A Challenging Week for Fernandina Beach

By April L. Bogle

The Fernandina Beach City Commission considered and ruled on several contentious issues during last Tuesday’s regular meeting, and just before midnight, decided to move the time slot for citizens to comment on non-agenda items to the end of the agenda in all future meetings.

Meanwhile, Citizens Defending Freedom (CDF), led by city resident Jack Knocke, continued to contest the legality of a fundraising event Fernandina Beach Pride was hosting May 19 at the city’s golf course.

Below is a recap of last week’s challenges and outcomes.

Solar panel farm vs. 36 acres of maritime forest

At the May 16 commission meeting, Florida Public Utilities (FPU) presented a proposal to build a solar panel farm on 36 acres of maritime forest that is adjacent to the airport and currently leased to the Amelia River Golf Club, operated by local businessman Tom Miller.

Prior to FPU’s presentation, 12 residents spoke in support of solar energy but against the proposed farm location.

Kevin Leary, who identified himself as “a lifelong local,” said, “I think you guys should see, if your fingers are on the pulse, that there’s an enormous amount of people in the community who are all about conservation at this point since we seem to be losing our island left and right. It’s 12.5 miles long, two and a half miles wide at the widest. It’s a finite amount of land, gentlemen. We’re losing it daily. We’re losing oak trees. We’re losing property … they only make so much. It seems a rather ludicrous idea to cut down 36 acres of land of maritime forest that’s already providing for you … providing habitat for animals–white tailed deer, roseate spoonbills, wood ibis … a natural sound barrier…. There’s got to be other places to put up solar panels than to cut down 36 virgin acres of land.”

All five commissioners stated they support the idea of solar energy on the island, especially since it would generate additional resiliency and reliability after hurricanes. Four agreed that FPU should continue exploring the possibility of the 36-acre panel farm. Only Commissioner Chip Ross opposed it.

Citing a number of issues including the need to renegotiate and amend the current land lease and the negative impact on the island’s tree canopy, Ross said, “Unless really new persuasive information is presented after doing the research that I’ve done this week, I am not willing to approve clear-cutting of 36 acres of maritime forest to allow for a solar field.”

12-townhome subdivision vs. historic downtown neighborhood character

A four-hour quasi-judicial hearing took place next at the May 16 meeting. City staff and developer Ron Flick, Compass Group, argued the case for why commissioners had the authority to approve Flick’s preliminary application to change the platting of land adjacent to a downtown historic neighborhood that would allow the construction of a 12-townhome subdivision. Two attorneys representing impacted neighbors argued why commissioners did not have this authority, citing the city’s Comprehensive Plan (CP) and Land Development Code (LDC) 1.03.05, which specifies that platting/replatting authority rests with the city’s Board of Adjustment (BOA).

In quasi-judicial hearings, the applicant must present competent substantial evidence to prove their request meets legal requirements. If they do not, their application must be denied.

The land in question is five parcels along Beech Street between South Third and South Fourth streets, owned by the Tringali shrimping family, and the development is to be called “Third and Beech.”

When time came for citizens to voice their opinions on the matter, only nine of the original 20 who had signed up to speak remained in the auditorium due to the late hour. All nine opposed the townhome subdivision.

“Taking down these single-family homes to construct townhomes will totally change the character of our quiet street,” said Merry Coalson, who lives next door to the Tringali property on Fourth Street. “The Comprehensive Plan calls for protecting the integrity and stability of established residential areas and being sensitive to the character and form of the surrounding neighborhoods. Townhomes do not fit into that. The LDC addresses neighborhood compatibility assurance of consistency with residential development patterns and tree conservancy. Many of the canopy trees will be removed. This project goes totally against LDC guidelines. …”

Prior to the commission’s vote to either approve the preliminary application to plat/replat the land, deny the application, or send the matter to the Board of Adjustment for review and decision, Commissioner James Antun asked attorney Harrison Poole for his opinion on the matter. Poole was advising the commission during the hearing because City Attorney Tammi Bach was arguing the case on behalf of the city.

Poole pointed to a section of city code that had not been referenced in the earlier debate, LDC 4.04.00, which regulates subdivision or re-subdivision of land, stating this portion of the law gives jurisdiction to commissioners.

