Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 20, 2019 – 9:48 a.m.
Signature Land is proposing to convert the Amelia River Golf Course’s 175-acre leasehold into what has been termed a “car centric complex.”
On June 18, 2019 members of the public gathered at City Hall for an advertised Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) Workshop on the proposed plan to be held at 5:00 p.m. Joining them by invitation were Aaron Bell, Nassau County Commissioner for District 2 who sat with City Commissioners and Danny Leeper representing District 1, who stayed in the audience. By 4:30 p.m. every seat in Commission Chambers had been claimed. People overflowed into City Hall corridors and on to the lawn outside.
Local social media has blown up over this car club proposed for construction on the site of the current Amelia River Golf Course. In addition to a private car club and 2.3 mile driving course, plans call for public amenities: a 150-200 room hotel, event space, fitness center with an Olympic-sized pool, pickle ball courts, an automotive museum and restoration college, a bowling alley, a trampoline park, and an electric go-kart course.
When the project was conceptually presented to individual commissioners months ago, the plan called for the construction to be on the west side of the leasehold, known as Core 5. Commissioner Chip Ross suggested that a better idea would be to leave that area in conservation and move development to the area currently occupied by the Amelia River course just west of the Parkway: Core 6. That area has already been cleared. Developers agreed with Ross’ suggestion and also agreed to swap a piece of land with the airport to allow the airport to build additional hangars, which would reduce or eliminate a waiting list.
The proposed car club would have its own clubhouse, restaurant and garage facilities, along with on- and off-course member cabanas, an event building and driving school, member storage facilities, a watch tower and emergency services center, and two courses for driver safety (skid pad for defensive driving training and autocross course for driver education), a defensive driving course and a short apron to allow automobiles to be displayed. There would be no “roof tops” associated with the car club, meaning that it would not increase the number of island residents. The “driving course,” would be for club member use only. The developers also plan to offer social memberships.
Signature Land, a privately owned land development company in northeast Florida, was established in 2004 as a comprehensive land use and development company. Company owner and President, Steve Leggett, son of the late Jacksonville City Councilman Max Leggett, brings over 25 years of construction and development experience and expertise to this project. He expects to invest around $150 million in this project, which would generate about $3 million each year in ad valorem taxes and lease fees which would be twice as much as those currently paid by Amelia River Golf to the city of Fernandina Beach and the airport enterprise fund.
Steve Leggett brought his development team to the meeting, both to present the proposal to City Commissioners formally and to respond to questions they might have. Public input was not allowed during the workshop. However, public input was taken on the proposal during the FBCC’s Regular Meeting, which immediately followed the workshop. Forty-two people, all of them opposed to the proposal, spoke. Almost all of the opponents were city residents, most of whom lived near the proposed development site. While audience members inside the chamber were generally respectful during the developer’s presentation, the outside audience was raucous and disruptive on occasion to such an extent that the Mayor and individual Commissioners had to call for civility.
Team member Emma Gwyther, a project design consultant, walked commissioners and the audience through a half-hour slide presentation explaining the vision for the project and expanding on many of the project’s features. Steve Leggett and Jeremy Porter, CEO of Atlanta Motorsports Park also participated. Among other team members present were Rogers Towers attorney Emily Pierce, who presented commissioners with a proposed lease, and a sound engineer.
Signature Land proposes to buy the leasehold agreement from the Sheffield family, the current owners and operators of Amelia River Golf Course. There are 47 years left on the current lease; Signature Land proposes lengthening the term to 90 years. The leasehold would basically consist of 4 elements: conservation, car club, and two areas open to the public on either side of the car club. There is already provision for a hotel contained in the existing lease. The parcel is zoned industrial. Questions exist as to whether a driving course and an electric go-kart course would be allowable as accessory uses under the city’s Land Development Code.
According to the development team, although many car clubs are built around racing, that is not the case with the proposal for Amelia Island. The road course will be used by automobiles “straight from the manufacturers,” meaning no souped up engines, muffler modifications or other changes that would detract from the car’s original design and engineering or create excessive noise. Leggett has said that the idea is that this club would be used as a place for driver training, new model rollout and photo shoots for advertising.
Auto manufacturers would be able to carry out research and development on new models before placing them in production in a safe testing area. Plans call for a full restoration shop at the north of the property which would also provide vocational training opportunities for those interested in making auto repair a profession.
