Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 12, 2020
Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC) continue to grapple with determining the best approach to bringing the conservation question to city voters this fall. Now that Nassau County has decided to place a referendum on the November ballot seeking voter approval to purchase land for conservation, City Commissioners have tried to get a commitment from the County that a specific percentage of money obtained for that purpose would be dedicated to conservation land purchases within the city. Commissioner Mike Lednovich at the last Regular FBCC Meeting on February 4, 2020, asked if the City had received a reply from the County by the January 31, 2020 deadline laid out in its December 26, 2019 letter. City Manager Dale Martin said that the City had not received a response.
Commissioner Chip Ross reported that County Commissioner Danny Leeper requested a formal communication signed by the Mayor indicating that all 5 city commissioners supported this approach. He said that the Board of County Commissioners would then discuss it at a February meeting.
Fernandina Beach Mayor John Miller sent a letter to County Board Chair Justin Taylor on February 11, 2020 requesting a reply in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) no later than February 28, 2020 indicating how conservation land funds would be apportioned to the city, should the County referendum receive voter approval. Miller recapped what appeared to be a change in County position from informal willingness to develop an official formula for distribution of the funds to what now appears to be a reversal.
Miller wrote, “The City Commission prefers to pursue conservation funding through a joint County-City effort. The City Commission remains committed, if necessary, to presenting a ballot question as discussed throughout the past several months as its own initiative in November if such a joint effort is not preferred. Given the time and review necessary to pursue a November ballot initiative, City officials must prepare accordingly.”
At the February 4 FBCC meeting, Lednovich spoke to timing requirements for preparation of a referendum and suggested that before the City placed a referendum before the people it needed first to identify and prioritize with help from the North Florida Land Trust which properties would be purchased with any money raised from a referendum.
Ross agreed, but said that the City first needed to decide if it would be able to piggyback on the county referendum or move forward with its own referendum for only city residents.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger agreed with Lednovich and Kreger about getting a definitive answer from the County and agreeing to a priority list of properties. He said that the City would be part of the County referendum “like it or not.” The question is whether the County would agree to dedicate a specific portion of any revenues raised for the City’s exclusive purchase of conservation land. He said that the City still has the option of preparing its own referendum.
Commissioners appeared to agree that it would be a mistake to ask citizens to vote on two separate conservation land purchase referendums during the same election.
Kreger asked for a management plan for lands purchased as conservation to ensure that such properties “would not be turned into garbage dumps.”
Kreger also discussed certain Westrock owned land that is not developable because it is wetland. He suggested Westrock might be willing to donate it to the city for conservation. He said that at one time they seemed willing to place a conservation easement on some lands they owned. Ross reported that he has been speaking to local Westrock personnel about issues like these for two years. While local people seemed interested, corporate Westrock was not.
Commissioners agreed to renew their conversation with Westrock, while not expecting significant change in the corporate position.
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.