Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 16, 2018 3:38 p.m.
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) devoted about 1 ½ hours of its 4 ½ hour Regular Meeting on May 15, 2018 to consideration of proposed land use and zoning changes to a 2.15-acre property at South 3rdand Gum Streets. The American Legion Post 54, owner of the property, was requesting that the use of the land be changed from its current split designation of Industrial (IND)/Medium Density Residential (MDR) to Mixed Use (MU).
On First Reading the FBCC approved the requested change to the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) on a 3-2 vote. Vice Mayor Len Kreger and Commissioner Chip Ross opposed the change, suggesting that the loss of lands designated for industrial use could have an adverse impact on the city’s economic base in the future. However, Kreger joined the majority in supporting the requested zoning change following the approval of the FLUM change. He said that he would respect the decision of the majority. Ross continued to oppose the change.
The American Legion Post requested the change to enable them to sell a portion of the land – 2 underlying lots of record –- to help them financially. The land is superfluous to their needs. Staff agreed that the proposed zoning change would be more compatible with existing residential property along S. 5thStreet, which the subject land borders.
In her staff report, Planning Manager Kelly Gibson wrote:
“The application of the Mixed Use Future Land Use Map (FLUM) category and MU-1 zoning district is appropriate on the subject property. An orderly transition from the industrial properties to the west and residential properties to the east is established by approving the applicant’s request. The Mixed Use category enables a development scenario that serves to meet the needs of the City by allowing greater flexibility in design to accommodate housing types in a work/live built configuration along a primary arterial road near the City’s urban core.
“Allowing the Mixed Use FLUM category and MU-1 zoning district on the subject property is consistent with the established pattern for properties along the S. 3rdStreet corridor. Given the range of activity existing in the area and coupled with the high traffic volumes near the subject property at the Gum Street and S. 3rd Street intersection, the requested action is suitable. Approval of the applicant’s request also removes the range of permissible uses allowable under the Industrial/ I-1 zoning category that are inappropriate for the adjoining residential neighborhood. Therefore, staff recommends approval of the applicant’s request for assignment of Mixed Use (MU) Future Land Use Map category and MU-1 zoning district for the subject property.”
The Planning Advisory Board (PAB) had earlier approved the application on a 4-1 vote.
Both Kreger and Ross stressed that their positions were based on their belief that the city needed to retain industrial land use, not because they were unsympathetic to the needs of the American Legion Post to achieve a healthier financial position to enable it to carry out its work in the community.
Commission discussion on FLUM amendment (Ordinance 2018-05)
Commissioner Chip Ross dominated the discussion. He peppered Planning Manager Kelly Gibson with questions, requesting additional data on vacant land left in the city. Ross appeared to be opposed to adding more residential use and zoning to complicate the concerns over population growth and increased density.
Mayor John Miller asked Gibson to address the issue of downtown density, which has been the subject of much local controversy. Gibson said that since most of the downtown land has been built out and structures are protected by the Local Historic District the feasibility of building out to the maximum potential density theoretically allowed by the recent density change does not exist.
While Kreger allowed that he understood what Ross was trying to establish, he would take a slightly different tack. He considered the subject property an excellent industrial site. “I have problems with continually rezoning to build houses. When you buy a piece of property [with a specific zoning] and then you want to rezone it to sell it, I have a problem with that.” Kreger cited the recent request of the YMCA to convert recreational land to residential. While he agreed with Ross that the additional data would be interesting, he did not believe that it was relevant to the current case.
Commissioner Roy Smith said that the neighbors of the subject property want houses there, not industrial uses. He said that neither Ross nor Kreger was considering that with an industrial use, there would be more traffic generated than with residential. “I think the people over there want houses over there – and if I lived there I would want that, too – I wouldn’t want industrial beside me.”
Ross continued to promote light industrial use for the property. “You can put all sorts of things there to promote economic opportunity and create jobs,” he said. In citing certain parts of the Land Development Code, Ross seemed to suggest that approval of the application would create a non-conformity, which is not permitted. Gibson took issue with his interpretation, indicating that the one part of the code, standing alone, is not determinative, without support from other areas of the code.
