Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 3, 2022

A proposed interlocal agreement (ILA) by and between the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) and the Ocean Highway & Port Authority (OHPA) was approved on a 4-1 vote at the February 1, 2022 FBCC Regular Meeting.  Mayor Mike Lednovich was the lone dissenter.  OHPA had previously approved the ILA as written.

The ILA brings to a close discussions that have occurred during recent years about the Port’s relationship with the City of Fernandina Beach and whether the Port is bound by City development rules.

On January 12, 2022, OHPA approved the City’s draft of the agreement, making only one change.  The City language had contained an absolute prohibition against expansion into the Historic District.  OHPA removed the prohibition and replaced it with the following language: 

Further expansion of the Port of Fernandina and authority-owned facilities into the Downtown Historic District of Fernandina Beach is subject to City approval.

Florida Statutes, Section 163.01, permits local government entities such as the City of Fernandina Beach and the Ocean Highway and Port Authority of Nassau County (“OHPA”) to cooperate in the form of an interlocal agreement for the needs and development of the community and the Port of Fernandina. The Planning Advisory Board developed an updated Port Element to the City’s Comprehensive Plan via a subcommittee that included a member of OHPA, which was passed by the City Commission as Ordinance 2021-29 on December 7, 2021. The City and OHPA believe it is in the best interests of the citizens of Fernandina Beach and Nassau County to require the Port of Fernandina and Port facilities to develop and redevelop their properties in compliance with state law, the City Land Development Code and the applicable City or County Comprehensive Plans in accordance with Sec. 163.3161(5-8), F.S. 

FBCC considers amendment

In considering this item, the FBCC initially sought to amend the agreement to require a supermajority of the FBCC to approve any further Port of Fernandina expansion into the Historic District.  However, City Attorney Tammi Bach, who has worked closely with OHPA attorneys, strongly advised against amending the ILA in the belief that OHPA would not consent to the change.  Commissioner Bradley Bean suggested that the City could self-impose additional requirements for approving Port expansion via a separate resolution.

Commissioner Chip Ross
Commissioner Chip Ross

Commissioner Chip Ross delivered a strong statement in support of approving the ILA.  He recapped his involvement with OHPA and the Port over the past 7 years in opposing Port expansion.  He provided several specific actions which he has publicly undertaken to introduce transparency to Port actions and to thwart Port expansion plans.

Ross said, “I have been to every OHPA regular meeting in the past 5 years, and my record supports my opposition to port expansion.  The interlocal agreement before the Commission tonight is the best opportunity available to continue to prevent Port expansion.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  A signed agreement — as is before us tonight — is better than no agreement passed by the legislature or vetoed by the governor.  The agreement is not perfect, but let us not let the perfect get in the way of the good.  I believe this agreement will add another layer of protection against port expansion into the Historic District.”

Public speaks

OHPA Chair Danny Fullwood

Eight audience members addressed the FBCC, including OHPA Chair Danny Fullwood, who said, “I highly recommend your approving this ILA for the reasons Commissioner Ross has just cited.”  He went on to explain why OHPA made the change to eliminate an absolute prohibition against Port expansion to expansion only with the approval of the FBCC.  He said, “We don’t plan to make any expansion, but we wanted to leave in the possibility, because you never know what is going to happen ten years down the road, or whatever. [Any proposed expansion] would still come back to you for approval.  If you approve this ILA as written tonight, it doesn’t have to return to OHPA.  [The ILA] stands as approved.”

Other speakers were not as confident that the language change was a protection without adding that the City would need to approve any Port expansion by a supermajority or unanimous vote.  Some speakers preferred legislative action from Tallahassee in lieu of an ILA.  In general speakers expressed a strong lack of trust in the Port Operator (Worldwide Terminals Fernandina) to abide by the agreement, citing current problems regarding trash, routing of trucks, and lack of maintenance on the historic building (501 N 3rd Street) which serves as headquarters for the Port Operator.

City Attorney urges approval

City Attorney Tammi Bach

Attorney Bach said that while she personally would support the need for a unanimous vote to approve any Port expansion into the Historic District, the language in the ILA itself states that a majority vote of either Commission can cancel the agreement.  “I’m suggesting not to take the risk of changing the language and sending it back to OHPA for approval.  We are not suggesting that we withdraw the local bill, currently with Rep. Cord Byrd [in the Florida Legislature].  If that passes, great.  But if it doesn’t, we at least have something with this ILA.”

[The local bill would incorporate some of the changes sought by the City in OHPA’s Charter.  However, recent reports indicate that Rep. Byrd is backing off his initial support for the bill.]

Addressing the FBCC, Bach said, “I don’t normally do this, but tonight I am strongly advocating that you approve this [ILA] because it is in the best interest of the City.”

Ross reminded the FBCC and audience members that he is a Historic District resident, and that his positions both as a City Commissioner and a private citizen are well known.  He echoed the City Attorney’ comments and said, “I think this is the best opportunity at this time.  Do I think it’s perfect? No. … Do I have faith in the City Commission all the time?  No.  But I am a realist.  I have worked hard to get this, and it’s my belief that this is the best we can get.”

In response to a question from Vice Mayor Kreger, Bach said, “If later you want to pass a rule or resolution requiring a supermajority or unanimous vote, you can.  But it does not need to be part of this agreement.  You all can decide what ‘City approval’ means.”