There was no opportunity for the opposing counsel to respond to this opinion.

Mayor Bradley Bean, Vice Mayor David Sturges and Commissioners Darron Ayscue and James Antun voted to approve the plat/replat application without citing examples of “competent substantial evidence” that it adhered to the city’s CP and LDC.

Ross voted to deny the application after listing more than a dozen examples of how the testimony failed to provide competent substantial evidence.

A neighborhood group, “Stop the Domino Effect,” is filing a lawsuit to prevent the development.

Increase commercial building size and eliminate upper size limit on multi-building commercial development vs. keeping existing limits

Later the same night, commissioners considered the first reading of two ordinances that would change commercial development rules in the Comprehensive Plan (CP) and Land Development Code (LDC), allowing for larger individual commercial buildings and removing the upper size limit of a commercial entity.

“This does place a limit on a similar use tenant or owner so you don’t have the Super Walmart scenario, where you have one large big box retailer. It would not, however, prevent multiple retailers from locating within a unified complex,” said Kelly Gibson, director of the city’s Planning and Conservation department.

Ross said he didn’t oppose the increase in the individual building size, but he did have issues with the loss of upper limits on a complex. “The problem is if you take … a bunch of parcels and put them together and make one huge building, that’s my problem. I would like to see an upper limit on the size of the [total] building,” he said.

Antun asked for an upper limit recommendation. Gibson said current commercial size is 238,000 square feet and suggested 250,000 square feet as an upper limit. Sturges recommended 250,000-275,000 square feet. Bach cautioned that there is flexibility, or nonconformity, in the current code that allows for 15% expansion beyond the upper limit. Gibson then recommended putting the upper threshold in the LDC to allow for flexibility in the nonconformity so commercial properties can expand in the future or seek a variance.

Ross remained opposed, saying to not put an upper limit makes it possible to seek expansions every year. “That’s why we have a Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan because people don’t want these huge building here. So you put an upper limit on them,” he said.

Bean said there is an upper limit. “The blocks are only so big. Obviously it’s not infinite. On top of it they have to have parking and things like that. We’re not enabling infinite expansion. We’re saying if they can hopefully redevelop and improve their buildings to eliminate blight, that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Given this was the first reading, Bach advised to approve and have city staff make recommendations in preparation for the second reading that would show existing commercial land and the reality of/if there is a necessity for upper limits.

The first ordinance (2023-2034) passed 5-0, but the second ordinance (2023-25), more focused on the LDC portion of this discussion, was a 4-1 vote with Ross dissenting.

Public comments: Beginning of agenda vs. end of agenda

At nearly midnight, during the meeting’s commissioner comment period, Ayscue suggested moving the public comment period for items not on the agenda “to the end basically right after all the city business but before the city manager report.”

“We saw what happened at the last meeting – we had three hours’ worth of items that weren’t on the agenda, and we had people sitting here for hours waiting their turn to do city business before, you know, we could even do what’s on the agenda,” Ayscue said.

Antun: “I think it is a reasonable suggestion.”

Sturges: “I think it’s a great idea.”

Bean: “I know other cities do this. I’m in. That sounds good.”

Ross: “I think that last meeting was an outlier. I think usually people come [to speak]. So I think it’s fine the way it is.”

“It’s my favorite part of the meeting,” said Ayscue. “I call it a box of chocolates because you just don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s very enjoyable. But when you look at it, it’s impeding the business … when we have 30, 40, 50 minutes, an hour, three hours it just takes time. …”

Ross countered, “I just think people will not stay around to the end of meetings. I think you’re eliminating public comment.”

To which Ayscue replied, “I would not wish to eliminate public comment at all; I wholeheartedly encourage it, I’ll stay here to midnight and I’d be happy to do it.”

Bean used his mayoral authority. “Commissioner Ayscue, I think that is a worthy goal and I hear some commission support of it. As mayor, I can set the agenda and I would like to see the next agenda written in that manner.”

In closing, commissioners said:

Ayscue: “Great meeting, fellas. Appreciate y’all.”

Antun: “Wonderful meeting. Look forward to doing it again.”

Ross: “I don’t think it was a great meeting. I think we gave credits to cutting down 30 acres of trees. I think we gave credits to getting rid of old houses in a historic city. That was totally opposed to what our electorate obviously articulated here. So I do not think it was a great meeting. Actually, I think it was a pretty sad meeting.”

