By Julie Ferreira
The Fernandina Beach City Commission is poised to make a significant decision that could impact neighborhoods and residents across the city.
The Land Development Code (or LDC) basically deals with how you can use and develop land in the city. It provides codified guidance on what can be built, where it can be built, and how much can (or cannot) be built. It covers zoning, development options, natural resources, densities, setbacks, etc., all the while assuring compliance with state and federal regulations.
When done well, codes make it easier for a community to implement its vision. The City of Fernandina Beach has such a code in LDC 1.03.05 that was designed and added to the Land Development Code to maintain and support neighborhood integrity and quality.
However, it hasn’t been used in at least 16 years.
Written and added to the LDC in the 90s, 1.03.05 speaks to maintaining open space and visual corridors, neighborhood character, the visual attractiveness of residential areas, and maintaining property values.
1.03.05 also clarifies that when a single family home or duplex or auxiliary building has existed on one or more platted lots it becomes the “lot of record,” and no permit will be issued for more than one residential dwelling on the site. If there was a demolition, whether voluntary or involuntary, the “lot of record” does not change.
Translated, that means that the big lots on Atlantic Boulevard are protected, and we will not be seeing houses on large lots torn down to be replaced by townhomes and higher densities. 1.03.05 should also provide against unsuitable redevelopment if a hurricane were to cause substantial damage to a residential area of the city. If interpreted properly, 1.03.05 would give owners the right to rebuild and replace homes on their property but it would also protect neighborhoods against developers being given the opportunity to purchase parcels with the intent of raising densities and forever changing the face of individual neighborhoods and community.
When done well, codes make it easier for a community to implement its vision. However, when they are not enforced, when they are arbitrarily applied or if they do not line up with a community’s vision, codes can actually keep communities from having the protections they need and want to be able to protect their lifestyles.
A current question is, has our Planning Department ignored or circumvented our codes to placate developers, or because of personal philosophies? The city attorney has said no. On the other hand, she says that the city has not applied 1.03.05 for more than 16 years and that requests for changing the number of plats on a property, in her opinion, do not fall under the jurisdiction of code 1.03.05.
Since neighborhood character is at the heart of neighborhood quality, most residents of a neighborhood would probably agree that new housing should be designed in sympathy with the older homes and existing structures to create overall harmony. Allowing townhomes to be built interspersed amongst older, existing properties in established neighborhoods could be considered healthy growth, or it could be considered sticking out like a sore thumb – depending on which side of the fence you sit.
And that issue is what is coming to the commission table Feb. 7.
The Planning Advisory Board (PAB) at its Dec. 14 meeting heard a request to consider replatting what’s called the Tringali property on South Fourth Street near Beech. That board’s decision was to deny the request and recommended that the application be forwarded to the Board of Adjustments (BOA) as required by 1.03.05.
The request came from Ron Flick, owner of Compass Group builders – which is known for much bigger and more complex projects than this one. He wants to put in 12 townhomes on property that now is home to 5 houses.
This stretch of houses on South Fourth Street is not in the Historic District, but it is surrounded by the district. At the time the district was formed, the well-known and respected Tringali family asked that their five structures not be included. Today, four of them are quite modest and faded for lack of paint – but equally modest but lovingly painted cottages are sprinkled throughout the district.
It’s not hard to imagine that townhomes across the street from Victorian homes would undermine the value of the homes they face – not to mention undermining the visual appeal of homes of one of Fernandina Beaches great assets: its historic district.
The drafters of 1.03.05 knew that the language might cause disagreements. They provided avenues for the applicant to seek a variance as authorized by the Land Development Code. The role of the Board of Adjustment is to decide on applications by landowners to permit building or land uses that vary from regulations within the Land Development Code.
Hopefully, the Feb. 7 City Commission meeting will follow the rules and send this issue to the Board of Adjustment, where it can skillfully and objectively be evaluated by the clear requirements of the existing code — for the sake of this neighborhood and every other neighborhood in the city.