By April L. Bogle
Tonight’s city commission meeting is likely to include another long debate between two opposing sides: those who want to build 12 townhomes in a historic Fernandina Beach neighborhood of single-family homes, and those who want to prevent this development to preserve the neighborhood’s character.
Unlike the Pride festivities debate that played out two weeks ago during the open comment period of the commission meeting, this discussion is a quasi-judicial proceeding that requires a vote from commissioners. Representatives of both sides will present their arguments, and commissioners can cross-examine them. Citizens can make three-minute statements during the regular public comment period.
According to documents provided in tonight’s agenda packet, city staff will recommend approving a request to plat/replat five parcels along Beech Street between South Third and South Fourth streets. The applicants, Compass Group/Gillette and Associates, serving as agents for owners Anthony J. Tringali and the Revocable Trust/Josephine Tringali, are asking for the commission’s preliminary plat/replat approval. If given, four homes set on tree-filled land that once belonged to the Tringalis, one of the island’s long-time shrimping families, are likely to be razed and the “Third and Beech” 12-townhome subdivision to be built.
City staff’s recommendation to approve comes even though the city’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB) unanimously denied the application in December 2022, stating that the application needs to be reviewed by the Board of Adjustments (BOA) as is required by the city’s Land Development Code (LDC). When the issue was on the agenda again at the April 12, 2023, PAB meeting, the board said its December ruling stands.
Controversy has been swirling for months about the legality of the approval process used for this development around two major sticking points: 1) Should city commissioners be deciding on the plat/replat of this property, or should the BOA? 2) Does the development meet the requirements of the city’s Comprehensive Plan?
Issue No. 1: Who should decide?
The role of the BOA is to hear and decide on applications for variances (or exceptions to the rules) — within city limits — to ensure they comply with the LDC. The portion of the LDC that applies to the Tringali case, “Section 1.03.05 Construction or Demolition of Structures on Combined Lots,” says: “In order to maintain open space, visual corridors, neighborhood character, property values and visual attractiveness of residential areas, wherever there may exist a single-family detached residential unit or, a duplex structure or any auxiliary building or structure … such lots thereafter constitute one building site and must be considered the “lot of record,” and no permit will be issued for the construction of more than one residential dwelling unit on the site. …” Currently the property has been combined into five lots of record.
LDC 1.03.05 also states that a “change from the foregoing provisions for the purpose of establishing building sites, or separation of building sites requires supermajority approval by the Board of Adjustment. …”
City Attorney Tammi Bach says LDC 1.03.05 is not strictly applied in all cases, and therefore, the city commission is the appropriate governing body to approve the platting/replatting of the Tringali property. Commission approval has been the process used with other similar properties in the past, she says, and to treat the Tringali property differently by sending it to the BOA could put the city at risk for 14th Amendment (Equal Protection) violation claims.
Bach says her argument tonight will focus on a similarly situated property, “Island View,” a 12-lot subdivision on Bailey Road that was annexed into the city in December 2021. It received final plat approval from the commission on April 17, 2023, without applying LDC 1.03.05.
The staff report also lists Crane Island PUD (2017), Riverbend (2016) and Dunes of Amelia (2015) as examples of similarly situated properties even though they were outside the city at the time of the applications.
“I’m going by law according to the Equal Protection Amendment and because city staff has followed this process before,” Bach said.
Three local area attorneys disagree with Bach’s interpretation of the law. “Her legal analysis is completely flawed,” said Attorney Frank Santry, a past chairman of the PAB. “The examples she provided of other similar properties were outside the city limits at the time any lots were combined, and are irrelevant to this case. They were later annexed into the city, but still, the law does not apply. LDC 1.03.05 is perfectly clear and applies to combined lots only inside city limits. There are dozens of similar properties within the city that have applied for a variance such as is being requested for the Tringali property. They were sent to the BOA and they were denied.”
