Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 5, 2020
Two local organizations stepped up to the plate at the March 3, 2020 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) Regular Meeting by making contributions to the city’s Land Conservation Trust Fund which will be matched by an anonymous donor.
On behalf of the Amelia Tree Conservancy (ATC), Diana Herman presented the City with a check in the amount of $5,000. She said, “Land conservation is the most important tool we have for promoting land and economic sustainability on our island. We are grateful for an opportunity to make a difference.” Joined by ATC Board members Lynn Pannone and Margaret Kirkland, Herman said that their organization was thrilled at the opportunity to be able to contribute to such an important effort and to know that their contribution would be matched 100 percent. She presented the check to City Planning Manager Kelly Gibson, receiving a round of applause from the FBCC and the audience.
City Commissioner Chip Ross presented his thermometer graphic prepared with assistance from Eric Bartelt representing contributions up to the maximum match amount of $300,000. Ross said that both he and his wife have contributed to the fund, and that he has been on the phone “dialing for dollars” in hopes that the City will be able to maximize the benefits of the matching dollars.
For the benefit of the audience Ross emphasized the City’s position on spending the money in the Conservation Land Trust Fund: the money may only be used to purchase environmentally sensitive land or the costs associated with acquiring those lands. He added, “Let me make it perfectly clear that the North Florida Land Trust is [the City’s] broker in identifying and acquiring conservation land. It is not Commissioner Ross or Lednovich or Chapman …” Ross said that he would update the Conservation Fundraising Thermometer weekly and hoped that it would inspire the community to contribute. “It’s a wonderful way for the City to raise $300,000,” he concluded.
Also contributing to the Conservation Land Trust was the Amelia Island Boules Club. James Wiensier, president of the club during its first ten years of existence, presented the City with a check in the amount of $500 in appreciation for the support and assistance the City has provided them in advancing the sport of petanque. The Amelia Island Club has grown to be the largest in the nation today. He also received a round of applause, prompting Mayor John Miller to ask if anyone else wanted to give the City money at this time. His suggestion was met with laughter.
During discussion later in the meeting Commissioner Mike Lednovich addressed the status of the conservation referendum that the FBCC had agreed to place before the voters. He said that to date the FBCC has not formally voted to proceed with the referendum, although informally commissioners have agreed to do so. He asked how much money the City anticipated to have on hand this fiscal year to purchase conservation lands. He asked, “Is it even prudent for us to hold such a referendum this year?” Lednovich said he was just planting the seed for future consideration.
City Manager Dale Martin replied that the City has $1.2M as a result of the one-time, half-mill tax increase that the FBCC approved for the current year’s budget. Martin emphasized the one-time nature of that tax, which will not continue into the next fiscal year that begins October 1. “We pledged, I pledged, that would only be in effect for one year,” Martin emphasized. The City has already purchased 3 parcels. The City has also received about $100K from the Amelia Bluff developers, and has the potential to maximize the matching grant opportunity which would add $300K to the Land Conservation Trust Fund. Taking into consideration matches from the North Florida Land Trust, technically as much as $3M could be available for land purchases.
Martin said, “[We agreed] that the only way additional [City] money would be added was if the City prepared a bond referendum to place before the voters. If we decide to go the referendum route, I will add, let’s say, $5M of bond revenue to the next Budget for this purpose. If the bond referendum does not come to fruition, or if it is voted down, [additional public funding to purchase conservation land] is not going to happen. There is no intent on my part to add additional monies to the next Budget for purchase of conservation land [unless the voters approve a bond for that purpose].”
“The half mill was one and done,” Martin said, “just to be very clear about that.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger agreed with Lednovich that the FBCC had never formally approved a bond referendum. “I think we need to come to a decision on that,” he said. “I think we need to move forward in some form: either we go with our own referendum or we rely on receiving funds from the referendum that the County is proceeding with [to purchase conservation land].”
City Attorney Tammi Bach advised that the FBCC has 8 more meetings before ballot language needs to be provided to the Nassau County Supervisor of Elections for inclusion in the November General Election.
Commissioner Chip Ross suggested including ballot language that would require a unanimous vote of the FBCC in order to propose sale of land designated conservation, which would need to be followed by a 70 percent approval from the electorate on a referendum. “This is a seed I’d like to plant,” Ross said, “to show that there is a commitment to preserving the lands the City acquires for conservation.” He added that he would propose the same requirements to sell or long term lease recreation-zoned lands.
City Attorney Bach added that the Charter Review Committee is also trying to simplify language dealing with selling or long term leasing of recreation lands. Commissioners asked Bach to draft language for them to consider at 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.