Ross disagreed with Gibson and went on to cite Florida Statutes that called for decisions to be based on data and studies. Gibson disagreed with Ross, citing her belief that the application provided the necessary data. Ross attempted to get Gibson to say that the reason for the requested change was to allow for more residential use of property. Gibson declined to be baited, saying that the proposed change to Mixed Use would allow for a variety of uses.
Ross asked Gibson if the city had done any studies showing that the city needs more residential land and houses as opposed to more economic opportunity areas for people who live here. Gibson said there were no city studies citing needs for increased residential, commercial or industrial lands. She said that the city was evaluating the applicant’s request against the Comprehensive Plan statements that are in support of or in opposition to the request.
As Ross continued his questioning, Gibson provided the following responses:
- A total of 21 houses could be built on the property in question;
- The use of the property due west is Heavy Industrial;
- Rayonier and the railroad are west of the property;
- The character of traffic along Gum Street is heavy truck traffic.
Ross questioned the wisdom of potentially placing 21 houses so close to a rail yard and the mill. Gibson replied that the Comprehensive Plan called for a buffering of uses between Industrial and Residential uses, claiming that the Mixed Use designation would meet that requirement and other land use policies.
Ross said, “With all due respect, the sole reason for this request is to put more housing in there. Whether you call it Mixed Use or something else, it’s still houses in an area previously zoned for industrial use. You are creating a nuisance.”
After a half hour of Ross’ questioning and staff response, Mayor Miller recognized Commissioner Roy Smith. “Once again,” Smith said, “this is Commissioner Ross telling people how they should live. There are other houses there now. People know when they buy the houses, the railroad is there. You go into any town in the South and you find houses build along rail lines. You are trying to decide that those people shouldn’t have to live by a railroad track or within 200 feet of the mill. That is those people’s choice. It’s not for you to decide that it’s not a good idea. If people won’t buy the houses, it won’t happen.”
Kelley McCrimmon of Berkshire Hathaway spoke on behalf of the American Legion. She said they had two goals: to improve their financial position and to assist the neighborhood in not putting “industrial type” activities in that area. It is not the intention to turn the area into a subdivision, but rather to turn it into a more unified transition between industrial and residential uses. “We don’t want adult entertainment next to a residential neighborhood, and that could go in there right now,” she said. She suggested a scenario where there could be commercial uses on the ground floor and residential above. “The Legion is doing everything they can to have an amiable distribution of some of their assets that will work with what the city wants and which will create an easy transition from industrial to housing.”
American Legion Post Commander William Martin told the FBCC that they would be willing to sell all their property for $2.5M and relocate to Yulee if they could. The Post is in need of a financial infusion to continue its community service programs. He suggested that selling the four lots in question would allow them to discharge their mortgage while adding property to the city’s tax base. He sidestepped a question from Ross, who seemed intent on getting an admission that the purpose was to convert the land to residential use. Martin said that the Post was not suggesting a future use beyond the Mixed Use specified in the application. “It will be the decision of the buyer on what to build there,” he said. “We’ve never had the intention of developing anything.”
Smith moved approval of the FLUM amendment, and Commissioner Phil Chapman seconded his motion. Ross announced that he would vote against it because he believed it violated the Comprehensive Plan and no data had been presented to demonstrate that the city needed more residential land or less economic opportunity. He read from a letter provided by a resident of South 5thStreet that supported his position. He went on to suggest that the change would make the American Legion clubhouse a non-conforming use.
He concluded by asking other commissioners why they think the city needs less economic opportunity and more houses. “We keep increasing housing, increasing density, and doing away with our economic base,” he said.
Smith replied, “Commissioner Ross, you read the one letter that opposed the change. How about reading all the ones that supported it? … There are plenty of people who want houses in there or MU development. You are trying to run the city on what you think. We have to listen to everybody. It’s everybody’s city, not just your city. I was elected to vote on what’s best for the city. I’m looking out for the people who would like to live in that area. They have the choice. It’s gotten to where every meeting you’re against anything that’s progressive.”
Commissioner Phil Chapman spoke next. “We’ve sat in these chambers many times and heard the need expressed for more affordable housing…. From a realistic standpoint, if I can buy a house, knowing it’s by that railroad, knowing it’s by the mill; I’m not looking to buy or build a $400K house. I’m going to buy a house that’s affordable for an awful lot of people. We keep saying we need homes for the people who work downtown. To me, this proposal gives us an ability to provide some of that. … The time has come to say we care about the people at the lower end of the economic spectrum. These are not going to be half a million dollar homes. The people requesting this change sacrificed an awful lot for us to be able to sit here and give more people the opportunity to own a home. That’s about as American as mom and apple pie. I will support this.”