Attorney Bradford R. Clark, who lives around the corner from the Tringali property, wrote a memo to commissioners February 3, 2023, stating an analysis consistent with Santry’s. A law professor at George Washington University Law School and Harvard Law, Clark wrote:
“I agree with the principle Ms. Bach stated—that similarly situated property owners should be treated the same—but denying the request to subdivide the Tringali property would not violate this principle for two reasons. First … the City has previously sent similarly situated property owners seeking to subdivide property within the City to the Board of Adjustment. Second, all of the examples allowing subdivision without going to the Board of Adjustment provided by the City Attorney … involved annexation and subdivision of property that had been outside of the City. Accordingly, these properties are not “similarly situated” to the Tringali property, which has been located in the City for well over a century.”
Ralf Brookes, an attorney representing Merry and David Coalson, who live adjacent to the Tringali property, concurs. “All examples given by the City Attorney were involved in annexations, which are not comparable to the current request to increase the density of long-established city property within the City’s boundaries and adjacent to historic homes and districts. These examples are not applicable to the current situation and thus raise no equal protection concerns,” he wrote in documents provided in the commission meeting agenda packet.
Bach says the approach city staff recommends for the Tringali preliminary plat approval gives the public more opportunities to have their voices heard – five in total – than through the BOA process. The steps include the initial PAB review, a quasi-hearing before the commission, and if passed, a final plat review by PAB, the Technical Review Committee (TRC), and an approval vote by the commission.
The city staff recommendation also makes the case that a 12-townhome development is better for the community than an alternative development scenario that the developer could request through the BOA, which could restore the 20 originally platted lots of record if the standards for a variance were met. If requested and approved, that scenario would allow for mixed-use, detached single-family or townhome development of up to 20 units. There would be no TRC review, unified vehicle access, stormwater permitting, sidewalks, on-street parking, underground utilities or streetlights.
Issue No. 2: Is the Tringali plat/replat proposal consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan?
Attorney Brookes says it is not. He cites Policy 1.02.06, “The City shall assure that specific density assigned to new development and redevelopment is compatible and consistent with established residential development patterns … Criteria to be considered … a) Protecting the integrity and stability of established residential areas; … d) Recognizing and being sensitive to the character and form of the surrounding neighborhoods.”
Brookes also points to Objective 11.06. “Community Character … is reflected in lot sizes, site placement … architectural features and existing vegetation; …” and Policy 11.06.02. “The City shall evaluate the neighborhoods contiguous to the historic districts and evaluate strategies for revitalization of existing structures in these neighborhoods in a manner that is consistent with their original development and also compatible with the adjacent historic districts.”
Among Brookes’ key points:
- The existing homes would be demolished, even though they are immediately adjacent to the historic district and are likely contributing historic structures
- More than half the trees, including many canopy trees, would be destroyed by raising the elevation by 2.5-3.5 feet and installing concrete, pipes and utilities
- The raised block development would change the character of the neighborhood from historic single-family homes to high-density townhomes
“There is no area in Fernandina Beach where a large, raised block with townhomes is directly across the street from Historic District homes so approval of this novel development will not only impact this neighborhood but also set a bad precedent for future development of high-density townhomes in and around the Historic District and beyond,” Brookes says.
City staff documents list most of the same Comprehensive Plan policies and objectives as Brookes, only they say these and many other policies and objectives are consistent with the Tringali development plan.
Taina Christer, who lives near the proposed development, has been a driving force in fighting the plat/replat approval. She’s hoping for a good turnout of neighbors and other concerned citizens at tonight’s meeting.
“I have no idea how this will go. We’ll present our case against it, and the city will present in support of it. From reading the staff report, it looked to me like the developer’s attorney had written it. It’s disappointing that it’s not a fair and balanced report,” she said.
And does Christner have a sense of how commissioners will vote? “This is a question about ethics. Is the commission going to break the law by voting for it, or follow the law and their oath of office? They can approve, deny or kick it to back to the Board of Adjustment. If they are smart politicians, they will kick it to the BOA,” Cristner said.
The Fernandina Beach City Commission meeting is Tues., May 16 at 6 p.m. in City Hall.
Thanks, Mike, for another well-researched analysis. It would appear an overriding problem is the inconsistency in following proper procedures, namely, sending certain variance applications to the BOA. Imagine that.
