Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 21, 2015 12:44 p.m.
On May 20, 2015, Florida State Representative Janet Adkins held a second meeting to address matters of public concern dealing with elements of a master plan for the Port of Fernandina adopted by the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) last year. More than 100 people, including OHPA commissioners and Fernandina Beach Vice Mayor Johnny Miller, attended the meeting, which was held in the Peck Center auditorium. Nassau County sent no representative. This meeting followed a “telephone meeting” between Adkins and more than 20 citizens and elected officials held in her district office on April 16, 2015.
Accompanying Adkins at the May 20 meeting were Florida State Representative Lake Ray and Mike Rubin, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the Florida Ports Council. Also in attendance were Doreen Joyner Hayward, Florida Department of Transportation; Dee Alexander, Legislative Aide to Florida State Senator Aaron Bean; and Adkins’ staff: Jim Adams, Joe Zimmerman and Carol Hays.
During the April 16 meeting, Adkins had requested that the parties accomplish two things: eliminate the conflict in meeting times between OHPA Board meetings and Fernandina Beach Planning Advisory Board (PAB) meetings; and develop a list of citizen concerns about the master plan. While both boards have to date refused to modify their meeting schedules, island resident Phil Scanlan, in consultation with 23 concerned local citizens, compiled a list of citizen concerns which was presented to OHPA for consideration at its May 13 meeting and to Adkins. (See article https://fernandinaobserver.com/2015/05/14/no-deal-reached-to-amend-port-master-plan/ .)
Following a brief introduction in which she reiterated the need for all parties to collaborate and compromise to reach an agreement that would benefit residents, the port and the state, she stated her concerns:
- That Amelia Island is an environmentally sensitive barrier island, which must be protected;
- That the Port of Fernandina is an important part of the local economy; and
- That she wanted to learn what, if any, state legislation is needed to bring about an amicable, productive solution to the existing stalemate between the OHPA and island residents.
Adkins first recognized Phil Scanlan to speak about the citizen input and recommendations that he had gathered since April 16. Scanlan recommended the addition of a Port Goal to the port’s strategic plan that would be consistent with the OHPA Charter:
“The goal of the port is to help the success of the Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, and Nassau communities by serving local and state transportation needs, while helping to improve the quality of life.”
In response to OHPA Commissioner Danny Fullwood’s request for a list of specific deletions to the plan, Scanlan provided three as a result of citizen collaboration:
- Deletion of several new hazardous materials plans.
- Deletion of very large cruise ship plans.
- Elimination of the 450% truck traffic increase envisioned in the plan.
Scanlan reported that according to FDOT calculations, 8th Street (SR 200) is currently deficient (D-LOS). He said that over 100 percent of capacity is being used for the 2-lane section of A1A/8th Street in Fernandina Beach, while the port master plan reports only 62 percent is being used. He stressed that 8th Street is a critical community entrance road to downtown Fernandina Beach.
Finally, Scanlan reported that the economic analysis provided in the plan was faulty. He said that the port Phase 3 investment plan appears to lose $40M, not make $4M, which OHPA has acknowledged.
Scanlan recommended a state funded economic study to investigate using barges as a means to reduce road traffic. He reported that about a dozen of the citizens who worked with him on compiling the 6-page report have indicated a willingness to volunteer their services in working with the OHPA to modify the existing plan. “We want a port plan that will be successful for BOTH the port and the community,” he said. He advised Adkins that the citizen group has asked the OHPA Commissioners to amend their plan as requested by the group.
OHPA Chair Richard Bruce thanked both Adkins and the audience, noting, “This is the proper forum, not social media.” He told the audience, “The OHPA Commissioners all have the best intentions. You have nothing to fear.” He went on to say that it is the things we don’t know that cause fear and expressed his intent to continue efforts to explain the port master plan.
He reminded the audience that the plan can be modified, if adopted. “We need a workshop,” he said. He also said that it would be helpful to put an OHPA mission statement together, but that at this time the priority is to establish tactical plans for the port. He agreed with Scanlan about the need for a goal.
Bruce spent considerable time discussing hazardous materials concerns identified in the citizen report. He explained how both state and federal authorities heavily regulate LNG, fumigation, and phosphates. He said that the only coal user anticipated is the neighboring paper mill, which has been using coal brought in by rail for years.
He said that while the plan appears to move toward containerized freight, the port “does not want to put all its eggs in one basket.” He indicated that the port would continue to handle general cargo.
He welcomed the community offer of assistance, particularly thanking local resident Medardo Monzon. He concluded, “We hear you. We understand your concerns. We want to assure you that we will do the right thing.”
