process used to hear the case and risks/benefits of acting to amend the code at this time, the PAB voted 4-3 against recommending that the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) approve the case in its totality. There was no follow-up motion to recommend acceptance of certain parts of this extensive set of amendments. The case will now proceed to the FBCC for final action on June 19, 2015. The FBCC will again take public comment and may accept the PAB recommendation, modify the recommendation, or reject it.

Planning Advisory Board members (l-r): Jon Lasserre, William Rogers, Len Kreger, David Beal, Chris Occhuizzo, Jamie Morrill
Planning Advisory Board members (l-r): Jon Lasserre, William Rogers, Len Kreger, David Beal, Mark Bennett, Chris Occhuizzo, Jamie Morrill

The PAB, which has been taking input on matters contained in this case since October 2014, was divided on whether the information-gathering process used to date was sufficient to make recommendations that could have unintended consequences for the city’s current and future industrial operations. What seemed to make this case exceptionally problematic for the PAB was that it was extensive in scope and relied on information provided by the applicant without the usual staff vetting and research they have come to expect from proposed code changes with such wide ranging application. Staff does not research applications that originate with private parties.

Although PAB members, city staff and the public all commended applicant Chip Ross for having done significant research into amendments being proposed, the majority seemed to believe that the best way to address changes of such broad scope was through the Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR) process pursuant to Chapter 163.3191 Florida Statutes, conducted every 7 years, to review city’s Comprehensive Plan. The city last conducted this review in 2012, and while the next review is not mandated until 2019, nothing prevents the city from beginning the process earlier.

City Attorney Tammi Bach and PAB Chair Len Kreger
City Attorney Tammi Bach and PAB Chair Len Kreger

PAB Chair Len Kreger, who also announced that he had reversed his decision and would seek reappointment to a third term on the board, said that the applicant has raised valid points, but he feared “catastrophic damage” to the city should the PAB move to approve the application without additional research. He cited concerns raised in communications from the mills and the port strongly objecting to the current process, which is applicant driven, as opposed to a longer, city-driven process like the EAR process. He opined that the reason that the mills and the port have not been more engaged in the current case is over concern that by doing so, their participation might be interpreted as a silent endorsement of the process. Kreger said that the city’s industries have dealt with hazardous materials over many years and that significant Federal and State regulations govern their industrial processes. Kreger did not see a threat of imminent danger to require amending the code at this time.

Jon Lasserre
Jon Lasserre

PAB member Jon Lasserre concurred with Kreger. He said that the Ross/Hall application created 3 new industrial uses and banned 6 activities. He said that the existing process works for the city. “We have a good Comprehensive Plan and not a rogue City Manager,” he said. Moving forward he suggested would create significant legal liability for the city. He also endorsed revisiting the issues as part of the EAR process, when more work can be done on definitions.

DSCN4669PAB members Mark Bennett, Chris Occhuizzo, and Jamie Morrill disagreed. Occhuizzo recommended moving approval for those items on which the PAB would agree at this time and revisiting the matter during the EAR process. Lasserre, an attorney, retorted, “I don’t think passing something to see how bad or good it is is a good idea.”

Morrill said it was a “disconnect” for Kreger to call any impacts of approving the application “catastrophic.” He said that industry has been invited to participate in this case and declined to do so. He characterized the flurry of memos as “legal bullying,” adding, “The community will remember; you [the mills, the port] put yourself in this position. We [PAB] are making a stand on specificity.”

Bennett said that he saw no difference in process for this application than in other issues the PAB has handled. He was prepared to vote the application line by line, but the PAB voted to make only one recommendation to the FBCC: approval, approval with modifications or disapproval.

Chip Ross
Chip Ross

Applicant Chip Ross expressed frustration that it has taken the PAB six months to decide it has not been using the correct process. Throughout that time Ross has been clear about his willingness to accept additional input from the PAB, the mills and the port to expand or shrink the proposal. He has continued to modify his proposal following each meeting. He set up meetings with mill representatives and port representatives to hear their concerns. He said, “I went in search of input, but no one gave it to me.” He reminded the PAB that currently the city hosts three industrial ports (Port of Fernandina, Rayonier Advanced Materials, and RockTenn) and that all are permitted “to bring in almost anything.” He said that the public, not the City Manager or staff, should make decisions on what is allowed or not in a public forum, not behind closed doors.