Mayor Miller agreed with Chapman.
Kreger said he would not support the FLUM amendment because he supported the need for industrial. “I will not continually rezone to build more houses,” he said. “Zoning laws are one of the strongest things cities have to manage. The Mayor asked not to long ago, ‘When [is the city] full?’ Pure and simple, I will not support these land use changes.”
When the vote was taken, the measure passed on a 3-2 vote.
Discussion on zoning change (Ordinance 2018-06)
The hearing on the second ordinance was conducted as a quasi-judicial hearing, with testimony taken under oath. Arguments presented during discussion of the previous ordinance were repeated. However, four additional members of the public spoke to oppose the zoning change: Mike Lednovich, a candidate for City Commission; two owners of Bed & Breakfast Inns; and one 5th Street resident.
Public input strayed from the specific item under consideration into broader discussions of log trucks, industrial noise, and historic character of the city.
Smith reminded speakers that circumstances change over time, admonishing some speakers that just because they have a house, they should not be attempting to deprive others of housing they desire. “Just to say ‘no more houses,’ that’s very chauvinistic of a number of people,” he said. Smith added that the city does know how many people it can support and that roughly half the sewer and water capacity are being used today.
Chapman said, “We talk about the spirit of the community. Ladies and gentlemen, look around this room. The spirit of the community is the people who are here. It is not the houses that we build. It is the attitude of all of the people here. I have never been in a community where you can pick up the phone and in less than five minutes get ten people to volunteer to do something. … The spirit we have is to help each other. We are not talking about a 50-unit development here. We are talking about a relatively small number of homes, and given that location, I can’t see mega houses.”
Julie Ferreira, who lives on South 5thStreet, accused the FBCC of taking a cavalier attitude toward her neighborhood. She suggested that her neighbors would not want to see more traffic pushed into the neighborhood. “You are impacting developed, secure neighborhoods,” she said. She repeated comments made at earlier meetings that from her home she can hear the mill and feel vibrations from the train. “When I first moved into my home, I thought it was an earthquake,” she said. “You are subjecting new residents to circumstances that they are not going to understand. … People can’t sleep in my neighborhood [because of the noise from the mill].” She characterized S. Third Street as “Cancer Alley” because of industrial pollution. “I’m horrified, absolutely horrified,” she continued, “because you are not thinking this through.”
Smith responded to Ferreira. “Who knows what was done on that land many years ago? Down here [along the river] they did fishing nets and they used creosote on them. That was all over the land. The railroad used to put arsenic along the rail bed to keep vegetation down. Now they have to do remediation to get the arsenic out. The problems are not necessarily associated with the mill. And when you bought your house there you didn’t see the mill and the railroad?”
Ferreira replied that she was there during the day when it was quiet. “It’s way different at night,” she said.
Smith allowed that he could hear the noise from his own house. “But if it was so bad,” he continued, “why did your cousin just build a house catty corner from you? It can’t be that bad if they are building new houses there.”
Ferreira said that people want to live close to downtown and do not understand the noise issues until they settle in.
Mayor Miller tried to get the discussion back on track.
Ross allowed that the American Legion has a very compelling story. “They have needs, they are good people,” he said. “What we are doing here is death by a thousand cuts.” He cited a track record of changes to the FLUM and zoning changes to convert industrial to residential use and zoning. He dismissed other potential uses under MU-1 zoning, claiming that the real purpose is just to add more housing. He said that the city continues to transform lower density zoning into higher density zoning. “I’m representing the part of the city that says this situation needs to change,” he said. “Unfortunately, the American Legion was the first application to show up, and I apologize for that, but you are what you are. There is a point where we cannot continue what we are doing and preserve this island. We need to preserve land that presents economic opportunity. People want jobs.”
Smith moved approval, seconded by Chapman. Kreger explained that he would vote in favor of this because the FBCC had voted to approve the previous ordinance amending the FLUM. “When the Commission makes a decision to approve something, I will support that decision, even though I am not pleased with it.”
The motion passed on a 4-1 vote, with only Ross in opposition.
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.