Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
November 10, 2019
Sometimes the most interesting discussions occur at the end of Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) meetings. Such was the case at the November 5, 2019 Regular FBCC Meeting, which did not adjourn until 9:50 p.m. This article is the first of two covering discussions that occurred at the end of that meeting concerning the waterfront and the marina.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich began discussing waterfront park development along the Amelia River by posting a social media comment in which the writer questioned what appeared to be “momentum building in the City Commission to build along the waterfront.” The writer continued, “Our waterfront is a special feature of our fair city. It certainly needs some loving care and the idea of planned park features seems to make a lot of sense. But more and bigger buildings blocking our river & marsh views seem to fly in the face of preservation and the charm of Fernandina.”
“When I read this stuff on social media, I like to provide facts,” Lednovich said. “I know that Commissioner [Chip] Ross has prepared a slide show to do just that, so I will turn my time over to him.” Lednovich clarified that he had not discussed this with Ross, but had seen his presentation in the packet that accompanies the meeting agenda.
Using a series of 13 slides, Ross walked commissioners through his understanding of the challenges the city must meet to accomplish its goal of a safe, interconnected, ADA accessible and pedestrian oriented waterfront. He expressed his belief that the city first needed to decide how to handle the opening of the Alachua Rail crossing: whether it should be pedestrian only, or also include one-way (either west or east) or two-way traffic. He also said that the commissioners needed to decide whether pedestrian traffic should be channeled to fence openings on either side of the railroad tracks or whether the rail tracks should be upgraded by replacing ties and rock with more attractive concrete and bricks to allow for open pedestrian access across the tracks.
Ross said he would like to ask the City Manager to come up with a study to identify and the costs of the options he had identified for opening the Alachua Street rail crossing with a goal of holding a workshop on the results in January 2020 and taking public input.
“If we are going to go forward with a park,” Ross said, “these are the kinds of decisions that need to be made.”
In response to a question from Lednovich, Ross replied that despite earlier traffic studies going back 20 years, what he is requesting has never been done.
Ross and Lednovich got into a brief discussion involving FDOT requirements and engineering questions. Ross said that the Alachua opening debate has been going on for more than 20 years. “Do what I do in the Emergency Room,” Ross said. “Get the data, make an assessment and come up with a plan.”
Chapman calls for master plan, prioritizing projects
Commissioner Phil Chapman verified with City Manager Dale Martin that the City has had $850K “sitting in the bank” for more than a year to open the Alachua Street crossing. Chapman said that he had been told that two years’ worth of projects needed to be completed prior to opening Alachua Street. He questioned why the City should be proceeding with Ross’ plan for more consultant work now when the project is two years out. “We haven’t done any concrete plans for Front Street,” Chapman said. “The planning and infrastructure needed to make Front Street a passable piece of road has not been completed. Regarding Ross’ option to cement over the railroad ties Chapman said, “This is the first I’ve heard of this. It has never been presented in any plans. How much is that going to cost us? To [focus on Alachua] right now in my mind is a total waste of money.”
Chapman reminded commissioners that before he had been elected, he had presented commissioners with rubber ducks as he told them they needed to put their ducks in a row. “You know what? We need to put our ducks in a row. We need to develop a list of what needs to be done in priority order and move down the list. We plan, and we plan, and we plan. And we never accomplish anything. In a year the membership on the FBCC will change again. And all this money and all this planning could be gone, because somebody else has a new plan. … [Ross’ idea] is just too premature for me.”
Kreger commits to park, Alachua opening
Vice Mayor Len Kreger said, “First of all, we are going to build the park. We’ve set the footprint on a 5-0 vote. More importantly, we are proceeding with eminent domain to acquire a piece of property that we have deemed necessary for the park.”
With respect to Alachua, Kreger said, “I thought we were going to open Alachua. I’ve seen plans to do so. This is a very common sense thing to do in a city laid out in a grid like our downtown. I thought we were already committed to doing this.”
Ross responded to Chapman, reminding him that the stormwater infrastructure needs are currently being addressed. Ross said that before work on a park can proceed, its boundaries must be settled. He continued to maintain that a firm decision on what would be the Alachua intersection was needed prior to addressing issues like parking and sidewalks.
Chapman expresses frustration over lack of master plan for Front Street
In response to a question from Lednovich, Chapman replied, “How do you open Alachua Street until the plans are there for Front Street? Front Street is a major project with railroad crossings, possibly changing traffic patterns.” Chapman cited the crossing improvements needed for Ash and Centre Street as additional considerations. “You want to drive your car down Alachua Street to Front Street the way Front Street is now? We need to have a master plan rather than doing this one piece at a time. Everyone’s talking about a park, but some people are just talking about parking. There are concerns about the boat ramp. How does it fit into traffic patterns and parking along Front Street? We [the FBCC] are just picking and choosing [our own priorities]. But I’d like to see us say ‘This is how we start, this is what we do.’”