Sturges: “I enjoyed the meeting. It was good, long, a lot of input. I think we’re moving along in progress.”

Bean: “Congrats to Miss Lilly Russell in the City Clerk’s Office. She just graduated with her Associate of Arts, AA, so really good for her. We’re excited about that. And then finally thank you to everybody who participated in the Shrimp Festival. I am told 15,000 visitors and the economic impact was $16 million. So congrats there…. We adjourn.”

Pride vs. Citizens Defending Freedom

Three days later, on May 19, Fernandina Beach Pride (FBP) hosted a sold-out fundraising event at the Fernandina Beach Golf Club despite attempts by Citizens Defending Freedom (CDF) to shut down the festivities.

Although CDF was successful in preventing attendees from playing bingo, which requires a city ordinance if played on city property, the organization was unable to prevent Pride supporters from gathering on city property to celebrate, play a non-bingo game and raise money for student scholarships.

Late in the afternoon on May 19, City Attorney Tammi Bach issued a detailed analysis of why the Pride event did not violate the city’s Adult Entertainment Ordinance. She also cited the city’s Human Relations Ordinance as relevant in her analysis because it includes sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression as protected classes. Finally, Bach explained that Florida’s new law, SB 1438, which focuses on exposing children to adult live performances, did not apply because the golf club officially closed at 6 p.m. for a private ticketed event and the Pride event started at 7 p.m., so there was “no potential co-mingling of attendees of the FBP event and minors who may enter the Golf Club to use the restroom or buy food/drink.”

According to FBP President Genence Minshew, 120 people attended and the event raised $2,000 for student scholarships.

“We push forward because we are part of this wonderful community. We push forward to celebrate our diversity and our right to be here. We will not be deterred by misinformation, fear and lies about the LGBTQ community,” said Minshew.

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Lucy Peistrup
Lucy Peistrup(@lucyp74)
6 months ago

What a horrendous tragedy that much like the county, the city is REFUSING to LISTEN to the will of the people who placed them into office. SOLAR PANELS?!?! Seriously? On an ISLAND with dwindling tree canopy?!?! SHEER IDIOCY!! “Green energy” is absolutely WORTHLESS without the destructive lithium batteries and the solar panels themselves! This is beyond maddening!! And the approval to raze single family homes of a LOCAL historic value! Gee, why don’t we consider THAT for once?!?! When citizens come out in the VOLUMES to speak in opposition AGAINST these things, you’d think that wise leaders would HEAR THEIR CRIES! Not in Nassau County or Fernandina Beach! There are obviously other agendas at play. Absolutely disgusting.

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_69918)
6 months ago
Reply to  Lucy Peistrup

Your operative words here are “wise” leaders. I’m guessing that was tongue in cheek on your part.

Bill Fold
Bill Fold(@bill-fold)
6 months ago
Reply to  Alyce Parmer

These people are not leaders. They’re greedy idiots.

Al MacDougall
Al MacDougall (@guest_69921)
6 months ago
Reply to  Lucy Peistrup

Who, exactly, are THE PEOPLE? I think the people’s will is being done. You disagree, but to impune the majority in your statement is not accurate.

Christine Harmon
Christine Harmon (@guest_69928)
6 months ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

Unfortunately, Al is probably correct. The commissioners were elected by a majority of the voting public. Not a good commentary on their priorities and wisdom.

6 months ago

Ayescue quoting Forrest Gump is fitting.

One good thing moving comment s to the end is you’ll be able to admonish the ridiculous damage they do during the meeting.

Im sure those people will be super happy at that point.

PerryL (@guest_69937)
6 months ago
Reply to  Sheila

We can always count on Sheila for a snarky comment. Sheila should spend more time on her own “house” and less energy being critical of the smarter folks in the room…

Laurie (@guest_69950)
6 months ago
Reply to  PerryL

Of course you’d say that. Did you listen to the concerns she raised at one of the recent meetings? She didn’t pull those out of thin air. Your comment is common and typical for somebody who doesn’t want the truth to be exposed.

