Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 19, 2021
A larger audience than usual attended the August 17, 2021 Regular Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC). As the meeting progressed it became clear that about 30 of those attendees were there for one purpose: to urge the FBCC to withdraw its letters of support for federal grants requested in the name of the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) by port operator Christopher Ragucci, President and CEO of Worldwide Terminals Fernandina and Nassau Terminals. They got their wish via a unanimous vote of the FBCC to rescind its earlier support for the port’s RAISE and PIDP grant applications.
At the July 6, 2021 FBCC meeting, Ragucci appeared before City Commissioners to request a letter of support for two Federal Infrastructure Grants to provide funds for Port Improvement Projects – The RAISE Grant, and the PIDP Grant. Ragucci did not produce copies of the grant requests, but spoke generally of economic benefits to be obtained by the port and the city if the grants were to be approved.
In light of past and ongoing difficulties in dealing with OHPA and the Port, as well as Ragucci’s failure to offer a copy of the grant request for FBCC review, the vote to provide an endorsement letter for the grants did not pass on a unanimous vote. Mayor Mike Lednovich and Commissioner Chip Ross, both of whom have attended OHPA meetings, opposed Ragucci’s request, with the mayor going so far to say: “I will not vote for this, but if it does pass, I want any letter to indicate who voted against it.”
However, despite the pointed exchanges between the parties, Vice Mayor Len Kreger, Commissioner Bradley Bean and Commissioner David Sturges voted to approve the request for a letter of support, which passed on a 3-2 vote.
Following the meeting, Commissioner Chip Ross, through Court intervention to obtain public records, has since received the OHPA / Port Federal grant application , which contains proposed expansion and modernization projects not previously disclosed to the City Commission that negatively affect the Commissions’ continued desire to support OHPA / Port in their pursuit of Federal grant application for expansion.
Subsequent to the FBCC vote, the public became aware that OHPA had approved the grant submittal without seeing the grant request.
Fernandina residents who objected to the port’s plans made their objections known to the OHPA members at the August 11, 2021 OHPA meeting .
The Public Speaks
The public has continued its opposition to the OHPA grant request at public meetings and via emails and telephone calls to local officials as well as Department of Transportation (DOT) staff in charge of the grant programs. Commissioner Chip Ross reported that DOT officials have never received opposition to RAISE grants before.
De facto spokesperson for the citizens in their opposition is Tammi Kosack, a resident of the north side of the Historic District impacted by any port expansion plans. Kosack also serves on the City’s Historic District Council.
At the August 17, 2021 FBCC meeting, Kosack led citizens in supporting the rescission of the letter of support for the RAISE grant. In articulating her reasons, she cited specifics from the application that had not been made known to the FBCC or the public previously, including inconsistencies within the grant application itself, questioning why, if the port plans to take trucks off the roads, it needs to add 24 new truck bays. She also pointed out plans to expand outside the current footprint of the port, a violation of the original agreement creating the port.
She pointed to the following statement on page 23 of the application: “Extensive public involvement was included in the process. The approval of this project was conducted over multiple OHPA meetings that are conducted in public forums with the ability for all citizens of Nassau County to make their voices heard.” She reminded commissioners that neither they nor OHPA commissioners had seen the proposal prior to its submission.
She raised other issues dealing with plans to take over portions of city streets, infrastructure, concurrency, and lack of environmental studies.She concluded her remarks thusly: “Mr. Ragucci himself described the grant application as “creative” at the August 11 OHPA meeting. I would offer that more appropriate descriptions might be that the grant application is fatally flawed, and borders on fraudulent. The representations and disingenuous statements made to City Commission, OHPA and other businesses in order to gain their support should be a clear sign that you may trust but you MUST verify.”
Kosack added, “Commissioners if any portion of this undisclosed, non-vetted grant [application] gets funded, I posit that the only thing NOT inside the tent would be the Camel’s nose…”
Four additional speakers followed Kosack, generally echoing her remarks. Speakers were clear in stating that they were not opposed to the port operations as they are today. However, they believed that expansions as proposed in the grant application were either unnecessary, due to the current volume of shipping, or dangerous to the future existence and fabric of the Historic District.
There has been a rocky history of dealings between the Port and the City dating back to the creation of the port by a special act of the Florida Legislature in the 1980’s. The situation has deteriorated recently with disputes over OHPA’s failure to make PILOT payments to the city, and the port’s failure to abide by City building codes in some instances.