Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 13, 2017 1:00 a.m.

 

Alachua Street currently dead ends at the railroad tracks that run along Front Street.

There have been many attempts by many Fernandina Beach City Commissions over the years to open Alachua Street to vehicular and pedestrian traffic between Second and Front Streets. Many local citizens have claimed that at one time the street had been open, but recent research in City Archives indicates  that other than officially sanctioned temporary openings during some Shrimp Fests, any travel across the railroad tracks on Alachua Street over the past 40 years was done at the risk of the travelers.

There was a moment in time when the city had permission from the railroad to open the crossing and had both engineering and funding to support construction. However, political tides turned, and by 2013, the moment had disappeared.

From 1975 to 2013, many commissioners either personally supported or served on commissions that supported opening the Alachua rail crossing. The list includes:

  • Charles Albert
  • Lewis “Red” Bean
  • Jeffrey Bunch
  • Grace Butler
  • Eric Childers
  • John Crow
  • Dale Dees
  • Arlene Filkoff
  • Joe Gerrity
  • Thomas Goolsby
  • Greg Haddock
  • Mike Lamb
  • Bill Leeper
  • Bruce Malcolm
  • Bill Melton
  • Franz Mitchell
  • J.C. Mottayaw
  • Tim Poynter
  • Don “Beano” Roberts
  • Greg Roland
  • Ronnie Sapp
  • Milt Shirley
  • Ben Sorenson
  • Susan Steger
  • Ken Walker

The current Fernandina Beach City Commission is again focused on this issue. However, city elections will occur in November. It remains to be seen whether elected officials and the public will remain interested in opening Alachua Street to Front Street.

1975-1979

Minutes of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) reflect a history of interest in creating a permanent, open crossing here going back at least as far as 1975.

During a city commission meeting held on March 18, 1975, “[Mr. Ray Beville on behalf of the Shrimp Fest Committee] asked that the City extend Alachua Street across the railroad tracks to Front Street.”

Apparently the Seaboard Coastline Railroad agreed to the temporary opening. On July 1, 1975, Commissioner Grace Butler asked City Manager Courtney if the railroad “would keep open the access at the foot of Alachua Street.” The City Manager was asked to pursue this, despite his feeling that the railroad would not voluntarily do so. At the July 15, 1975 meeting Commissioner Ben Sorenson asked for a status report. The City Manager had no response from the railroad.

On November 18, 1975, Commissioner Franz Mitchell asked why the street had not been opened. “City Manager Courtney answered that the railroad had no objection to opening this street, however, all new crossing of railroad tracks now needed the approval of the Department of Transportation and they had agreed to hold a public hearing on the opening of this crossing and would give their decision after the hearing.”

During an FBCC meeting on February 21, 1978, City Attorney Fishler presented copies of easements with the Seaboard Coastline Railroad on the Alachua Street crossing. He reported that there was no indication in county records that the crossing had ever been closed, but allowed that it may have been closed by a city ordinance. There is no indication that the city took action to close the crossing.

A month later at the March 28, 1978 meeting, City Manager Courtney read a letter from the Seaboard Coastline Railroad “stating that if the City will pay the cost that they will open up the Alachua Street crossing. After discussion, it was the consensus of the Commission that the City Manager write a letter to the railroad and tell them to proceed with the work and that the City Manager be authorized to budget this item into next year’s budget [FY 1978/79].”

Despite an approved city millage rate of 9.1062, there is no indication that this item was budgeted in the FY 1978-79 Budget, which did not contain a Capital Improvements Plan.

At the March 3, 1982 FBCC meeting, “Commissioner Boatwright stated that the City should check with Seaboard Coastline Railroad Company about opening up the Alachua Street crossing. The City Manager stated that he had contacted them some time ago about this and they had advised that they had no objection as long as the City would maintain the signals. The City Manager stated that he would contact them again before doing the work though.”

1980’s

On April 6, 1982, the narrative appeared to have changed. In response to a request from Mr. [Bill] Kavanaugh to open the crossing, the city manager replied that “Seaboard Coastline Railroad Company refuses to do it.” He added that the railroad gives permission each year for a temporary opening during Shrimp Fest.

At the May 4, 1982 meeting, the FBCC once again asked the City Manager to pursue opening the crossing permanently. During that same meeting a Mr. R.W. Fields “stated that he had damaged his oil pan on his car 3 years ago on the railroad crossing and had turned the claim over to the City for payment but had never received anything.” It is not clear whether this claim arose during the time of temporary opening for Shrimp Fest or whether the rail crossing had “unofficially opened” for those willing to chance driving across the tracks.

