By April L. Bogle
City Commissioners unanimously approved several high-profile pieces of city business at last night’s regular commission meeting and Mayor Bradley Bean proclaimed June Pride Month. There were no protestors over any agenda or non-agenda items, as there have been in recent meetings. Toward the end of the approximately two-hour meeting, four citizens asked for the public comment period on non-agenda items be returned to its earlier time slot. The commission did not oblige their request.
New Software to Speed Building Permit Process
Commissioners approved the purchase of new software that promises efficiency improvements in the building permit application review process. Implementation is expected to take eight to nine months.
“The Building Department, Planning Department, Code Enforcement, Fire Marshal and other departments that need to do permit application reviews submitted by citizens had a system for several years that has not operated the way we wanted it to,” said Charlie George, interim city manager.
George said the new permitting and licensing software, called CityView and used by many Florida cities the size of Fernandina Beach, is more reliable, streamlined and customer friendly.
The city is purchasing the system instead of leasing it to prevent spamming and viruses. “By purchasing it, we control our data,” he said.
The $470,000 purchase cost and the $53,538 annual maintenance fee will come from the building department reserves and budget. “No tax dollars will be spent on it,” George said.
Commissioner David Sturges spoke in support of the software. “This is awesome because the Building Department’s going to get the help they need, and not just the Building Department, but the city … employees are going to benefit … code enforcers can look at the same specs, the utilities director, utilities workers, everybody is going to have access to this software and they can see what’s going in every property all the time. So it’s going to be revolutionary. It’s a long time coming, and I’ve been fighting for it for a long time.”
Private Sector Building Inspectors to Improve Customer Service
George also announced plans to use outside licensed inspectors for building inspections and eliminate three positions in the Building Department. The city will contract with Joe Payne, Inc., which has been supplementing city staff for about a year. “I have not heard any complaints from any contractors or citizens about those private provider services we’ve been doing,” said George. “I’m confident that this recommended change will improve our relationship with the citizens in the contractor community and will reestablish the quality and customer service our citizens deserve.”
Sturges applauded the change. “I’ve taken four to eight phone calls a week ever since I’ve taken this position, and it all bases around the problems with the Building Department. Anybody and everybody you ask how difficult or easy it’s been to pull a permit in the city of Fernandina, I don’t care if they’re your grandma, I don’t care if they’re a teenager, I don’t care who they are, they all know it’s atrocious to deal with the City of Fernandina Beach Building Department … This will help us hone down and reduce our costs, so we can reduce our permit costs, which we’re going to take a sharp knife to, hopefully, with this commission in the upcoming budget.”
Brett’s Waterway Cafe to Undergo Safety Inspection
Commissioners approved a $19,600 expenditure for the mandatory annual visual inspection of the substructure under Brett’s Waterway Cafe. Engineers from Kimley-Horn, a Jacksonville-based planning and design consulting firm, will conduct the inspection; drones will take aerial photographs.
“There’s limited time to get under that structure with the tides, shallow water and low headroom so drones will be taking the photos,” said George. “The inspections will still be done from an engineering standpoint using an engineering protocol. To clarify it’s not just a drone inspection.”
Kimley-Horn wrote in its scope of work: “Due to the reported safety concerns and recommendations that access to and beneath the building structure be restricted from other structural engineers previously involved with separate evaluations of the structure on behalf of the City, Kimley-Horn will limit its assessment to a visual review only with the aid of aerial drone photography. Based on the recommendations of the structural engineers involved with prior investigations and assessment of the substructure, Kimley-Horn will be unable to get close enough to the substructure to perform any new destructive or non-destructive testing.”
Safety concerns about Brett’s surfaced in July 2021 when the city issued a “Notice of Unsafe Structure.” The notice cited concerns with “structural deficiencies related to the concrete substructure” and for repairs to be made or the property vacated. The tenant on this city-owned property, Center Street Property Group, Inc., appealed the notice to the city’s Board of Adjustment (BOA). The BOA denied the appeal, and the tenant appealed the BOA’s denial to the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court. According to Resolution 2023-35, “the BOA decision was quashed by the Court … to date, the Notice of Unsafe Structure has not been further addressed by the Court or the City…”
Commissioners decided in March 2023 to take no further action regarding the notice because the lease expires in December 2025 and repairs would be “impractical and not financially feasible.” Instead, they approved mandatory annual visual inspections of the substructure to be performed by the city and mandatory post-storm event inspections to be performed by Center Street Restaurant Group.
George said the inspection is a follow-up to the previous inspection, at about half the cost, and that the city is using Kimley-Horn for the first time “for an independent eye.”
Beach Access #40 Coming Back
Commissioners voted to approve the $270,000 repair of beach access #40’s walkover. C&L Landscape, Inc. will start construction after the turtle nesting season ends in late September. In 2019, all beach walkovers were assessed and #40 was taken down due to its poor condition. Budget for #40’s repair is included in the 2022-2023 Capital Improvement Fund.
‘Port District Road’ Designation to Improve Safety
At the request of the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA), commissioners voted to designate three streets near the Port of Fernandina as “Port District Roads” to improve efficiency and safety.
The designation includes signage that “will serve as an additional reminder to the traveling public that they are within an operating port area with attention to the heavier equipment that regularly transit the area,” according to Resolution 2023-92.
There are no prohibitions or impacts to non-port related vehicles, and vehicles that travel in the area, such as forklifts, will now be exempt from registration, license taxes and displaying license tags.
Local streets receiving the designation:
- Dade Street from Front Street to North Third Street
- North Second Street from Dade Street to Broome Street
- Calhoun Street from the railroad tracks to North Third Street
Public Comment Period Stays at End for Now
Four citizens asked commissioners to restore a public comment period to early in the agenda, especially for the elderly and for parents of young children. Their comments were in response to the commission’s May 22 vote to move the public comment period about items not on the agenda to the end of meetings. The commission decided 4-1 (Commissioner Chip Ross dissenting) to move the comment period because two consecutive meetings turned out dozens of citizens who spoke for more than two hours about items not on the agenda, delaying the completion of city business. (The public can still speak about items on the agenda at the time those items are being discussed.)
Last night, Ross suggested opening up 30 minutes of public comment at the beginning of meetings, allowing for 10 speakers at three minutes each and accommodating remaining comments at the end of meetings. “All the years I’ve been sitting here, it’s usually one or two people (who ask to speak). I’ve had a lot of comments from the public (about moving comments to the end of the meeting). They feel that this is stifling public participation.”
Commissioner James Antun said Ross’s suggestion was a “reasonable compromise,” but Commissioner Darron Ayscue disagreed, saying it would create complications about limiting who speaks when. Mayor Bradley Bean said, “We are accepting public comment either way … we’re simply prioritizing public comment that’s on the agenda. Let’s think about it more. I think it’s too early to switch it back. This is how other bodies governing do it here in our county and around the state.”
Public Comment on Millage Rate Encouraged Before July 25
Ross also suggested one or two meetings be held prior to July 25, when the commission sets the millage rate, to allow for public comment on the rate and what they want to see in the budget. Bean said he didn’t think additional meetings were needed because the schedule contains several budget discussions. Instead, Bean suggests the public come to the regular commission meetings prior to July 25 and voice their thoughts — during the public comment period for items not on the agenda at the end of meetings.