Public comment

Frank Santry talks about "the elephant in the room"
Frank Santry talks about “the elephant in the room”

When Chair Kreger opened the public meeting after an hour of PAB debate and applicant testimony, first to speak was new resident Frank Santry. He said, “the real elephant in the room” was an existing user [the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA)] that has claimed it has the right to do certain things that are inconsistent with the views of the people. He said that the existing user has threatened city residents by flaunting its statutory powers and has made the citizens fearful that if they do not take action to prevent certain actions, that user will proceed with its threats. Many subsequent speakers reinforced this view.

Shannon O'Conner owns industrial park land south of city airport.
Shannon O’Conner owns industrial park land south of city airport.

Six of the 17 speakers encouraged the PAB to reject the application. In addition to opposition from the mills and the port, Mr. Shannon O’Conner, owner of extensive industrial-zoned property south of the city airport, said that he had not been consulted during the current consideration of this case. He said that there is manufacturing currently occurring on his property and that approval of the proposed changes could hamper his ability to run his industrial park. He said that in addition to community desires, LDC changes must also be consistent with property rights. He opined that Fernandina Beach already has a reputation of being unfriendly to business, and that the proposed changes only served to reinforce that belief.

Roy G. Smith takes issue with the notion that changes can't happen in the "dead of night."
Roy G. Smith takes issue with the notion that changes can’t happen in the “dead of night.”

In response to the opinion that there was no immediate danger to the community from any of the activities the Ross/Hall case was seeking to ban, Roy G. Smith reminded the PAB that all of the current fears surrounding hazardous materials began when Kinder Morgan, the operator of the Port of Fernandina, applied to the Department of Environmental Protection last year for an air permit in connection with handling coal. While certain previous speakers had claimed that use changes could not happen “in the dead of night,” Smith reminded those present that no one had known about the Kinder Morgan permit request, including the OHPA, until he had found it under small print notices in the newspaper. He said that this permit request, since withdrawn, had almost slipped through with no opposition.

Julie Ferreira speaks to PAB's need to create a roadmap for the future.
Julie Ferreira speaks to PAB’s need to create a roadmap for the future.

Other speakers agreed with Smith. Julie Ferreira reminded the PAB that it is their job to create a road map for the future with intent to protect the town, not hurt industry. She urged support for a public process to change existing uses.

Faith Ross to PAB: " You are kicking the can down the road."
Faith Ross to PAB: ” You are kicking the can down the road.”

Faith Ross reminded PAB members that the city’s Comprehensive Plan already prohibits an oil refinery from the city. She questioned why then the PAB would not place such a prohibited use in the LDC’s Table of uses. She said, “Personally, I think you thought [Ross/Hall case supporters] would all go away.” She said that since the city had published required notices for hearing the case, interested parties had ample opportunity to comment. She concluded by saying that she thought the PAB was just kicking the can down the road to the 2019 EAR study.

Other speakers supporting the case and its amendments made additional points. People asked: if the PAB was not the appropriate venue to discuss citizen concerns over threats posed by the use and storage of hazardous materials, what was the appropriate venue? Speakers asked why the city would not be as concerned about being “people friendly” as it is about being “business friendly.” Speakers stressed the “Norman Rockwell” feel of the city and the quality of life that everyone has come to enjoy, expressing fear that the delicate balance between people and industry was at risk without protections that the proposed amendments offered.

Even speakers who supported the amendments were careful to indicate that they were not anti-industry or anti-business. However, safety fears arising out of scenarios presented in the OHPA Master Plan, caused them to worry that there is a danger that port plans will make the island less desirable to residents and visitors alike. They saw no alternative to reigning in OHPA ambitions other than LDC amendments.

Rayonier's Russell Schweiss  to PAB: "Take the emotion out of the issue and handle in EAR process."
Rayonier’s Russell Schweiss to PAB: “Take the emotion out of the issue and handle in EAR process.”