Yet another City Commission grappled with opening rail crossings at Calhoun and Alachua as part of a traffic plan for truck routes in 1987.

In 1989 the FBCC developed a strategic plan. Included was Item 9, which read:

Apparently, once again nothing happened.

2000’s

Commission meeting minutes do not reflect more action on this plan or concern about the rail crossing until 2003, when at the November 4 Regular Meeting, City Manager Robert Mearns “stated that Representative Aaron Bean requested that he write a letter to him requesting that the Department of Transportation look into the opening of Alachua across the railroad tracks and also removing one of the railroad tracks.”

Beginning in 2005, the FBCC took renewed interest in opening the rail crossing to resolve traffic and safety issues and to make the Community Redevelopment Area. At a Special Meeting held on October 5, 2006, Commissioner Ron Sapp, who was seconded by Mayor Bill Leeper, moved “that City staff bring to the City Commission at the earliest possible date financing options including a revenue bond option as a way to finance up to $3M worth of infrastructure improvements along the waterfront; and general fund will [be] obligated for the financing initially and that the general fund will loan the CRA up to $3M for those infrastructure improvements. {Commissioner Bruce Malcolm] pointed out that of these $3M of improvements, a lot would be handled by developers as site improvements (i.e. lighting, flyovers for Alachua across Front Street, agreement with the railroad to redo Front Street.” After discussion and public input, this motion passed unanimously.

Once again, in 2007, the City asked the railroad to open the Alachua and Broome crossings “as part of the Front Street redevelopment project.” The FBCC considered Resolution 2007-41, “Supporting the application for right of way occupancy for Front and Alachua Streets and Front and Broome Streets with Reltek, LLC.” Reltek was the legal arm for the railroad and was responsible for processing applications on behalf of CSX and First Coast Rail. Commissioner Ron Sapp, seconded by Commissioner Bruce Malcolm moved approval of the resolution, which passed on a unanimous vote.

Community Redevelopment Area and waterfront improvements

During 2007 there was significant public discussion and FBCC consideration of opening the Alachua crossing to improve downtown traffic flow and help prime the pump for private development in the CRA. Commissioners considered pedestrian crossings and the FDOT policy of reducing rail crossings to improve safety throughout the state. During this time, the FBCC dropped the idea of opening the Broome Street crossing, but continued to support opening the Alachua crossing. Vice Mayor Joe Gerrity moved and Commissioner Ken Walker seconded a motion to approve Resolution 2007-164, “Supporting the need for an additional rail road crossing at Front and Alachua Streets without the requirement to close an existing crossing.” The FBCC approved this resolution unanimously.

Significant public discussion and commission consideration on the waterfront continued through meetings and workshops from 2008-2010. A traffic study conducted in the 2009-10 period again recommended the opening of the Alachua rail crossing. At an FBCC meeting on February 22, 2010, City Manager Michael Czymbor and Community Development Director Marshall McCrary responded to questions from Mayor Susan Steger and expressed optimism that the Alachua crossing would be opened.

The FBCC passed Resolution 2010-78 approving an agreement with the railroad to open Alachua Street. Background information for the agenda read as follows:

In 2011, the FBCC passed yet another resolution to facilitate opening of the rail crossing. Commissioner Tim Poynter moved and Commissioner Eric Childers seconded Resolution 2011-12, “amending Resolution 2010-78 approving an amended agreement with Florida Department of Transportation for the opening of Alachua Street highway-rail grade crossing to provide that the city install fencing parallel to Front Street to enhance pedestrian safety.”

According to minutes of the February 1, 2011 FBCC Regular Meeting:

“Commissioner [Arlene] Filkoff inquired what the next step in the process was for this. City Manager [Michael] Czymbor explained that the City has 24 months to perform all the items the City was agreeing to in the Stipulation of Parties (improving and opening the crossing). He stated that the City would have to find funding, draw plans, and cooperatively work with the railroad to assure their satisfaction with the proposed improvements.”

The commission approved this resolution unanimously.

Design work begins

On November 15, 2011, the FBCC unanimously approved Resolution 2011-171 to contract with Zev Cohen & Associates to design Front Street rehabilitation and Alachua Street railroad crossing and improvements. From the minutes:

“Commissioner [Jeffrey] Bunch inquired what CSX fees would be. Mr. [Curtiss] Burkett [of Zen Cohen] replied that their fees for doing all the work were provided in the cost estimate provided to the city. He stated that he believed that the Alachua crossing was $183,000 for the design, construction, etc.” …

“City Manager Czymbor referred to the railroad crossing and commented that from talking with people it has been a 34 year process to get Alachua opened. He stated that this was completing the actual construction documents and specifications to make the improvement happen.”

