Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 7, 2015 2:12 p.m.
Note: The OHPA will hold its Regular Meeting for July 2015 on Wednesday, July 8, 2015, at the James S. Page Governmental Center at 6:00 p.m. For agenda information, visit http://www.portoffernandina.org/.
At 1:00 p.m. on July 6, 2015, Nassau County Ocean Highway and Port Authority Commission (OHPA) Chairman Richard Bruce called to order a workshop convened to consider proposed changes to the controversial draft master plan for the Port of Fernandina. Following three hours of discussion over proposed modifications and recommendations submitted by an ad hoc group of local residents concerned over implications for the city and island residents of plan contents, three of the OHPA commissioners appeared receptive to making changes to the draft plan to better reflect the future direction of the port and the citizens’ concerns. A fourth commissioner, Carrol Franklin (District 4), remained steadfast in his opposition to making any changes. The fifth commissioner, Ronnie Braddock (District 5), did not attend due to illness. Braddock has not attended any OHPA meeting for more than a year.
Because the meeting was a workshop, no votes were taken. However, OHPA Commissioners expressed their intent to bring language and substance changes to a future meeting, where they might be further modified and/or voted upon. Because of the amount of work involved, Bruce explained that the revised document might not be ready for the next OHPA Regular Meeting on Wednesday, July 8, 2015.
OHPA Commissioners thanked the ad hoc committee members for the work invested in scrutinizing the draft plan, singling out activist Phil Scanlan and retired attorney Anne Thomas for their considerable efforts.
The draft master plan for the Port of Fernandina, developed by an outside consultant at a cost of close to $100K, has been criticized and defended, debated and discussed widely throughout the local community since its public unveiling a year ago. While OHPA Chair Richard Bruce announced on many public occasions that the document was intended to be encyclopedic in nature, reflecting everything that was possible for the port, critics pointed to the fact that the document was called a plan, not a research document.
The contents of the draft master plan created both fear and consternation in the minds of many local residents, who repeatedly cited environmental hazards and safety concerns emanating from plan elements, as well as what appeared to be significant increases of truck traffic to the island. Because of what many locals saw as intransigence on the part of both the OHPA and their attorney Clyde Davis in addressing their concerns, citizens took their concerns to Florida State Representative Janet Adkins, who pressured the parties to work together to find common ground.
Other concerned city residents tried to tackle the problem by submitting an application to change the city’s Land Development Code (LDC) in an attempt to block some of the possibilities laid out in the draft master plan. After many months of discussion involving the city’s Planning Advisory Board and the City Commission, the requested LDC changes—which had been strongly opposed by both mills— failed to pass.
The ad hoc citizens committee, which grew out of Representative Adkins’ town hall meetings, collected questions and concerns from the public at large, and on June 29, 2015 submitted to the OHPA marked-up copies of the plan reflecting suggested changes associated with the major issues raised over the past year. According to the document’s cover sheet, while retired attorney Anne Thomas spent significant time marking up the 252-page document, the suggested changes for all the major issues affected only about 50 pages, or 20 percent of the draft plan.
In his cover memo, Scanlan wrote: “We believe the Port Strategic Plan should be limited to those projects that have an economic benefit without harm to the community, and where the OHPA is actually fully committed to move forward.”
OHPA considers major citizen issues
Following some preliminary discussion regarding the need for/creation of a formal citizen advisory committee to discuss the draft master plan, OHPA Commissioners decided to re-order the agenda so that they might first discuss the nine port plan issues identified by the ad hoc committee recommendations.
Issue 1: Remove the oil refinery plans
Chairman Bruce explained that the port might want to consider refining edible oils, but that refining petroleum oil was not envisioned. Attorney Clyde Davis said in response to a question that in the past Nassau County has refined pine oil, tung oil, and fish oil, but that the likelihood of refining petroleum oil was “extremely small.” He advised the OHPA to “say what you intend to do and be specific.” With the exception of Commissioner Franklin, the OHPA commissioners expressed an intent to rewrite plan language to remove “petroleum” from language referencing oil refinery.
Issue 2: Clarify coal transfer plans
Chairman Bruce cited a 1989 agreement executed with the city of Fernandina Beach in which the city said that it would not interfere with the shipment of coal at the port. Bruce added that the port has not done so. He said that the OHPA plan to extend the dock at the port was to enable the port to bring in less than 100 thousand tons of coal per year–probably less than a shipload of 30 thousand tons– destined for West Rock (formerly, Rock Tenn). Attorney Davis added that no American port can refuse legal cargo, saying “we don’t need a lawsuit.” Discussion ensued regarding the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) compliance requirements for handling coal. Bruce agreed that clarifying language could be placed in the plan, but he said that he did not want to close the door to better alternatives than the current rail shipment of coal to the mill.
Commissioner Fullwood asked, “So the Master Plan can speak to what we want to do, but not what we don’t want to do?” Davis agreed. Davis reminded commissioners that their port operator is Kinder Morgan, and that there are 7 years remaining on their contract. He said that it is up to Kinder Morgan, not the OHPA, to decide what can be shipped into and out of the port.
Franklin said, “If it was a matter of Black and White, it would be discrimination.” Fullwood responded quickly, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
Commissioner Adam Salzburg suggested removing the word “coal” from a section of the plan, over the objection of Commissioner Franklin. Other commissioners appeared to agree.
