Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 16, 2015 6:08 p.m.
While 9:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning might not be the ideal time for a telephonic Town Hall meeting, it was the only time State Representative Janet Adkins had available during the current legislative session to listen to constituent concerns and fears arising from recent actions of the Nassau County Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) with respect to its charter, elections, master plan and what has appeared to many local residents to be a callous disregard for their opinions and concerns about the potential impact of Port of Fernandina operations on island roads and wetlands, the surrounding aquatic preserve, neighboring residential properties and the island’s booming tourism industry.
In opening the meeting on speakerphone from Tallahassee, Adkins apologized to the 25 people assembled in her district office in Fernandina Beach for not being able to meet in person, citing the press of legislative work in the state capital. Indeed, audience members could hear the announcements of Quorum Calls over the speakerphone as the meeting came to a close. With Adkins in Tallahassee were her legislative aide, Jim Adams; Senator Aaron Bean’s legislative aide, Dee Alexander; and Mike Rubin, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the Florida Ports Council.
Adkins thanked those in attendance in Fernandina Beach, singling out Phil Scanlan for his work in providing her with detailed written information. She summarized the concerns as she saw them to be centered on elements included in the OHPA master plan and communications issues between the OHPA and the community. She asked the 12 people who had signed up to speak to address these issues and any others that they identified.
Local activist Phil Scanlan spoke first. Working from a detailed position paper which he had prepared, he stated that it is important that the state get involved in the current port imbroglio and that it is important that the port plan approval process does not bypass the city of Fernandina Beach, where the port is located. He stressed that the master plan document is the problem, not the Port of Fernandina itself. Citing citizen fears and objections to hazardous materials and truck traffic called for in the OHPA master plan, Scanlan reminded everyone present that the OHPA should understand these concerns and recognize that the state intends that the city protect the island in the event of storms or other catastrophes that threaten lives, property and the environment. Scanlan said that the OHPA needs executive oversight and management at the state level. By their charter, he said, the OHPA is to serve the citizens, county and state. He said that there has been a shift in the local economy from heavy industry to tourism and real estate sales. Blount Island, which is only 30 miles south of Fernandina Beach, is equipped to handle hazardous materials and heavier volumes of shipping than the Port of Fernandina.
Steve Crounse spoke next, raising concerns about the safety of shipping and handling increased tonnage of petroleum products through the Port of Fernandina. He said, “In 2017, a 600% increase over 2012 figures has been projected.” He cited Kinder Morgan’s completion of the Palmetto Pipeline through Nassau County in July 2017. He raised safety concerns involved in transporting products by truck and rail, citing serious accidents that have occurred in other communities. Adkins summed up his concerns as centering on both increased tonnage and flammability of the products being shipped.
Medardo Monzon also reinforced that the characterization of those who oppose the port master plan as being “anti-port” is far removed from the truth. He stressed the importance of the port to the well-being of the community. His criticism centered around OHPA deficiencies in governance issues, specifically: local community integration and support; effective management; stable and predictable governance/management structures. He said, “Ms. Adkins, what our community is facing right now is a new level of insanity: we have illegally elected OHPA Commissioners not only openly challenging the community and local government, but also threatening to sue legally elected officials to enforce a master plan that neither this community nor the majority of [Fernandina Beach] city commissioners endorse. Citizens are scared about these developments and are losing faith in the democratic institutions …” He called for a longer, more convenient town meeting so that Adkins could judge the frustration level in the community. He asked Adkins to prompt a state investigation into governance and management of the OHPA and to suspend HB 1201, which authorizes partisan elections for OHPA commissioners.
Tom Cote-Merow spoke to a “power play” by the OHPA. He objected to what he characterized as bullying the community to accept more biohazards and flammable substances for transport through the Port of Fernandina. He said, “The port will not be the determiner of the future of Fernandina and Nassau County. Folks here have worked too long and hard to allow Kinder Morgan or others to “determine the future” of our infrastructure or economy! If it takes revolutionary measures and a closing down entirely of this port facility then so be it. We will protect our way of life into the future.”
Michael Harrison, who has met with Representative Adkins in Tallahassee on port concerns, asked if OHPA is really in charge of the port and Kinder Morgan. He said that the port master plan was not fully vetted, and is more a laundry list compiled by a consultant who cut and pasted from other plans. This is compounded, Harrison said, by the Port Attorney who says, “We can do what we want.” He said the evidence that the OHPA is not in control is clear from the fact that OHPA did not know that Kinder Morgan had requested a permit to handle coal last year and that they did not know before the public did that Kinder Morgan was laying off a third of its workers locally. He also asked Adkins to withdraw HB 1201, which he said only served to add extra fuel to the fire of public opinion and look at the real issues. He called for a legislative investigation into the OHPA.