City of Fernandina Beach
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller thanked Bruce for willingness to work with citizens. He stressed that the citizens are looking at plan elements as part of a worst-case scenario. He asked that if certain activities listed in the plan, such as an oil refinery, were not going to happen, they be removed from the plan. He also said that while OHPA commissioners have repeatedly stated that citizen safety concerns are overblown; he would like to hear from experts in the field. Because the port is located in a residential neighborhood, he expressed concerns about a blast range. He noted a significant drop in ship visits to the Port of Fernandina, as reported by a harbor pilot.
Mike Rubin, Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the Florida Ports Council
Adkins asked Rubin to weigh in next. He advised the audience, “You are not unique in your concerns; I’ve been at worse meetings.” He emphasized that a seaport has to fit into the community and that every Florida seaport is required to develop a master plan, which needs to remain flexible. He reminded audience members that a port master plan must be a good fit with the local municipality’s comprehensive plan and the state transportation plan. Grant funding for Florida seaports, on a 50-50 match, requires that those two conditions be met.
Rubin said that the Nassau OHPA is not the first to develop a master plan “loaded” by a consultant. He said that the OHPA needs to draw from that to develop an actual seaport plan. “I hope you get there,” he added.
Rubin concluded with remarks emphasizing the importance of Florida ports to local communities and offering his help to “get everybody on board.”
Lake Ray, Florida State Representative, District 12
Ray, who serves on the Transportation and Ports Subcommittee, opined that what the OHPA was considering was not a strategic plan but a “smorgasbord of opportunities.” He admitted surprise that anyone would even suggest building an oil refinery, since the federal government has not approved a new refinery in more than 40 years. He said that thinking about unlimited possibilities is a good exercise, but that adding it to a plan raises unwarranted fears. “It is simply not going to happen,” he said.
He talked about concerns over LNG, reminding the audience that currently they travel on roads where LNG is being transported. He said that LNG containers cannot explode and that the material is safer to transport than either gasoline or propane. He said that safety problems are a consideration in actually compressing LNG, but that process is not a possibility for the local port.
He also expressed doubt as to whether coal or phosphate handling were real opportunities for the port or not, citing significant regulatory hurdles that would need to be met before such operations could be approved. He admitted that “banana gas” (fumigation) is real, but that a fumigation facility for the port of Fernandina was not. He returned to the consultant-prepared strategic plan, which he opined was less of a strategic plan and more of a compilation of “what’s out there.”
Six of the 13 people who signed up to speak were able to do so within the time constraints.
- OHPA Commissioner Danny Fullwood spoke to the number of rumors floating in the community. He said, to audience applause, that he is willing to remove the oil refinery from the plan and added that the OHPA did not plan to build a LNG facility. He said that he was willing to look at forming a citizen advisory committee at the next OHPA meeting on June 10, 2015. He said that he had been raised in Fernandina Beach, not far from the Peck Center. He urged, “Let’s get this done and stop bickering and Facebook [exchanges].”
- Nassau Economic Development Board Executive Director Laura diBella’s message was to reinforce the importance of the port to the business community. She said, “I think we can all come together.”
- Tom Cote-Merow presented the OHPA with a resolution incorporating the recommendations of the citizen advisory group, calling for its adoption.
- Chip Ross responded to specific points relating to truck traffic, LNG, neighborhood traffic and safety concerns. He said that the current economic impact statement does not detail how port operations affect other local industries and businesses. He reminded everyone that the OHPA has adopted the master plan, but that neither Nassau County nor Fernandina Beach has agreed that the plan is consistent with their comprehensive plans. He called for OHPA Charter changes that would provide for proportional representation on the OHPA, and asked for repeal of Section 12, which seems to give unlimited authority to the OHPA to ignore city laws.
- Ken Overcash surfaced complaints about Kinder Morgan’s disregard of private property in conducting surveying operations for its proposed pipeline through Georgia.
- Medardo Monzon thanked Representative Adkins for opening up an important communication flow in the community. He cited the master plan’s assertion that port volume will increase from 200K to 1.2M Tons over the course of the plan, but with no clarity on how that would be accomplished.
- Frank Santry, a retired regulatory attorney with more than 35 years of experience, identified the OHPA Charter, which has not been revisited since its adoption in the 1940’s, as the source of many of the community’s fears. He cited the many powers given to the OHPA under that charter, including eminent domain rights (even in Georgia) as well as the right to build and/or lease facilities such as a paper mill, oil refinery, hotels and motels, a beach casino, and even a toll road to Brunswick, Georgia. He recommended reviewing and revising the charter to reflect actual physical and commercial realities for the OHPA today.
Representative Adkins’ remarks
Adkins thanked everyone for their work to date, adding that there remains much to be done. She said that she believes there are good opportunities for greater collaboration and cooperation among the parties, but that a resolution must be found. Continuing strife harms Nassau County’s ability to attract new business. “If the situation requires legislative action, we will do so,” she said. “Solutions come when people work together,” she added reminding the audience of the OHPA’s countywide scope, not limited to Amelia Island. “Let’s find solutions!” she urged.
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.