Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 14, 2018 1:27 p.m.
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) hosted the Nassau County Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) for a joint Special Meeting at Fernandina Beach City Hall on March 13, 2018. This was the first joint meeting of the two bodies in three years. The atmosphere was cordial and collegial, a marked contrast to earlier meetings when the two bodies debated OHPA Charter changes and interpretations of the Port Master Plan.
The primary topic for the Special Meeting was the city’s desire to enlist OHPA support for moving the federal navigation channel westward, thereby allowing the city to move forward with plans to expand the city marina northward.
Applied Technology & Management, Inc. (ATM) representative Rob Semmes briefed the boards on the current status of the navigation channel and why the city was seeking to move it. He recapped the history of the earlier attempt to move the channel in 1998-2000, which was officially approved but never implemented.
As the channel sponsor, OHPA must officially approve the move for the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) to take formal action. Adam Salzburg, OHPA Chair, agreed to bring the matter before his full board for consideration and action. Since the sole client for that channel is Rayonier Advanced Materials, OHPA must also obtain their approval to move forward.
Rob Semmes explained that due to current ACE guidelines, any construction of docks must be no less than 100 feet from the existing navigation channel. The city has received informal approval to proceed with reconstructing the marina’s south attenuator dock, which is 70 feet from the channel. But in order to extend the marina attenuator to the north, the channel must be either moved or abandoned, since the new dock would lie less than 10 feet from the existing channel.
City Manager Dale Martin added that without moving the channel, any proposal to extend the city marina docks northward into deep water would not be possible. The city, which has already received a $1.6M matching grant for that purpose, would not claim the grant and would be forced to abandon plans to move the marina northward.
Semmes explained that moving the channel first came up in 1998 when ATM was hired by the city to solve the siltation problem in the city marina that required regular, expensive dredging to keep the marina operational. They sought and received support from then Representative Tillie Fowler via the Water Resources Development Act of 2000, which permitted ACE to move the channel as requested. At the time, both OHPA and Rayonier signed letters of support.
However, the legislation clearly indicated that the actual costs for moving the channel were not to be borne by the federal government. This meant that OHPA, the local sponsor, would have to pony up what would amount to millions of dollars for dredging a new channel that appeared to have only one hypothetical customer: Rayonier.
Despite Congressional authorization, the move never happened. According to Coleman Langshaw, city marina director at the time, ACE balked at expending resources to move a channel that had not been used in 20 years. City enthusiasm for moving northward waned as the realization of costs for purchasing private property with the riparian rights to the north of the current marina added more to the price tag.
Langshaw said that if ACE decided to go forward with the channel move, then the local sponsor would be required to pay for the move. But that when the turning basin went away, there seemed to be no reason to open the channel.
When the local political climate changed once more, there was a renewed interest in implementing the ATM plan drawn up in 1998 to solve the marina siltation problems. The city purchased the required land to the north, thereby acquiring the riparian rights needed to expand docks into deep water. But the need to move the channel still existed. As the local sponsor, only OHPA could demand action on that front.
On behalf of the city, Semmes requested that OHPA formally ask ACE to:
- Realign channel so that existing marina docks and proposed improvements are consistent with Corps guidance
- Deauthorize the Mile 4 turning basin
Semmes explained that the additional dredging needed to bring the realigned channel to -28ft MLLW would be more than offset by material to be removed from Mile 4 turning basin. He said that if the channel is ever used again for shipping and dredged to authorized depth, subsequent maintenance dredging would be reduced by the current proposal.
City Commissioner Chip Ross asked how long it would take to resolve the issues and move the channel. Semmes indicated that it would take over a year, should OHPA support the move. He said that OHPA would need to study the matter and get buy in from the channel’s only client (Rayonier) before presenting a request to ACE. If ACE then accepts the request, they would commission a study to determine impacts, if any. Along the way they would also consult with other state and federal agencies.
Fernandina Beach Vice Mayor Len Kreger said that the timing fit well with the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, which called for the northward expansion to take place in the 2020-2022 time frame.
Kreger also stressed that the current discussion was entirely unrelated to moving forward to repair the south attenuator, which has received ACE approval and only awaits an end to the public comment period to allow the city to begin that work, probably in early spring.
The question that was not asked during the meeting was why the federal navigation channel should be maintained at all if it has no users, especially when initial costs to dredge it could be more than $50M.
OHPA commissioners agreed to begin deliberating over the issue at their next meeting. Three OHPA commissioners – Chair Adam Salzburg (District 3), Vice Chair Carrol Franklin (District 4), and Lissa Braddock (District 5) – attended the entire special meeting. Commissioner Robert Sturgess (District 1) attended part of the meeting; Commissioner Danny Fullwood (District 2) could not attend.
All Fernandina Beach City Commissioners attended.
Port Attorney Clyde Davis addressed several question raised in a letter and delivered to OHPA at the beginning of the meeting. He said that there are no specific plans at this time for storage facilities for lignin or grain. He had no knowledge of plans to store propane supplies.
He expressed the benefits in terms of jobs to the local economy in being designated a Foreign Trade Zone.
Both boards agreed to provide letters of support to Governor Rick Scott by the end of the week for items included in the state budget recently approved by the legislature.
In speaking on behalf of both boards, the respective chairs expressed renewed hope and confidence in fostering increasingly productive relationships moving forward.
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.