Skeeter Askey
Skeeter Askey (@guest_69909)
6 months ago

Seems to me that Mr. Ross is the only commissioner that is actually supporting the community that voted for him. The others seem to be rolling over for the developers.

Paula Mutzel
Paula Mutzel(@paula-m)
6 months ago
Reply to  Skeeter Askey

I agree…he is the only one who really cares and does his homework.

anne (@guest_69910)
6 months ago

It’s a little puzzling that the commission seems to be aggressively supporting more shopping centers when so many of them here have a lot of empty space, and retail is continuing to collapse…a number of large big box retailers are in trouble, and there are plenty of spaces over the bridge for the strong ones. There are empty centers and more spaces coming soon on Sadler, 14th and 8th Streets and empty spaces even in smaller developments all over. and there are empty spaces downtown.

The Casual Observer
The Casual Observer (@guest_69916)
6 months ago
Reply to  anne

Gotta wonder if this is all done as an inducement to retailers we do not currently have on the island or if it is some sort of an inducement for some retailers to increase their footprint.

Robin Wells
Robin Wells(@rocknrobin12gmail-com)
6 months ago
Reply to  anne

Stumpy sturges May want to do the work. He should rescind himself on the majority of the votes. He owns a construction company of which I denied his work because of his arrogance and lack of listening!!

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_69912)
6 months ago

Well voters, here’s my take. You get what you vote for. When you vote for people who cater to the people with the money, you get commissioners who will side with people with the money. When you vote for people who cater to those with money, the will of the majority of citizens doesn’t matter one whit. Science won’t matter, facts won’t matter, the will of the people won’t matter, even existing land use plans and laws won’t matter — they’ll change them because what appears to matter, as evidenced by how they’ve been voting, at least to four of our commissioners, is whatever big money and big business wants.

Kathi C Donegan
Kathi C Donegan (@guest_69914)
6 months ago

Thank you, April, for spotlighting this boys club that seems hell bent on running this town into the ground. Though it’s nice that Chip Ross is providing a coherent foil to their actions. I hope the voters keep a running tally of what these people do in the next years.

Al MacDougall
Al MacDougall (@guest_69926)
6 months ago

I think the voters are getting exactly what they want–and are happy.

Laurie (@guest_69951)
6 months ago
Reply to  Al MacDougall

The comments on this site and other places show they are not happy at all.

The Casual Observer
The Casual Observer (@guest_69917)
6 months ago

Moving comments to the end of the agenda is a tactic, pure and simple, designed to discourage and limit the voices of the people. You know, the folks who elected the 4 commissioners to be hear and serve the community. Elections have consequences. This one of the most unfortunate.

Noble Member
6 months ago

Having solar on the island is fine with me, if it’s on land that is already clear cut. Our maritime forest hold our island together in storms. We need to be two planting native trees for every one cut down.

While it sounds good to have solar power generation on the island for storm recovery, it is very likely that FPU would turn off the solar generated power in the event of downed power lines, just as they do with home solar. They prefer to not have power running through the grid while the linemen do their work.

We have city owned space that is already clear for solar (e.g. roofs of city buildings). If you want larger installations, there is already money losing clear cut land (e.g., the city golf course).

Last edited 6 months ago by rconrad
Jim W.
Jim W.(@jeremywalsh60)
6 months ago
Reply to  rconrad

Great idea, Roger. In fact, you could replace the top tracer facility with solar and turn a money loser into something productive.

anonymous (@guest_69924)
6 months ago

Public Comments – Set the shot clock for one hour at the beginning of the meeting for agenda comments. And up to two hours in the end for additional agenda/non-agenda comments. This allows city business to be discussed while the commissioners may still be awake. And allows the citizens a voice.

anonymous (@guest_69925)
6 months ago

Congrats on FBP for raising $2000.00 for scholarships.

On Solar: FB should check with the Mayo Clinic to see how successful their solar project is. If yes consider adding Solar to all municipal buildings first. Has the airport added solar panels to its existing buildings? Why Not?

NEIL A. Borum
NEIL A. Borum (@guest_69929)
6 months ago

the MAIN problem is with Florida Public Utilities. That is where citizens’ ire should be directed.

Julie Ferreira
Julie Ferreira(@julie-ferreira)
6 months ago

The lack of ability to speak at commission meetings contributes to the distance between city government and residents. Prioritizing input from members of the public the Commission can learn about matters that are important to the citizens and therefore make better informed decisions.