Opponents of the amendments did not dismiss the public fears. They cited excellent safety records of existing island industries, and the opinion that current safety fears were overblown. Russell Schweiss of Rayonier asked that the PAB take the emotion out of the issues on the table and examine them through a more methodical process. Otherwise, he said, the PAB would be dealing with the vision of one individual—the applicant—and reactions to his vision. Rayonier and RockTenn representatives endorsed consideration of the issues as part of Comprehensive Plan review.

PAB Deliberation

Following 45 minutes of public comment, Chair Kreger closed the public meeting. He harkened back to the phrase “elephant in the room,” saying that throughout discussions on this case the public disapproval of the OHPA Master Plan keeps coming up. Kreger said that while the plan had caused alarm, the current discussion seems to involve implementing LDC changes for no reason, because the OHPA has not proposed to undertake any of the possible projects laid out in their plan.

Chris Occhuizzo and Jamie Morrill talk after the vote.
Chris Occhuizzo and Jamie Morrill talk after the vote.

PAB Member Jamie Morrill moved acceptance of the recommendations in the Ross/Hall case in its entirety and was quickly seconded by Member Chris Occhuizzo. Member Bennett agreed that the changes were consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and that the changes would only affect future uses, not operations currently underway at the port or mills.

Member Jon Lasserre reiterated his concerns about the current process. He advocated forming a PAB subcommittee specifically to examine the 6 prohibited uses in the application, definitions and the possibility of supplementary standards as opposed to outright bans in certain instances. He said that if the PAB were to incorporate definitions for the 20 or so terms proposed in the application, it should also address definitions for approximately 80 other terms used but not defined in the code. He suggested that if a recommendation to deny the application should be sent to the FBCC and if the FBCC should support it, the issues should then return to be fast tracked by the PAB in addressing via the EAR process.

David Beal explains to Chair Kreger why he cannot support the current motion.
David Beal explains to Chair Kreger why he cannot support the current motion.

Member David Beal said that it was unclear to him why the current PAB review process is flawed. He said that the PAB likes having public comment, because everyone in the city is a stakeholder. On the other hand, he said he feared unintended consequences. He said he would prefer to err on the side of caution and recommend rejection of the application, but seek remedy through the EAR process.

City Attorney Tammi Bach, in response to comments comparing this case to the recently approved citizen application to add a distillery use to the LDC, said that the cases were not similar. She said that whereas the request to add distillery to the use table was clear and straightforward, there has never been a citizen application as big and as comprehensive in scope as the Ross/Hall application.

PAB Member Rogers did  not express an opinion during the debate, but voted to reject the application.
PAB Member Rogers did not express an opinion during the debate, but voted to reject the application.

Chair Kreger called for a vote on the motion to recommend approval of the case in its entirety. The motion failed on a 4-3 vote, with Bennett, Morrill and Occhuizzo in support and Beal, Kreger, Lasserre and Rogers in opposition). The item now moves on to the FBCC for consideration on June 19, 2015.

For additional information on specifics of the application and previous meetings, consult earlier articles in the Fernandina Observer or visit the city website www.fbfl.us.

Following the vote, many members of the audience stayed to discuss the issues further among themselves.
Following the vote, many members of the audience stayed to discuss the issues further among themselves.

 

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Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_32637)
7 years ago

So, We can kick the can down the road til 2019. But by 2018 the ocean highway and port authority along with Kinder Morgan Corp. will have spent $35 million on new infrastructure, and have increased tonnage thou put by 600% Est. by OHPA commission to the Florida port council, In their five year mission plan. This along with the Palmetto pipeline being finished by July 2017 bringing 167,000 barrels of petroleum products into Nassau County. Finished products, for export out of our Port. Don’t you people think that the EAR process by 2019 Is like closing the barn door after the horses are out. The PAB committee continues to stick their collective heads in the sand, along with all are political leaders, hoping it will all go away. Kinder Morgan, will own this town, perhaps they do already. Sad! ps Concerned citizens, those who are paying attention, Please, Please, show up at Rep. Adkins office in the morning at 9am to impress on her the need for a real town hall meeting on the PORT issues.

Mrs. D Hunter
Mrs. D Hunter (@guest_32641)
7 years ago

Suanne Thamm, you are one heckuva reporter, thank you for another front-to-back/side-to-side detailed account of yet another hearing.

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