Gwyther stressed that the developers intend to make this a family friendly destination. She said that the car centric activities would enhance the existing car culture on the island as evidenced by the Concours d’Elegance and various car shows and activities that take place throughout the year on Amelia Island.
Planned for the south side is a 150-200 room hotel, with 30,000 square feet of meeting space — enough to accommodate conferences, trade shows and Nassau County High School graduations. Currently those graduations are held in Jacksonville because there is not local option that is large enough to accommodate students and parents.
Also planned for this site is an Olympic-sized swimming pool to allow, among other activities, swim meets involving county swim teams like the Fernandina Beach Sting Rays.
In addition to the restoration shop on the north side, this area would hold facilities conducive to family activities. A bowling alley is planned, along with a trampoline park and a go-cart track for electric cars.
Developers also indicated their interest in working with the Boy Scouts to create a camping area in the area dedicated to conservation.
Traffic and Noise Concerns
Currently, the Sheffield family, which holds the Amelia River Golf Course lease, claims that 32,000 rounds of golf are played at their course each year, accounting for traffic to the area. Although George Sheffield attended the workshop, he did not speak.
With the new project there would be three entrances to the complex: two public entrances leading to the public spaces flanking a private entrance in the middle for club members only. Additionally, Leggett has committed $750K to make road improvements, possibly building a round-about at the intersection of the Parkway and Buccaneer Trail to improve safety and traffic flow.
By far the biggest challenge to the developer is dealing with the issue of noise generated by vehicles on the driving course. Leggett has estimated that on an average weekday, there would be 5-15 cars on the 2.3 mile course. That number would increase to 15-30 on weekends. He stressed that there would be no car races held, and that calling the driving course a racetrack was a misnomer.
Gwyther stressed that the company takes the noise issue seriously. To that end, language has been included in the proposed lease extension that would limit allowable noise to certain decibel ratings. Sound monitoring would occur around the clock, every day, all year long. Monitoring results would be posted on their website so that the public can also verify the sound levels. Any driver who violates the noise limit would be fined, and following three violations would be banned from the driving course.
The development team and City Commissioners engaged in extensive discussion and questioning regarding the noise issue, which appears to be paramount for neighboring communities. Leggett showed a slide that depicted various sound buffers, some natural others architectural. Vice Mayor Len Kreger said that the question is a matter of duration, as opposed to recording decibels. He said that while an airplane makes noise at take off and landing, the droning nature of car engine noise is constant.
Leggett raised the noise generated during car events at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport. He cited a recent event during which 62 cars ran 360 laps, yet generated no noise complaints to the city. He said that those cars were modified, whereas on his driving course, only “street legal” cars would be allowed to drive.
Jeremy Porter explained the differences between noise generated during race events and driving events. He suggested that if the city was not comfortable accepting the sound monitoring results provided by the developer’s agent, the city might consider hiring its own sound engineer to either verify the results or conduct its own monitoring.
Economic Impact of project
Interest in golf is waning around the country, as the new generations of retirees turn to more active sports that can be played over a shorter period of time, such as tennis and pickle ball. Eliminating the Amelia River Golf Course has the potential to drive more golfers to the city golf course and others on the island and in the county.
Leggett indicated that the project will create 300-400 jobs, about a quarter of which will be high wage jobs. Improvements to the property would generate around $2.5M in ad valorem taxes to the city and the county. The increase in lease fees (about $500K) per year going to the airport would insure a strong bottom line for that operation.
Should this concept become a reality, the Concours d’Elegance would seem to be more inclined to continue on Amelia Island. Bill Warner, Concours organizer, has expressed concerns over lack of parking and other amenities for event participants. He is reportedly very pleased to see the current proposal being considered.
Also reacting positively were local law enforcement agencies. Leggett has offered to make available to them at no cost the driver training areas, which include a defensive driving skid pad. Such an arrangement would save taxpayers the cost of having to build such a course.
Commissioner Chip Ross said that in considering Signature Land’s proposal the key issue for him would be understanding how the proposal would make the island more livable. Gwyther said that the project would bring opportunity and growth. Ross smiled and told her, “You’ve just touched the third rail.”