2011:  Forward Fernandina and political aftermath

On August 16, 2011 the FBCC unanimously approved and adopted a comprehensive strategic plan called Forward Fernandina, or F2, as Resolution 2011-118. This plan was the product of numerous community studies and plans for city revitalization, and followed months of public comment and review through workshops, community meetings and a survey. Opening the Alachua crossing was one of the goals of that plan.

However, city elections in 2011 and 2012 resulted in the replacement of commissioners who supported both the F2 plan and public borrowing to pay for it with commissioners who opposed public borrowing and/or the use of franchise fees as opposed to voted debt to pay for public works.

The FBCC passed on a 4-1 vote (Commissioner Sarah Pelican dissenting) Resolution 2012-145, requesting an extension to the Alachua crossing construction permit to delay construction until 2015. However, on February 19, 2013 via Resolution 2013-23, the FBCC voted to return most of the $1.88M that had been borrowed at an interest rate of 2.43 percent (Resolution 2011-170) to finance initial infrastructure improvements in the Front Street area, including the Alachua rail opening.

By the time yet another City Commission resurrected the Alachua opening plan, the railroad had reconsidered its permission to open the crossing. They declined to grant another extension to the permit in 2015.

And that’s where it stands today.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’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.

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Kent Piatt
Kent Piatt
4 years ago

40 years? As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Mrs. D. Hunter
Mrs. D. Hunter
4 years ago

Suanne, this is an exceptional piece of educational reporting, thank you so much.

Len Kreger
Len Kreger
4 years ago

Outstanding article.

John Goshco
John Goshco
4 years ago

Superb research, Suanne.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott
4 years ago

Very thorough research and presentation. Some things change and some things stay the same over the years. Amazing, and somewhat frustrating, to see the action items directed by the FBCC but never completed. Hopefully this time will be different but think a large package of marina, waterfront, CRA, etc. will have such a high price tag that it will have a very difficult time in getting support. That was one of the issues with the F2 plan, some of the items were well fleshed out and others were still at the concept stage and many were concerned not having a firmer knowledge of the financial costs. Then the ‘just say no’ tide turned and the rest is history as Suanne has recorded. Hopefully there will be lessons learned.

Terry Jones
Terry Jones
4 years ago

i may be naive but to me the need for alchua crossing should have been a stand alone issue without lumping it into waterfront development BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN NEEDED FOR MANY YEARS WITHOUT ADDITIONAL DEVELOPMENT & if it had been done may perhaps have made future waterfront plans & development a little less contentious.

Bob Allison
Bob Allison
4 years ago

Suannne, thank you for the lengthy research you must have done to share this history with us. I wish you could do a comparable piece on the City’s history of planning for re-development of its waterfront. Thousands of dollars of tax payer’s funds and an equal number of citizen’s voluntary hours have been spent on this endeavor and there is not one ounce of re-development to show for it. The marina and waterfront are exactly the same as when I finished the first re-development nearly thirty years ago. You may have noticed the City has posted a RFQ for yet one more consultant to develop yet one more conceptual plan. What is needed, for any progress to be made on the west side of the rail road tracks are not more consultants, but instead competent honorably intentioned leadership.

Robert Warner
Robert Warner
4 years ago

Does anyone see a problem with implementing any real long term plan that takes cooperation, commitment, and resources over time when the electoral picture is in continuous flux? It’s always carping about taxes, carping about objectives, carping about people doing the hard work of making things work, always the carping – and always from the sidelines.

Stephen Coe
Stephen Coe
4 years ago

Very well done Suanne. I also like that the FO moved this article back to the front page. Too often substantive issue articles are bumped down by media releases to the extent that they are essentially lost. I’m not complaining about press releases–they can be informative–I just like to see the more important articles stay in the public eye a little longer. Many readers will not read past the first or second page.

CHUCK HALL
CHUCK HALL
4 years ago

Good work, Suanne! You nailed it. I hope the RR has a change of heart. This is a much needed access to Front Street. After the closing of Calhoun St for the needs of the Port Authority, the City severely restricted its options.
Good work.

Jane Collins
Jane Collins
4 years ago

What a job, Suanne! I can only imagine the time you spent researching this article.
Did you turn up the original recorded easement? I would be interested in seeing the actual legal text and rights given to each party.
Even if it never gets open, I think the city should make an effort to beautify the area. It surely is an eyesore and not what we want our guests to see.

lynda grant
lynda grant
4 years ago

second what Stephen said.

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