Faith Ross said that the “illegal elections” are symptomatic of OHPA trust problems with the community. She suggested that perhaps a solution is to provide more representation on the OHPA for Fernandina Beach, since the port is physically located in the city; or to create two special districts: one for the island and another for the county mainland. She said that although we want to attract high tech, high wage jobs, they depend on clean water. She said that the bottom line is that “OHPA commissioners don’t understand us and we don’t understand them.”
Other speakers reinforced community fears about hazardous materials, the arrogance of port spokesmen, the lack of respect shown to the Historic District and its residents, and the need to ratchet down the rhetoric in order to solve the problems.
OHPA Commissioner Danny Fullwood said that he would not spend time arguing or refuting comments. He said that the OHPA has repeatedly offered the public the opportunity to bring their concerns to them at their regular monthly meetings. He said that speaking for himself, he is willing to remove the idea of building an oil refinery from the master plan. Adkins asked, “Can we just take that out of the plan?” Fullwood said he would be willing to execute a separate document promising not to pursue agreed upon activities for ten years, if other commissioners and their attorney would agree. He said, “Then we’ll include the people in formulating the next plan.”
Adkins said that what she was hearing was a lot of fear and anger at the process used to develop the current plan. She said she understood that while the objectionable activities were likely not to happen, the fact that they are in writing in a formally adopted plan is nor reassuring. She said, “We can look at legislation to solve the problem, but it is paramount to include the people.”
Laura Dibella thanked Adkins for holding the meeting. She said that she understands that people do not want heavy industry coming to the island. She said that in her position as county economic development director, she sees the current ill will hurting her ability to attract business to the county. She said that businesses looking at the county as a possible location for their operations don’t distinguish between the island and the rest of the county. But when they see the anger and inability to work together between citizens and an elected body, they become leery about locating to such a community. She said, “We need to be civil. I beg you, let’s be civil moving forward. The island is also a draw for other economic development.”
OHPA Chair Richard Bruce limited his comments in the interest of time. He told Adkins, “Our job is to get answers to the citizens, and we will do that.”
Fernandina Beach Vice Mayor Johnny Miller thanked Adkins for holding the meeting and said that it was important for him to be able to see the citizens express their concerns to her. He said that one of the problems currently is the meeting times for the OHPA and city Planning Advisory Board (PAB), which is charged to review and recommend to the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) on matters affecting the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Both boards meet on the afternoon/evening of the same day each month, making attendance at both problematic for everyone. He said that in looking over the history of the port he recognized that everyone had worked hard to establish the Port of Fernandina, and now there is an adversarial relationship caused by a lack of trust. He suggested that the best move would be to scrap the master plan and start over with citizen participation. He also said, “We are not an anti-industry town.”
Adkins asked Mike Rubin to address some of the concerns raised. He said that the master plan speaks to a 20-year vision, and that he was not sure where the notion that the plan cannot be amended has originated. Some master plans in the state have been amended more than once within a 5-year period. He said if the community is not comfortable with something in the plan, it should be removed. He said that a port master plan must be consistent with a local government’s Comprehensive Plan and the state’s environmental plan. He added, “We would not allocate funds to a port if its plan was inconsistent with either plan.”
After 50 minutes Adkins attempted to summarize and provide direction. She said that the main challenge was to restore trust and public confidence. She asked under what circumstances the master plan can be modified and asked the local parties to work on changing the OHPA and PAB meeting schedules so that they do not conflict. She asked for a follow up meeting and said that while she can ask for an Attorney General’s opinion on modifying the port master plan, she would prefer for the local parties to work out a resolution. Rubin added to the OHPA members, “It’s your plan, you can amend it any time.”
Adkins ended the meeting by thanking everyone. She said, “We are harming the community with protracted disagreements. We are all here to find solutions.” Adkins did not address calls to withdraw HB1201, amending the OHPA charter to make commission elections partisan, reflecting the status quo as opposed to the legal language in the charter.
After the meeting, Phil Scanlan volunteered to compile a list of citizen concerns with the master plan that would indicate what the community would like to strike from the plan for Representative Adkins. He agreed to involve all meeting participants in reviewing the list and expressed an intent to have it delivered to the OHPA in early May so that it may be discussed at their May 13 Regular Meeting.
OHPA Commissioner Danny Fullwood expressed his desire to work with the community. OHPA Chair Richard Bruce, however, sounded more exasperated. He said, “It’s hard to see the greatest economic opportunity [the port] spurned when it’s something that would benefit the entire county. We will get it done. You will get all the answers you need, not rumors. We must get along together. Quit vilifying and start verifying!” His remarks led to puzzled looks from the audience, who seemed to feel more positive about achieving resolution with Adkins’ input.
Fernandina Beach Vice Mayor Miller remarked after the meeting, “This is an important issue for Nassau County, too. Where have the county commissioners been during all these meetings on the port master plan?”
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.