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.