Mark, you are spot on! Our rules and laws are in place for a purpose. When those are bent and twisted and reconfigured to fit into one person’s or one company’s agenda based on who they know or who they are, that is just wrong! We have gotten to this point because that has been allowed over and over and all you hear is “That’s the way it’s always been done”! Well, it’s time to stand by our rules and laws and for those in our city government who don’t do so, they need to be held accountable! As for the Tringali project, we wouldn’t be in this mess if the Deputy Director of Planning had followed the law to the point and the City Attorney had stepped in and took hold of this situation instead of skirting the issue.
Don’t worry. It’s only a matter of time before the unethical ones are held accountable. Fernandina is only a dot on the map. Give it time.
Sadly, in that time our city is being torn down one building at a time!
Well researched, April! Thank you. Hopefully things go well this evening and the “fear of litigation” gripping the County Commissioners is avoided by our City Leaders. Sounds like we have firm ground to deny this….
Not to mention the violation of Florida conflict of interest laws. It is a conflict of interest to have a project requiring a city council vote and be suing the same city council. Guess Tammi forgot to tell our city council that. Going to be a caravan of city council and city planners over to defend themselves at their ethics hearings. And Tammi will be defending them. Get out the popcorn folks. Going to get really entertaining soon. Especially with Sturges already facing ethic violations.
April – thank you for a very clear and well-written summary of an emotionally charged, legally intricate problem.
I am discouraged to see a response from Attorney Bach that is couched in avoiding future litigation – seems to boild down to “two wrongs will keep us right” (in terms of liability)
This echoes what County Attorney Denise May recommended to the Nassua BOCC regarding Riverstone: we need to cut a deal so we don’t get stuck with high legal fees and a judgment!
Sadly, both of these recommendations appear designed to meet the wishes of or respond to the fears of the Elected Officials and NOT those of the people that elected them.
What good is a representative democrarcy if the voters aren’t represented by their officals who seem to focus on their self interests?
If it passes, the litigation will start.
On to litigation and all because this never should have gotten to this point to begin with! Let’s all say it, laws and rules were broken by those in charge, and they are getting away with it! Department head who broken the rules and a city attorney who backed her up!
Bach is a piece of garbage who’s already cost the city in previous impact fee lawsuits. She’s basically saying to ignore the law because it’s been ignored before. She needs to be dismissed with prejudice IMMEDIATELY.
City staff may be comparing apples to oranges here. There is no “view shed” or other of the criteria involved in Bailey Road. There is with the Tringali properties. Crane Island, Dunes of Amelia and Riverbend were all handled by county and then annexed into the city. And when will the city follow processes already in place? This should be taken up by the BOA and it is being side stepped for reasons no one can explain.
A “view shed” is a novel legal concept. Do happen to have any background on the term? Theoretically any property next to the historic district would therefore be in the historic district, if we follow the ripples across the pond the entire city is in the historic district right?
I find it fascinating that the legal basis is. “Perfectly clear” to both sides of the argument. This is not easy for the city commission, they are not “breaking the law” or is it “a questions of ethics “. Those personal attacks are part of the local political scene in social media, but that does not change the fact that comments like those are juvenile at best.
It becomes an ethics situation when city council does not follow the laws set in place. They have been presented with the legal intent of the law formed in 2005 by the then city council. LDC 1.03.05 is the law and unless and until the law is substantially changed, it is the overarching law of our LDC, clearly detoured by our city attorney. Our city council took an oath of office to uphold our laws. They didn’t take an oath of office to uphold only certain laws. They don’t get to decide what laws to enforce and what laws to ignore. Despite what our former mayor miller says.
Funny. That’s exactly what goes on at the Federal level … they enforce and follow just the laws they want … and get away with it.
This is a very informative article! Thanks.
Sociopathic comes to mind…
Oh! It came to mind last week too.
And the week before that… and the week before that. What a corrupt place Fernandina Beach has become.
So now anyone with the price of admission can buy up all of the historic district homes, tear them down and build town houses and condos and no one is going to fight out of fear the developer would sue? FB is selling out at such a crazy pace. Its the wild west here if you know the right people, or just theaten a lawsuit you can do anything. Maybe dog tracks will come back, just dream it and you can do it should be the FB motto!!