Mayor expresses opposition

Mayor Mike Lednovich

Mayor Lednovich spoke last and explained his opposition to the ILA as written.  He made a series of remarks directed at the Port Operator, not OHPA.  “Ever since the Port Operator arrived 4 years ago,” he said, “there has been an erosion of trust between the City and OHPA.  I lay it at the feet of the Port Operator.  He arrives and guess what?  The PILOT [Payment In Lieu Of Taxes] payment is in question — a payment that has been made to the City since the inception of the Port.  We are now suing them for money they owe us.”

Lednovich also cited the appearance of Christopher Ragucci, Director of Port Operations before the FBCC several months ago when he requested City support for a grant without revealing that grant would aid port expansion.

“I’m going to call it like it is,” Lednovich said.  “He [Ragucci] lied to us.  That’s where the trust has gone. … This is a port operator who has one goal:  money.  And he has no interest in the Historic District or in the well being of this city.  As long as he’s the port operator, we have a dagger at our throat. … The residents of the Historic District and of the City should not be at risk of the political whims of the FBCC and OHPA.  I would support this if it required a supermajority of Commissioners to expand the Port.  I will not support a simple majority.  There is an election in November, folks.  If you get two pro-business, expansionist Commissioners, we could be in deep trouble.”

Elements of the ILA

When the vote was called, the ILA was approved 4-1 with only Lednovich opposed.

The complete ILA may be found on the City’s website. Key requirements or restrictions contained include:

2. CITY and OHPA understand and hereby agree that OHPA must comply with the following when developing, redeveloping or improving Port facilities and Port properties:

(a) Must comply with The Florida Building Code; and

(b) Must comply with The Florida Fire Protection Code; and

(c) Must comply with The Flood Plain Management Ordinances of the applicable jurisdiction; and

(d) Must comply with the requirements of any applicable State or Federal grants; and

(e) For development of authority-owned properties located in the Downtown Historic District of the City of Fernandina Beach as of 2021, the authority must comply with the requirements of the City of Fernandina Beach Historic District requirements delineated in the City of Fernandina Beach Land Development Code; and

(f) Further expansion of the Port of Fernandina and authority-owned facilities into the Downtown Historic District of Fernandina Beach is subject to City approval; and  

(g) No development be permitted except in conformity with the applicable Comprehensive Plan, or elements or portion thereof prepared and adopted in conformity with the Community Planning Act [See F.S. 163.3161(5-8)]. The continuation of nonconforming uses and structures on the Port of Fernandina and Port Facilities shall be subject to and governed by Section 10.01.01 of the City of Fernandina Beach Land Development Code.

3. The City and OHPA hereby agree that construction and operation of an oil/fuel refinery and/or paper mill are prohibited within the Port of Fernandina facilities and property(s) within the City limits.

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mike spino
mike spino (@guest_63786)
7 months ago

This is a big win for the City, the Port and all those who care about our little town. Thanks to Mike Lednovich and Chip Ross for leading the way; Tammi Bach for getting the deal, Senator Bean and Danny Fullwood. If we work together we can do great things.

Tammi Kosack
Tammi Kosack (@guest_63788)
7 months ago

This is certainly a good start, after a long and circuitous road.

Suanne, this is a good, clear synopsis of the ILA and the process thus far. I believe there is a typo in the first sentence under “Elements of ILA”. Should be 4-1.

DAVID LOTT
DAVID LOTT (@guest_63794)
7 months ago

According to the article “..the language in the ILA itself states that a majority vote of either Commission can cancel the agreement.” So what protective teeth does this agreement really provide? If OHPA decides they want to expand in the historic district, the cabal absent Miriam Hill can simply vote to cancel the agreement. While some level of protection is better than none, I hope the City will continue to push for passage of Cord Byrd’s legislation and strengthen that protection. While OHPA commissioners are finally showing some backbone in their dealings with the Port Operator, it is inconsistent and often done only because they have been shamed into doing so.

CHUCK HALL
CHUCK HALL (@guest_63795)
7 months ago

I have been wrestling with the port for over 30 years! It is simply the nature of industry (the port) to expand and create revenue. This is neither wrong or right, it just is. Facing this undisputable fact, it is the City’s responsibility to protect the rights and property of the neighboring property owners.

The port cannot feel the pain of increased truck traffic, polluted air, noise and debris. To expect that, well, is foolish. The daily use of the port facilities is changing before our eyes. While once a shipping-only facility, it is becoming a trucking and storage hub under the new operator. Be aware that this change will bring more trucks….. lots more trucks into our town and our Historic District.

If we think that the port views our neighborhoods and our Historic District the same way that we residents do, we are deluding ourselves. The port views all this as an obstacle to expansion.It is OUR responsibility to hold the port to its original promise when developed: NO expansion beyond the original footprint.

This promise has already been broken several times, while the City slept. We can only hope that the City never allows more violations of the promises that were made as the port was getting its original permits.

Truck queing outside the port facilites must be addressed, too. Why should the neighbors have to deal with the trucks backing up down Dade St every day? Shouldn’t the port operator agree to use gate-arrival-scheduling like so many other already do?

There is no reason to think the port operator will do anything he isn’t required to do. Let’s not lose this opportunity to correct the problems that have been allowed over the years.

John Rasmussen
John Rasmussen (@guest_63798)
7 months ago

It was a mistake not to leverage yearly payments of $50K for taxes owed by OHPA in return for signing this agreement. Let’s hope that the port operator and OHPA with be on their best behavior in the future, but I for one will not expect that will be the case

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