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.