By Mike Lednovich
The Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) voted 4-1 Wednesday to sell “one or all” of the three residential properties it owns in the historic district neighborhood adjacent to the port. Estimates place the value of the land as high as $2.4 million.
Vice Chair Miriam Hill was the lone dissenting vote.
The vote came at the end of a disjointed meeting that began with OPHA commissioners adjourning for an hour to meet in private to discuss lawsuits and then several hours later almost ending the meeting without discussing the port property issue.
OHPA commissioners then argued for more than 20 minutes whether profits from selling the land should be used for paying the district’s lawyer, repairing leaky warehouse roofing and the cost of its tugboat inspection. Hill and Commissioner Justin Taylor voiced concerns over selling the land and spending the money on operating costs. “This (land sale) is not (earned) revenue and it’s against the advice of our accountant. It’s a fire sale,” declared Hill. “It’s not good financial planning.”
“The port needs the money, where’s it coming from?” retorted Chairman Danny Fullwood.
With a handful of homeowners who live near and around the properties at the meeting, Taylor urged caution. “I want to make sure this port is not making another decision that is screwing the neighbors (with the sale) just to get out of a bad situation,” he said. “Once the land is gone, it’s gone, we can’t replace it.”
OHPA currently has a current outstanding balance over $100,000 in legal fees owed to OHPA’s law firm, Balch & Bingham, as a result of two ongoing lawsuits filed by the city of Fernandina Beach and the Nassau County Property Appraiser’s office. A port warehouse needs more than $100,000 in roof repairs and its required tugboat inspection will cost another $170,000.
Commissioner Ray Nelson summed up OHPA’s financial choices: “We’ve got a lot of things that need to be fixed. You know what you do? You sell all your toys and you fix your house,” Nelson said. “It’s simple, basic mathematics. The port has got itself in a fix. We get ourselves out of debt. We’re in dire straits and we need to do something about it. If we’re going to sit here and argue about it, it’s for nothing. We’ve got to move forward.”
Chairman Fullwood said the district would place deed restrictions on the use of the properties.
“We want houses built there that conform with the city (historic district standards), and they’re single family homes,” Fullwood said. “This is a chance for the port to get out from the thumb that we’re under.”
The vote approved OHPA moving forward with the sale that could include just one property or all three parcels. The first step for OHPA is selecting a real estate agent to broker the transactions. Four companies have applied to represent the district.
The properties cannot be used by the port because of an inter-local agreement with the city of Fernandina Beach that precludes the port from expanding beyond its current geographic footprint into the historic downtown.
The lots are:
–.29 acres on the northeast corner of Third and Dade and zoned R-2 medium density.
–.32 acres on the southeast corner of Third and Dade and zoned R-2 medium density.
–About one-third of an acre on Third near Escambia and zoned MU-1mixed-use.
“This meeting was frustrating. First, the public was informed OHPA would conduct a shade meeting, which lasted over an hour, before the rest of the meeting would continue. Several residents left,” said homeowner Tammi Kosack, who has organized neighbors into a port watchdog group.
“Then the agenda item regarding the potential sale of the properties was completely ignored, until the administrator brought it up at the end of the meeting. After much board discussion, the confusing motion to sell all the properties, revised to discussing at the next meeting which parcels to sell and which broker to use, had one sliver of possibility attached to it: that OHPA would deed restrict, qualify or put limitations on the parcels, based upon community input.
“Time will tell,” she said, “if OHPA truly wants to be a good neighbor and do something for the benefit of the citizens vs. selling assets to the highest bidder (who may want to seek a zoning change) to get out from under financial obligations.”
Another neighbor favored a “test balloon” sale. “I think they should sell one of the properties on Third and Dade as a trial. They only need the money from one, they don’t need the money from all three,” said Bob Virtue, who lives in the neighborhood, after the meeting.