Moving comments to the end of the agenda cancels out the voice of the people who have families with small children and bedtimes. It also cancels out elderly people who have trouble seeing to drive in the dark.

The mayor should especially understand this because this has been attempted this in the past. Back then, there was a huge public outcry including Ms.Joan Bean, Bradley’s grandmother, who spent her elder years up until age 94 attending Commission meetings to comment on saving city trees, beach access, parking considerations, and other pertinent city issues.

There are other solutions. Reserving the first 30 minutes for public comment is one or starting the meetings at 5:30 for public comment and then adding a comment time at the end of the meeting for those who work and have no ability to participate earlier in the evening could be considered. We have options, why can’t we think a bit out of the box?

Last edited 6 months ago by julie ferreira
Cameron M Moss
Cameron M Moss(@cmoss56)
6 months ago

Moving comments to the end of the meetings feels like another step (leap?) towards shifting our representative democracy to one that is unrepresentative

The knee-jerk reaction to move comments to the end is 1) inconsistent with good practices to allow most of the citizenry to be involed 2) intended, I believe, to squelch feedback from constituents that are unsatisfied

Suggest to Mayor Bean that they do a quick analysis of the length of FB Commission meetings over the last 2-3 years – they will discover, I suspect, that most meetings are done in <2-3 hours, and those that run longer are generally around contentious matters

So I agree with Ross, that this past week was an extreme outlier because there were TWO contentious items on the agenda – the solar farm info discussion could easily have been done at another meeting – knowing full well the Tringali matter was going to be long

The decision to change the practice over one very long night is not sound thinking – and did not, I imagine, contain much input from citizens

Time to get even more involved

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_69936)
6 months ago

Closing meeting comments are probative of attitude and intention – and very sad.

Kurt Marasco
Kurt Marasco(@celilo)
6 months ago

Don’t know if it applies in this case, but typically power companies jump into solar to get some type of subsidy that enriches them and not because it’s the best option to produce power. Their story may be different 

Additionally, a solar farm just creates another single point of failure. Only distributed solar, like rooftop solar, provides significant multipoint redundancy.

I’m sure FPU would not support rooftop solar if they had to buy back excess power from home owners. They don’t like the meter running backwards.

Bill Fold
Bill Fold(@bill-fold)
6 months ago

I may be talking out of school, but is there any way to recall Sturges, Antun, Ayscue, and Bean? Residents of Fernandina should be checking into that before they totally destroy your town. Obviously you don’t have enough clout in just showing up for meetings and protesting. They don’t care about you. They’ve already violated the city code. That should be enough to recall the whole bunch.

Laurie (@guest_69949)
6 months ago

The City’s decisions are disturbing and unreasonable. It’s time for a new Fernandina Beach Commission.

Bill Fold
Bill Fold(@bill-fold)
6 months ago

Call and email these guys and give them a piece of your mind:

Mayor Bradley Bean
[email protected]
(904) 415-5181

Vice-Mayor David Sturges
[email protected]

City Commissioner Ronald “Chip” Ross [email protected]
(410) 394-0220

City Commissioner Darron Ayscue [email protected]
(904) 780-4480

City Commissioner James Antun
 [email protected]
(516) 547-5309

Guest (@guest_69958)
6 months ago
Reply to  Bill Fold

Don’t waste your time. A better idea is for the constituents to have a residents only meeting where valid concerns can be discussed. Commissioners would not be present. Then find new Commissioners with real leadership skills and spines.

Charles Loouk
Trusted Member
Charles Loouk(@charles-loouk)
6 months ago

Are there any local events happening this weekend (Memorial Day weekend)?

Matt (@guest_69960)
6 months ago

The governor signer SB 540. We’re all screwed now. Developers now have it all.

Richard Lamken
Richard Lamken(@ralamken)
6 months ago

The Nassau County School Board has had public comments on non-agenda items at the end of the meeting for years with no outcry. Members of the public are given the opportunity to speak on agenda items before they’re discussed and decided. In my experience as a senior school district administrator, non-agenda comments are placed at the end of the meeting to be sure that the deliberative body is able to get through the entire agenda.