Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 23, 2019 7:41 p.m.
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) met in workshop session on January 22, 2019 to hear from a panel of four local speakers on matters related to the development of the Amelia River Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). The panel members included developer Ron Flick of Compass Group; Arlene Filkoff, Executive Director of Fernandina Beach Main Street; engineer Asa Gillette of Gillette & Associates, Inc.; and architect Jose Miranda of Miranda Architects.
Ostensibly called to discuss Land Development Code (LDC) Standards currently in place for the waterfront and CRA, the discussion expanded into higher level discussion of city policy toward development in that area and the panel’s collective call for a holistic plan for the area that could withstand the challenges of elections and individual commissioner’s preferences.
The bottom line from the panelists’ point of view: the city must decide whether it wants development or park west of the rail line and Front Street. Until that decision is made, developers will avoid committing resources to generate plans for new or replacement structures along the riverfront.
To one degree or another panelists agreed that development of CRA properties is dependent on the willingness of the city to partner with potential developers in assessing water and sewer impact fees, putting lines underground, dealing with stormwater issues and building sidewalks. There was also general agreement that the permitting process takes too long, jeopardizing any finance package that a developer may have lined up.
Commissioners for the most part sat silently through the workshop, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with statements from the panelists, who expressed frustrations born of 20-plus years of watching the city commission reports from experts that were ignored and plans that were shelved, at least partly attributable to differences in philosophy and direction accompanying personalities of the various City Commissioners as elections changed the composition of the FBCC.
Ron Flick, speaking from the developer’s viewpoint, said that the city owns about half of the land in the CRA. He suggested that the city might want to consider swapping some of their land with developers for other considerations. But he stressed that without the city’s improvement of infrastructure in the area, developers would not be willing to shoulder the entire financial burden. He suggested that the city could enter into an arrangement with a developer to build a parking structure to accommodate 800-1200 cars on the current City Hall site plus the park/parking area across S. 2nd Street. Such a facility would charge for parking and then turn over the facility to the city once the initial debt had been discharged. Flick said that new commercial development would need more parking, which is not readily available.
Flick emphasized that CRA development cannot succeed if it is done lot by lot. There needs to be an overall plan so that developers know what is expected of them and what they can count on the city to provide. Flick said that the biggest problem for developers is working with local government. At one point he seemed to suggest that there were developers with deep pockets watching events unfold and looking for the city’s willingness to partner before jumping in.
Arlene Filkoff, who has served as Mayor/Commissioner and Chair of the city’s CRA Advisory Board before assuming her current position with Main Street, said that the city has not seriously looked at the CRA and its ability to live up to its potential since 2010/2011. She expressed hope that the work currently underway on the City Marina would be the catalyst to spark new interest and action in the CRA. She agreed with Flick that developers will not readily come forward to present plans for CRA development until they receive some definition of goal and long term commitment from the city. She called for a holistic view of the CRA and the waterfront.
Filkoff went on to say that the citizens need to understand the FBCC’s vision for the CRA. “Until the people know, you have a tough road to walk. There are a lot of gaps today — like the future of the Alachua rail crossing.”
Part of the solution, Filkoff believes, is better control of the city’s message. She said that over the years the city spent most of its time reacting to public comments and criticisms about the area as opposed to adopting and supporting a plan that includes educating the public. As criticism mounted over poorly communicated plans, previous commissions chose to retract plans and projects to mollify local critics.
She cited various past efforts to help the CRA develop that involved jumpstarting activity with a loan from the city’s general fund or borrowing money from outside lenders. Those efforts came to naught with elections that brought in new commissioners who opposed public borrowing.
Filkoff told Commissioners that they need to remind the public that the purpose of the CRA is to generate money in the form of increased tax revenues from properties in the CRA. Those monies will go into the TIF fund and be used to make public improvements within the area. Those revenues can be used to pay off loans.
Engineer Asa Gillette cited outstanding issues relating to water, sewer, the Alachua Street rail crossing and parking that were obstacles to private development. He suggested making tradeoffs with private property owners in order to extend the boardwalk north to the Port. Gillette also suggested incorporating the railroad in the concept, perhaps running a passenger trolley along the waterfront.
Architect Jose Miranda, expressing frustration stemming from years of work and input on plans that never materialized, urged the commissioners to “get off the crapper and do something.” He said that over the years “the squeakiest wheel gets the oil” — a reference to city pullback from actions when certain members of the public complain. He suggested that talking about development and design guidelines was premature until the FBCC can articulate and commit to a common vision for the area. “How big is this cake that we’re baking?” Miranda asked. “Waiting doesn’t make [construction] cheaper.”
Miranda urged the development of a master plan that would include 2nd Street as well as the waterfront. He said that the area needs a mix of uses to foster a vibrant, livable community. In answer to a question posed by Commissioner Chip Ross as to whether the area should be people centric or car centric, Miranda replied, “Cars don’t need a view of the river; people do.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Mayor John Miller, recapped all the work that has been accomplished or is in progress to alleviate stormwater and infrastructure problems raised by the speakers.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich said that it appeared that the last FBCC discussion of the waterfront was in September 2017. He suggested using that as a starting point for moving forward. Other commissioners appeared to agree.
Commissioner Phil Chapman agreed with speakers that moving forward depended upon creating good public private partnerships. He restated his earlier position on exploring private ownership of the city marina. He asked, “How do we convince people that the sky isn’t falling [as new ideas are presented]?” Flick suggested presenting the public with two competing plans and seeking buy-in on one of them.
Commissioner Chip Ross said that he was not sure that the FBCC had reached a decision on whether or not there should be development west of the railroad. “There are many people in the community who would just like to see that area turned into a big, open-spaced park,” he said.
Because this was a workshop, the FBCC took no action. How they choose to proceed awaits a future meeting.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.