Beach parking remains free for now in Fernandina Beach

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
October 17, 2018 – 2:20 p.m.

Question:  How do you get the public to turn out for Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) meetings?

Answer:  Place the potential for paid beach parking on the agenda.

FBCC chambers were packed solid for the October 16, 2018 Regular Meeting with city residents, non-city residents, proponents and opponents, and the curious all to express their concerns and listen to commissioners discuss the potential of eliminating free parking at city beach accesses and beach parks.  This was the last FBCC meeting before the November 6 Election, during which two commission seats will be up for grabs.

Citizen concerns grew with the publication of two recent articles in the Fernandina ObserverCity Manager Dale Martin’s weekly column  in which he put forth the plan approved unanimously by the Beach Committee; and Commissioner Chip Ross’ opinion column asking the question who really pays for beach parking.

As proposed, Resolution 2018-30 established a City Commission goal of determining whether to implement paid beach parking to reduce the burden of beach operation costs on City residents, since data indicates the preponderance of beach users are, in fact, non-City residents.

On a 3-2 vote with Commissioner Roy Smith and Vice Mayor Len Kreger dissenting, the FBCC instructed the City Manager to prepare a formal plan to consider the implementation of paid beach parking with the following conditions:

a) City residents, validated through the review of drivers’ licenses and motor vehicle registrations, will be exempt. [NOTE: The city has since modified this to permit continued free beach parking for residential property owners of the city in addition to residents.] b) Paid parking will be implemented at all City beach parking facilities.
c) Paid parking will be implemented on a year-round basis.
d) Other conditions as directed by the City Commission.

“Other conditions” added by Commissioner Chip Ross included a long list of data requests, cost analysis, enforcement issues, fine questions and details on how money collected would be dedicated to beach improvements.  Other commissioners agreed, asking also that ideas raised by the public during the meeting be considered.

The City Manager will present a recommended implementation plan to the City Commission at the City Commission Regular Meeting on December 18, 2018.

Fifteen people, both residents and non-residents, voiced their comments and concerns to the FBCC during the lengthy session.  Only two of those speakers appeared to unambiguously support paid beach parking, while the remainder mainly spoke in opposition.

Main Beach parking lot

The consensus of the audience seemed to be this:  Free beach parking is a defining characteristic of our community and brings many people to our beaches who also spend money in our community. The issue comes up before the FBCC every few years and ultimately goes down in defeat. So why is it coming back once more?

Throughout the public comments, the terms “beach access” and “beach parking” were often used interchangeably, creating an erroneous impression that the city’s proposal was attempting to charge people to access the beach.  Some speakers pointed out that the paid parking would not apply to county beaches, where parking would remain free to all.

Many people opposed to paid beach parking believed that the concept ran counter to the small town, welcoming tradition of the city, where visitors are treated as guests rather than sources of revenue.  Speakers feared that such a plan would add more division to the community, rather than bringing people together.

Other concerns from the public included:

  • Handling parking needs for the city owned Putt Putt course and beach restaurants;
  • Potential for sign pollution with warnings/instructions on paying for parking;
  • Excessive costs to purchase kiosks and software;
  • Administrative and enforcement costs will out run any potential revenue gains;
  • Unfair use tax;
  • The “Slippery Slope” argument that paid parking would ultimately extend throughout the city and to county beach parks;
  • Privacy of information collected by license plate scanners.

Many of the speakers who voiced opposition to paid beach parking had no solutions to the financial problems the city faces in maintaining its beach infrastructure. Rather they put the monkey back on the FBCC’s back by telling them to find another way to solve those problems. But some members of the public offered suggestions, too:

  • Renegotiate terms with Tourist Development Council to include financial support for repairing dune walkovers;
  • Model a program on the “Adopt a Highway” program and get volunteers to pitch in with clean up and repairs;
  • Reach out to local businesses and developers to pay for new or repaired beach walkovers, restrooms and parking lots.
City Commissioner Chip Ross

Commissioners had mixed views on the topic and the specific proposal at hand.  Ross laid his concerns out early in the meeting, providing a list of items that he wanted to see addressed before moving to approve paid beach parking.  He wanted clarification on how monies collected would be used.  He said that any plan adopted would need to reassure the public that the amount of time and resources invested would generate sufficient revenue to accomplish the stated goals of making major investments in beach infrastructure.