Issue 3: Remove fumigator plants
Bruce reported that fumigation facilities are basically relics of the past. Today American ports require imported fruits and vegetables to be fumigated at their port of origin. Kinder Morgan port manager Val Schwec concurred, saying “I don’t know where that came from. Your consultant pulled it up.” He amplified his remarks to add that agricultural products exported from the United States need to be fumigated before they are shipped out, but that there is no room at the port for a refrigerated warehouse. Any products that need to be fumigated, such as timber or peanuts, must be fumigated by a third party off site. He said that the port has not done fumigation for ten years.
Chair Bruce supported removing language referencing a port fumigation facility. “We can’t afford one, we don’t need one, we can take it out,” he said.
Issue 4: Reduce truck traffic plans
Commissioners agreed that numbers of trucks entering and leaving the port reflected in the draft plan were not achievable. Consensus appeared to restate figures in the current plan, which have yet to be achieved. Schwec added one cautionary note. He said that as long as rail still services the port, those numbers can hold. If for any reason rail service ceases, the number of truck visits would need to increase. He said that one rail car equals three truck loads.
Bruce took issue with what he believed was an underlying belief of the consultant in putting together the traffic numbers. He said that the consultant seemed to suggest that the port would move toward increased container handling at the expense of general cargo. Bruce said that he wants to keep options open and has no intention of giving up bulk cargo.
Bruce added that the work and storage area of the port is constrained by surrounding wetlands. Should the port increase container handling, it would be at the expense of work space, a situation that would work against the efficiency of the port.
Commissioners also seemed to agree that even with more gates, the port could not handle significant increases in container truck traffic, because once inside the port, there would be space constraints for working and storage.
Commissioners agreed that the traffic surveys included in the master plan document were flawed as well.
Issue 5: Remove LNG and CNG plans
Bruce reminded the audience that the port currently handles exports of ISO tanks of propane to Bermuda and Puerto Rico. Schwec concurred that Kinder Morgan would continue to do so. Bruce agreed to add language clarifying that there would be no bulk storage of LNG at the port. Followed added that there is no intent to fuel LNG ships in the future. Schwec said that there will be LNG fueled ships in the future, but Fullwood added that LNG fueling is not a supportable market for the port.
Issue 6: Limit cruise ship size to less than 500 passengers
Clyde Davis told commissioners that they cannot limit the size of cruise ships visiting Fernandina, but that by the size of the facility they build to handle cruise ships they in fact limit the size that can embark or disembark from the port. He added that there is no space to build a cruise ship terminal in the city of Fernandina Beach. Bruce reminded commissioners that the former pogey plant site along the Amelia River is not in the city. Davis said that if the OHPA is considering locating such a facility in the county, then they must bring their plan into compliance with the county comprehensive plan as well as the city’s. Bruce recommended that the pogey plant site should be part of the master plan.
Schwec reminded commissioners that in the past smaller cruise ships have docked at the port, but that such activity occurred before the increased port security mandated following the 9-11 terrorist attack. He said that new requirements make it almost impossible to mix passenger and cargo traffic at the same facility.
Schwec suggested that the OHPA might refocus on making Fernandina Beach a Port of Call for cruise ships, as opposed to a cruise ship terminus.
Issue 7: Remove phosphates plans
Bruce inferred that plan critics had confused “phosphates” a benign element occurring in nature with “phosphorous” a dangerous substance. Despite significant mining of phosphate in Florida, he said that there are no phosphates going out of the port of Fernandina. Schwec added, “This is not a commodity that will flow through this port today or ever.” Salzburg said that the OHPA was not planning to handle this material in bulk. Bruce agreed to work on language in the plan, saying that only mishandling makes the product dangerous.
Issue 8: Avoid wetlands damage
Bruce said that this problem has already been handled via a conservation easement granted to the city for wetlands within the port owned property. Davis added, that DEP would never release the parties from that easement.
Issue 9: Establish a clear Goal and correct economic analysis
Chairman Bruce provided commissioners with a one-page document that he had prepared to address vision, mission, purposes, guiding principles, goal and key facility plans. He invited other commissioners and the public to review this document, revise and amend for future discussion. The six key facility plans Bruce identified included:
- Cargo diversity
- Container feeder service to Caribbean hub(s)
- Dock extension northward to provide delivery options to WestRock and Rayonier
- Strive to develop new business to be located at the Pogey Plant site
- Explore mariculture possibilities
- Explore water de-salinization possibilities
Bruce expressed an interest in partnering with the City of Fernandina Beach on mariculture opportunities in the Amelia Riverfront Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). Schwec suggested that in formulating their goal the OHPA reinforce supporting all local industry, including tourism, via imports and exports through the port.
Chair Bruce provided the public with an opportunity to comment. About a dozen attendees stayed for the 3-hour meeting. Scanlan and Thomas thanked the OHPA for considering the input of the ad hoc committee. Audience member Ron Lindhart reinforced the notion of making Fernandina Beach a Port of Call for cruise ships. He also suggested bringing in ship replicas or restored naval vessels to attract tourism.
In adjourning the meeting, Chairman Bruce thanked the audience for attending and said that the OHPA would begin work to finalize master plan language for presentation at a future meeting.
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.