Jeremy Porter said that traffic to the site would be sporadic and have little impact on the area.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich asked what the proposed “allowable decibel rating” would be. Leggett responded that their engineer is working on that and the information would be provided at the July 16 FBCC meeting as part of the lease agreement. Lednovich expressed skepticism on use of terms like “driver education course” and “test tracks” for high end vehicles.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger took issue with the developer’s claim that Amelia Island is a “car centric community.” He said that Fernandina is a beach community with a historic district, and that is how the community is defined.
Since no public input was taken during the workshop, people took advantage of the opportunity to speak at the FBCC Regular Meeting, which immediately followed the workshop. Forty-two people took full advantage of their opportunity to speak for 3 minutes to express their positions on the Signature Land development proposal. Approximately 3 hours were devoted to public input, with one break. The Signature team sat through the comments, taking notes, and responding to some points.
Not one of the 42 speakers expressed support for the project as presented.
While most speakers addressed their objections to the additional traffic and noise that the project would bring, their central concern was what appeared to be the project team’s lack of understanding of and appreciation for the commonly held values of the island community. People took strong exception to the developer’s claim that the island is a “car centric community.” Instead speakers stressed the importance of preserving the natural environment, including the peace of tree shaded neighborhoods that drew people to move to the island. They stressed quality of life issues that would be threatened by the project, potential for loss of property values, and adding to what seems to be a growing congestion on the island.
Speakers also said that while the Sheffields might own the lease, the people own the land. They questioned whether the existing lease which provides for a golf course and possible hotel could be modified to accommodate such a radically different operation. They objected to the length of the proposed lease. Some suggested that the project should not be considered until it could be determined that it would be in full compliance with all city Land Development Codes.
Nothing the developer could offer in terms of engineering, sound monitoring or sound buffers allayed the overriding concerns about noise. Three people, with extensive credentials and experience in sound engineering, disputed the developer’s ability to moderate noise to an acceptable level for island residents. Others questioned the term “street legal” as applied to automobiles. Some raised concerns that many newer cars and trucks are able to switch to higher horsepower without modification. Although the developer took pains to explain that the driving course was not a racetrack, project opponents said that drivers would naturally want to race their own cars to see how fast they could go.
With respect to the developer’s argument that car races take place all year long at the airport with no complaints, audience members took great exception. Many speakers said they could hear the noise from their residences, but opted not to complain because the events occur infrequently and are conducted to benefit charities.
Traffic concerns were another issue for the public, who cited their safety concerns in addition to frustrations over increased congestion brought on by new island development. While acknowledging that in general traffic might be sporadic to the car club or hotel, other public amenities would generate an overall increase in traffic. Despite the developer’s plan for new entrances and road improvements, speakers expressed overall unhappiness over activities that would generate more congestion during car events on the island.
With a proposed labor force of 200-300 people, speakers cited an immediate increase in traffic over the current golf course traffic. This seemed to override the proposed benefit of not adding residential elements.
Speakers seemed unimpressed with the developer’s plan to set aside the western portion of the leasehold for conservation. They said that the wooded area was public land in the first place and the offer represented nothing more than what the people already had. Plans to plant additional trees both as buffers and to convert the existing golf course to a more wooded type of landscape were generally not of consequence to the speakers.
Two speakers claimed to represent neighborhood associations whose members were “100 percent” opposed to the project. Additionally, at least one petition opposing the project was being passed among audience members.
Speakers appealed to the FBCC to remember their fiduciary responsibility to the citizens, as opposed to focusing on the financial gains that the project could bring to public coffers. One speaker asked if Mayor John Miller, who is employed by the Sheffields, had a conflict of interest in voting on the project. Miller and City Attorney Tammi Bach responded that Miller had sent a letter to the state Committee on Ethics to make that determination.
Several speakers expressed support for such a project — but not on Amelia Island. They believed the project had merit but needed to be in a setting elsewhere in the county in a less densely settled area.
After the public spoke, Vice Mayor Len Kreger said that the discussion over allowable decibel levels was not necessary. He said, “The issue is no sound versus any decibel level.”
City Manager Dale Martin informed the public that the proposed lease would come back to the City Commission at the July 16, 2019 FBCC Regular Meeting. At that meeting Commissioners could vote on the lease.
Kreger noted that he had received “hundreds of emails opposing the project” and only two in support. He assumed that other commissioners had similar stories.
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.