Vice Mayor Len Kreger, who is running for reelection, agreed with Ross, adding that before the city talks about collecting money for beach parking, it needs to develop a plan.  “Our beaches are a disaster,” Kreger said.  “We haven’t paid attention to beach infrastructure needs for years.”

Commissioner Roy Smith, who is also seeking reelection, accused the Beach Committee of coming up with a plan that is reactive, not proactive.  He said he would not vote for it.

Commissioner Phil Chapman

Commissioner Phil Chapman noted the many emails he and other commissioners have received on this issue, some of which contained threatening language directed toward commissioners who would vote to approve paid beach parking.  Chapman said that his job is look out for the common good, which includes maintaining city amenities such as beach walkovers, restrooms and parking lots.  He took issue with those who claimed that charging for parking would limit beach access, naming many beach areas south of the city that are county owned and that would continue to offer free parking.

Chapman told the audience that the city’s decision to pursue paid beach parking was strictly financial based upon long unmet and unfunded needs.  He said that a vote to explorepaid beach parking was just that, and that many questions and issues would need to be addressed before commissioners would vote on a specific plan.

Chapman cited an emailer from Yulee who threatened not to vote for him in the next city election.  He told those who threatened to withhold their votes not to worry, because after consultation with family and friends he has already decided that he will not seek reelection.

Following an hour of public input and discussion, Ross moved to approve the plan with the restrictions that he had called for at the beginning of the discussion. “I like data,” Ross said.  “I want to know what the restrictions are and how much money can be raised from this and put it to rest.  Everyone asks how many times are we going to bring up [paid beach parking].  Let’s do a final study, look at everything and come up with a plan.  If that plan does not meet the needs of the community, then it shouldn’t be adopted.  But I do think we should go forward to see if there is a reasonable way to do this.” Chapman seconded the motion.

Kreger said that he wouldn’t support the motion, but that he strongly supports the need for a plan to take care of the beaches.  “Paid parking has nothing to do with our need to maintain city infrastructure,” he said.

Chapman noted the number of Georgia license plates he observed in walking through the parking area near Main Beach.  He said that it is only fair that people who use our beaches pay toward their upkeep and repair.  He said he found it interesting how emotional people get over paid beach parking and the fear that it sends the wrong message to island visitors.  Yet no one seems to care that private individuals charge visitors to park on city right-of-ways in front of their residences during Shrimp Fest. “When the final report comes down, I won’t say that I will vote for it or against it; I will sit with an open mind and look at all the information and do what I believe is in the best interest of the city.  This is a financial decision, not an emotional one.”

Mayor John Miller

Mayor John Miller spoke last, reminding the audience that this issue had been identified during the FBCC visioning session early in the year.  He noted that with the growth of county population already occurring and the accelerated pace anticipated, there will be many more cars headed to the city’s beaches.  He said it is a real possibility that city residents will not be able to get to the beach. The city is trying to get ahead of that potential problem.  “Not moving forward [to study paid beach parking] would not be responsible,” Miller said.  “We ask city staff repeatedly to come up with advice, they give it to us, and then we don’t listen to them.”  Miller cited the work of all the people who had served on the Beach Committee.  He concurred with Chapman that by voting to move forward he was not approving a move to pay for beach parking.  He would reserve that decision until the final plan was offered.

Only Kreger and Smith opposed moving forward to explore paid beach parking, and the resolution passed on a 3-2 vote.

