A Fateful Deliberation Continues Over Potential Density Changes

By Mike Lednovich

Like the scientists in the film Oppenheimer who grappled with the potential devastation of their creations, the city’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB) found itself wrestling Wednesday with a different kind of fear — a dread that altering the Land Development Code and the Comprehensive Plan could irreversibly alter the small town fabric of Fernandina Beach.

“What’s changed is pressure from developers to build more. We’re in a great place to do that. We’re on an island in a city that commands high prices,” said PAB member Mark Bennett. “It’s development pressure.”

The city commission has tasked the PAB with approving revisions to the LDC and Comp Plan that would make it easier for landowners to subdivide their parcels. The PAB’s concerns were amplified when, according to data provided by Nassau County, those potential changes could impact 1,000 or more city parcels. That means 1,000 parcels with a single home could be subdivided to accommodate 3,000 or more homes if the revisions are enacted by the city commission.

Thus, the PAB is contending with a pivotal decision that would either preserve the town’s historic character or, as some fear, bring about an unintended transformation.

“What I want is what’s best for the city of Fernandina. That has to be that the majority of people want to do it,” said PAB member Pete Stevenson. “It’s so that when I’m long gone, the city is still healthy.”

Member Richard Doster said, “At the end of the day, we’re going to vote on whether we’re going to make it easier to subdivide those lots or not.”

During the PAB’s two-hour workshop, citizens voiced objections to the proposed changes as board members sought to find a path forward to a solution.

“This is something that is the heart of this community and I think that’s why we’re stopping in our tracks saying we can’t let this go (the revisions). We’ve got to do it right. I just can’t give it the stamp (of approval) maybe some people would like us to do like when they say we approve anything that comes before us … boom, boom, boom we approve it, I just can’t do that,” said Chair Victoria Robas.

As their deliberations continued, PAB members found themselves at a crossroads, much like the scientists Oppenheimer led during the era of nuclear development. The choices to be made by the PAB hold the power to reshape Fernandina Beach’s destiny. Will the city’s quaint neighborhoods survive, or will they crumble under the weight of pro-development forces?

“I would like them (the city commission) to get to the point where they’ve heard from the PAB and the citizens, and the PAB and the citizens are in unison in terms of what the right direction is, and they (the city commission) accept that,” Stevenson said. “I don’t want to tell the commissioners we can’t fix that problem.”

He also asked why developers and architects had not addressed the PAB about the proposed revisions.

“I need to hear (from them) why this is good for Fernandina Beach,” Stevenson said.

PAB member Bennett, who helped write the LDC sections that the city commission is seeking to revise, said the issue was important enough that it required a “dissection” that could take up to a year to adjust.

“It takes as long as it takes for us to look at it, go through it and not just say ‘no’ and not say yes. If it’s no, these are the reasons it’s no. (We say) this is a better proposal and then it’s up to them (the city commission to decide),” Bennett said. “I certainly don’t want to see it approved as it is. I would be afraid that if we just say no, we’re out of here, they’re (the commission) going to approve it. I don’t want to see that.”

Interim City Manager Charlie George told the PAB, “There is no definite time frame. You need to take whatever time you need to take to make a recommendation. That’s where we are.”

Bennett told PAB members that a former board member told him about the “guiding star” he used to make decisions.

“Does this negatively impact the city? Does it negatively impact the adjacent residents? Does it negatively impact the entire island? And what we do is important, and if they (city commissioners) don’t listen to us, we’ve done our best,” he said.

The PAB agreed that the first step in dealing with the revisions was to determine a common group of definitions of terms within the LDC and Comp Plan. Currently, some definitions such as parcel, are defined differently in various sections of the documents.

The PAB will review suggested definitions at its March meeting.

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1 month ago

You are too late! The “fabric” of our small town has already changed and will no longer reflect the laid back friendly Island many of us have called home for over 50 years. Not all change is good as Amelia Island shows.

Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 month ago

Trying to find “unison” will be impossible, but there is no doubt that the great majority of citizens on the island want much less development. The PAB needs to follow the lead of the people and deny the proposal.

Betsie Huben
Noble Member
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
1 month ago

The city government is elected to serve “we” the people, who live here and pay taxes. Ask the people what they want. Put it to a vote via a referendum on the August ballot.