Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
June 6, 2019 1:22 p.m.
Once again on June 4, 2019, the Discussion portion of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) Regular Meeting proved interesting for the ideas floated — in one case literally. Although Commissioner Mike Lednovich had placed two of the three items on the discussion table, Commissioner Ross’ ideas and proposals constituted the basis for discussion: undergrounding utility lines along the waterfront and permitting certain barge-based businesses along the city owned property on the riverfront.
Placing utility lines underground on Front Street
Ross reported that in his discussions with representatives of Florida Public Utilities (FPU) over a year’s time he had gotten the utility company to agree to remove utility poles on the river side of Front Street from Centre Street to Broome Street and place the utilities underground. He provided the following cost figures: $220,000 if paid at the time the agreement is signed; or $250,000 if paid at the time construction is complete; or $65,000 per year over 5 years.
The quoted price includes labor, material and boring. The estimated time from signing the agreement to finishing is four to six months.
Ross had pursued this item on his own without direction from the City Commission.
Ross reminded commissioners that Stormwater Director Andre Desilet had stated that such work would be one of the first steps needed in the stormwater resiliency plan for the downtown area. He asked the FBCC to direct the City Manager to enter into negotiations with FPU to perform this work.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich asked how the city would pay for such work. City Comptroller Pauline Testagrosse referred to the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), citing several projects that had been planned but not acted upon this year. She suggested that money might be reprogrammed to pay for Ross’ proposal.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger said that first he wanted assurance that such an action was consistent with the resiliency plan that had been presented in a workshop immediately prior to the current meeting. He said he was not opposed to the idea but that he wanted to see it included in the CIP, with a priority, just as other projects are listed. He expressed a desire that capital improvement funds be spent based on the priorities of the entire city. Budget talks for the upcoming fiscal year are under consideration now.
“I don’t want to push something in front [of projects already in line],” Kreger said, stressing that there is a process and vetting that all capital improvement projects are subject to before being added to the list.
Commissioner Phil Chapman questioned where this particular piece fits in with all the work that needs to be done along the waterfront. “Why is this so important that we have to do it now?” he asked. “Is this going to be something that will have to be ripped up so we can do some other project? This is one piece of many, and we need to know where this piece fits in the puzzle.”
Ross continued to argue for this project, citing his conversations with Andre Desilet, Stormwater Department Director, FPU, and the FBCC’s stated priority to develop the waterfront. He said that he has spent hours on this project researching and vetting it. “If you don’t want to fix the waterfront, if you want to put it in your 5 Year Capital Improvement Plan, so be it. But we committed to fix the waterfront.”
Kreger harked back to the process issue, governed by state law. “Let’s put it into the Capital Improvement Plan, where it should be. And we will make decisions as we consider the budget. I have not seen the current CIP, and I don’t know where we are going to get the $850,000 to maintain our roads. Didn’t we have a committee that put the CIP together? Just put this in the system. I’m saying we should not try to beat that system and not do end runs. Let’s put it in the system and put a priority on it. We deferred beach walkovers for years and took them out of the CIP. Let’s put everything in there and do it right. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea and we shouldn’t do it. I’m just saying we shouldn’t do end runs around everything else.”
Lednovich said that he supported the idea, but wanted to know how the city should do it.
Kreger continued, explaining that a new CIP priority system has been implemented, and that projects that had originally been proposed for the current year had to be deferred for lack of funds. He said he just wanted to see priority for all these projects considered against available funding. “That’s what state law says,” Kreger said. “Let’s do it properly.”
Chapman cited changing priorities and agreed with Kreger that the utility issue should be considered under capital improvements.
Miller agreed that the matter needed to be considered under the CIP and ended the discussion.
Allowing barge based restaurants and businesses along the waterfront
City Commissioner Chip Ross sought reactions from the other commissioners on the possibility of amending the City Code of Ordinances Section 90-78, which prohibits a water dependent, water related or water enhanced business from being on boat or barge permanently moored in City waterways. This prohibition means that Fernandina Beach currently excludes the potential development of the Amelia River front with “floating businesses.” In Fernandina Beach the only moored or docked businesses allowed are charter fishing boats and sightseeing boats licensed by the city. Boats advertised for sale may also be displayed.
Ross presented a series of slides showing how other cities have added floating restaurants and hotels as waterfront businesses. These businesses have proven to be popular draws in attracting visitors to the waterfront. If Fernandina Beach were to permit such activities to operate along the riverfront, the city and/or marina enterprise fund could realize substantial income from leases. He asked whether staff should be directed to amend Code of Ordinances Section 90-78 to remove the prohibition for a water dependent, water related or water enhanced business thereby allowing it to operate on a boat or barge permanently moored in City owned submerged lands.
Ross said that such barge based businesses “take care of a lot of the problems with height of buildings, flooding problems” and construction costs are much lower than for pier based buildings.
City Attorney Tammi Bach said, “We can make any of it happen, if that’s the direction the commission wants to go in. We will take care of making any code changes required. You would want to do some supplemental standards. If you give us direction, that’s what we’ll do.”
Mayor Miller raised concerns that brick-and-mortar businesses might have with such operations.
“I applaud your creativity,” Commissioner Mike Lednovich remarked to Ross. “But again, I want to go back to the vision of the waterfront.” He questioned what could be done with a parcel when the city does not have the entire vision. He cited the beauty of being able to look down Alachua Street to a clear view of the river. “Is your vision site lines, so you can see the river? Or do you want business? You are opening up Pandora’s box. Somebody could put an arcade on a barge.”
Ross replied that he was limiting the type of business to water dependent, water related or water enhanced businesses.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger called it an interesting concept. “My concern is that I would like the city to complete the Future Land Use zoning changes and work on the EAR. I don’t want each FBCC meeting to produce more direction that sets our people back on these actions. This idea can go in the queue, but I don’t think we should put it ahead of those priorities.”
Ross said that he was not suggesting that the change needed to be a priority. He said that he learned from his reading on walkable cities,“You need interesting places to walk to. Just having a vast waterfront is not interesting. People will migrate, people will congregate. I’m looking for ideas and this is just one tool in the box. It’s not the only idea. I’m just looking for interesting things to do down there.”
Both Kreger and Lednovich agreed that it was an interesting idea. There was no direction given to city staff to move forward at this time.
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.