It should be noted that costs for beach renourishment are primarily funded by the U.S. Navy, federal and state government.  The local share was most recently paid by the Tourist Development Council (TDC).  Going forward, that local share will be paid from monies collected from city and county taxpayers on Amelia Island via the “Sand Tax.”  The TDC also pays for beach clean up from the bed taxes.  Any remaining beach costs – infrastructure, lifeguards, Beach Rangers, etc. – have been funded by city taxpayers.


Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Brandon Farmand
Brandon Farmand (@guest_53049)
4 years ago

Isn’t this entire episode a solution without a problem? In 2017, TDC pays local share of beach renouroshment, just shy of $900K because the sand tax was not yet adequately funded. The next time renourishment needs to take place TDC won’t have to step in because the sand tax will be adequately funded. Therefore roughly $900K in TDC future reserves could be earmarked for capital beach expenditures. You can solve an awful lot of these problems with just under $1 million. But I’ve yet to see a detailed listing of costs, beach access by beach access, that layout exactly what needs to be funded. Simply put, paid parking is putting the cart way before the horse and seems redundant, if not outright unnecessary.

Teri Donovan
Teri Donovan (@guest_53062)
4 years ago

Bingo. Don’t ask us about paid parking until you can show us WHAT you are asking us to pay for and give us an idea of what it’s going to cost. That’s like asking for a mortgage but not specifying the amount needed or what you can afford to pay for.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_53060)
4 years ago

We all want something for nothing. Like the Navy’s underestimated contribution of sand to regularly renourish the beach. Perhaps we should just let it all blow away, and be done with it.

John Martin
John Martin (@guest_53061)
4 years ago

Isn’t it interesting to see that the 2 Commissioners opposing this are up for re-election and the 3 in favor of this are either term limited or have stated that they are not seeking re-election at the end of their terms. It’s obvious that the vast majority of citizens do not want paid parking anywhere in Fernandina Beach. Unfortunately, when a majority of the City Commissioners are not concerned with re-election, the voters opinion does not matter.

Teri Donovan
Teri Donovan (@guest_53063)
4 years ago
Reply to  John Martin

Meaning they are not willing to do their job. I do believe they were elected to represent US. Instead they think that, once in office, they are given license to TELL us what they will be doing.

ilysse mandelbaum
ilysse mandelbaum (@guest_53064)
4 years ago

With local AND county taxpayers paying into the sand tax it is discriminatory to exempt city residents from parking fees. We also risk our state funding for renurishment with paid parking. It is naive to believe this will not inpact residents adversly when parking at the rec center, local parks etc is suddenly switched to paid parking as well when people attempt to use it as beach parking to avoid fees. Elderly on flixed incomes looking to do their water aerobics won’t find parking at the rec center, young families wanting to use the new parks won’t be able to because of the expense of parking and waitstaff won’t want to work at beachside restaurants when their income goes to paying for parking. Lifeguards will be hard to come by for both the beach and the rec center if they have to pay for parking all day during their shift. This is short sighted. The speaker at the meeting who said the only one who will make money on this is the company putting in the meters was right…because the next group of commissioners will pull them right out. In the long run this will cost this island money and make people unhappy. Instead of shopping downtown and attending parades or the farmers market people will avoid the meters and go to the south end of the island for the day where surely more shops will start popping up to get our business. Don’t make this mistake.

Joe Palmer
Joe Palmer (@guest_53072)
4 years ago

As usual with COFB officials’ posturing, pontificating and blustering, this is a done deal and it’s naive to think otherwise. A slippery slope. Five dollar fee (tax) this year which will climb each additional year. The camel has finally nosed its way into the tent.

Neal Gray
Neal Gray (@guest_53080)
4 years ago

A beach parking fee would drive visitors away from the city. As Commissioner Chapman points out, visitors can, and probably will, go to the south-side of AI for free county beach parking thus avoiding the city and their beach parking fees.