A Tough Decision Gets a Board of Adjustments Variance

By Mike Phillips

It can be tough serving on the Fernandina Board of Adjustments. People are always coming around wanting perfectly reasonable exemptions from land use rules that were enacted for other perfectly reasonable reasons.

Wednesday’s meeting was a classic example.

Some of the nicest, most admirable people in town, Habitat for Humanity, want an exemption for a wretched property in an improving neighborhood. They want to put four single-family homes on a lot where traditionally one or two homes would fit the neighborhood’s sense of space.

Space is important in Fernandina. Room to breathe is part of the secret sauce that makes the community so special.

But what’s currently on that 100-foot by 100-foot lot right now where Habitat wants to build might not be — but certainly looks like – a crack house. And rumor has it that it has been in its shoddy life. A neighborhood that is on the way up doesn’t need a piece of junk like 1014 S.10th Street.

But here’s the flip side of this coin: If the city allows the good people of Habitat to cut that lot into four pieces and build four much-needed homes for low-income working people, what’s to stop other developers from pouring in saying “me too!” and replacing tidy little houses on roomy lots with expensive houses cheek-to-jowl and tossing out the Fernandina Beach secret sauce?

You could clearly see the moral tug-of-war as Board of Adjustments members picked at this difficult issue. A lot of interesting but illegal ideas were shot down by city attorney Tammi Bach, who patiently did her lawyerly job.

Barnes Moore from Habitat eloquently laid out the low-income housing need.

Just as eloquently, neighborhood advocate Taina Christner reminded the audience about the secret sauce of roominess that makes Fernandina Beach neighborhoods so special.

The first vote failed. Then board member Faith Ross, who had been tossing out one idea after another in a search for legal answers, tossed out two conditions that passed legal muster, made a motion to approve, and Habitat won its variance. The two conditions were that “low income” would be defined as between 30%  and 80% of median Nassau County income, and site designs would be reviewed by the board. That vote passed unanimously.

Sometimes in a democracy there’s no one correct answer to an issue, and people just have to trust each other. Such was the Wednesday night debate. As the audience filed out, Barnes Moore and Taina Christner were having a friendly conversation.

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Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
8 months ago

To describe the dilemma as a moral issue is exactly correct: it is right to provide affordable housing, while not to allow a developer to build anything they want for their own profit, so the variance was appropriate. But a mortgage that is 80% of the median county income? That is not anywhere near affordable for the people who need it most. 30% has long been a standard, and I trust HfH will try hard to meet that goal. And kudos to Faith Ross for her persistent and creative work to make it happen.

Joe Blanchard
Noble Member
Joe Blanchard(@jlblan2)
8 months ago

Almost every day, we hear citizens voice their malice toward development. They readily declare that we have too much development and we need more open space. But the situation appears to change when the development is for Habitat for Humanity. Why, is it because it is a worthy organization or because we suddenly have changed our minds and now development is OK. Development is development, more housing is more housing, so what is the difference? Yes, we need more affordable housing on the island but be careful what you wish for. The housing that was built on 14th street near Lime was advertised as affordable house when it was being constructed but I’ll bet no one would agree that it is. The project for Habitat for Humanity is advertised to be 30% to 80% of median Nassau County Income. Anything over 30% is not low income. It will be interesting to see what this housing goes for.

PattyM
Active Member
PattyM(@pattym)
8 months ago
Reply to  Joe Blanchard

From Florida Statute 420.9071(19):
(19)  “Low-income person” or “low-income household” means one or more natural persons or a family that has a total annual gross household income that does not exceed 80 percent of the median annual income adjusted for family size for households within the metropolitan statistical area, the county, or the nonmetropolitan median for the state, whichever amount is greatest. With respect to rental units, the low-income household’s annual income at the time of initial occupancy may not exceed 80 percent of the area’s median income adjusted for family size. While occupying the rental unit, a low-income household’s annual income may increase to an amount not to exceed 140 percent of 80 percent of the area’s median income adjusted for family size.”

PattyM
Active Member
PattyM(@pattym)
8 months ago
Reply to  Joe Blanchard

Updated post from 2023 Florida Statute 420.9071 (20):
20)  “Low-income person” or “low-income household” means one or more natural persons or a family that has a total annual gross household income that does not exceed 80 percent of the median annual income adjusted for family size for households within the metropolitan statistical area, the county, or the nonmetropolitan median for the state, whichever amount is greatest. With respect to rental units, the low-income household’s annual income at the time of initial occupancy may not exceed 80 percent of the area’s median income adjusted for family size. While occupying the rental unit, a low-income household’s annual income may increase to an amount not to exceed 140 percent of 80 percent of the area’s median income adjusted for family size.

taina
Trusted Member
taina(@taina)
8 months ago

I have to say that this Board of Adjustment meeting was the best City meeting I have attended. The City Staff was very well prepared and without bias, the applicant was well prepared, and the Board listened to all sides of the proposal. The Board was able to create more affordable housing, while at the same time placing restrictions so this was not another “bait and switch” of affordable housing that we’ve unfortunately seen so many times before. What the board did was approve the variance but with the restriction that the income level -not the mortgage- the income level of the family moving in would be 30 to 80% of adjusted median income for the city. That’s roughly 24000-64000 annual income for the family. Essentially that’s the same requirement for Habitat for Humanity. Kudos to the BOA, city staff and city attorney for creating a solution that would allow actual affordable housing for working families, while at the same time not opening the door for developers to use this project as an example for more density. It’s nice to see everyone come together for a real solution.

Cheryl Grant
Active Member
Cheryl Grant(@cheryl-grant)
8 months ago

It’s about density and permeable surfaces, not about being nice. It’s about the City dollars hooking up/in services to 4 homes instead of 2 which our brilliant Commissioners just made into a net loss to the City for the installation.

Habitat for Humanity is a wonderful organization. But I guarantee it will be brought up by every developer as a significant bias when they want to achieve the same result.

Douglas M
Famed Member
Douglas M(@douglasm)
8 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Grant

That’s what I’m worried about too……and when a developer wants the same treatment elsewhere in the city and threatens to sue, guess who will tell the FBCC to cave?

Faith Ross
Active Member
Faith Ross(@faith-ross)
8 months ago
Reply to  Cheryl Grant

I also worried about the issue of dividing lots for development. However, in this case, if a developer wanted to bring up this particular case of lot division, replication of the exact, same ruling would result in 100% coverage of affordable housing. Developers are more likely to make money using the recently passed Senate Bill 102 which allows the use of Commercial and Industrial land. It only requires 40% affordable housing.