Chapman continued to express frustration over the studies, plans and expenditures over the years on all the issues involved in the downtown waterfront. “Yet I still don’t see a clear direction to get something done.”
Lednovich asked City Manager Martin if there had ever been a Front Street plan. Martin replied there had not. Ross interjected and replied, “Yes and no. This has all changed because FDOT has changed its position. They are mandating what will happen at Ash and Centre Streets. These actions will push Front Street westward. … As I’ve said before, what you do on Front Street and what you do on the waterside will drive what happens between.”
Lednovich said, “Then to Commissioner Chapman’s point, these are interdependent roads. Breaking one off seems not wise [in the overall] view. Alachua is important, but you have to know what you are going to do with the other two interchanges before you act. So I agree that we need a Front Street plan.”
City Manager reminds FBCC of ongoing work they have approved
After additional comments from Chapman, Mayor John Miller recognized City Manager Dale Martin, who presented a slide showing what the FBCC had approved 5-0 on August 6, 2019. “So I have been moving forward with this plan. I have the Passero consultants working on the shoreline. I have the Marquis & Lattimer consultants working on the park component. We are negotiating with the Ayres Consultants for the Front Street plan. All these firms are on the city’s CCNA list, so I can move forward with these things. And, yes, all these firms will be here on November 19 for the first time to meet with each other. This little troika will constitute the steering committee to see how we will pull all this together and will include stakeholders such as the chairs of the Parks & Recreation Committee, the Marina Advisory Committee, the Historic District Council, and the Main Street Design Committee. They will be responsible for tieing all this together.
“With regard to FDOT, they will pay for upgrading the railroad signals at Ash and Centre Streets. And the clock is ticking on that funding, which is available during the state’s current fiscal year, which began July 1. According to the preliminary analysis provided by the Passero engineers [who presented the plan the FBCC approved on August 6], all three rail crossings — Ash, Centre and Alachua — can sustain all the necessary signalization while we still maintain 2-way traffic on Front Street.
“That is the concept I am moving forward with. If you [the FBCC] want to change it, then let me know.”
Kreger reminds FBCC of eminent domain action underway
Kreger cited all the studies either underway or completed. “Dale is 100 percent correct,” Kreger said. “We sat here 5-0 to set that footprint [pictured in the slide] because we were going forward with eminent domain action. Without a public purpose, an eminent domain action will not be approved.” Kreger added that he supported constructing a fence along the railroad tracks for safety reasons.
Ross continued to maintain that approval of the August 6 plan was not sufficient because the FBCC still needed to decide whether Alachua would be one- or two-way. He also expressed his opinion that fences are not safe and wanted an opinion from a professional engineer in that regard.
Lednovich tries to summarize; City Manager seeks FBCC commitment
Lednovich turned to Martin and asked if Ross’ questions could be posed to the consultants who will be in the city on November 19. Martin replied, “They’ve already been asked. Their proposal addresses that. What I’m asking is, could I do my job? Public input is going to kill this, and I hate to say that. You guys need to make a decision and let us move forward with the plan. Because you are finding out public input is saying kill the parking aspect — we don’t want to lose parking. That’s why nothing has happened for decades because people with political constituencies bite at the ankles and force people to back off of their commitment. Are you committed to this plan? I have not been given any other direction other than ‘move forward with this plan.’”
Lednovich said, “Yes, I want you to do your job. You said you have already posed these questions to the firms that are going to be here on November 19.”
Martin said he had and that was part of the engineering proposal being presented.
“Great,” Lednovich said. “Then let’s hear from them.”
“Works for me,” Ross said.
Chapman said, “I’d just like to compliment the City Manager. It does sound like you are putting the ducks in a row.” Mayor Miller echoed Chapman’s compliments.
Background notes: The Fernandina Beach City Commission approved the opening of the Alachua Street rail crossing as one element of the Centre Street Revitalization Plan in 1975. Discussions with the railroad to effect this decision were conducted intermittently subsequently. In 2011, with the FBCC’s adoption of the Forward Fernandina Strategic Plan, the long delayed project appeared to be on the verge of implementation. However, city elections produced a new commission that once again backed off the project. For a more detailed look at the history of this project, see https://fernandinaobserver.com/uncategorized/alachua-street-rail-crossing-a-brief-history/.
The City has conducted multiple charrettes and taken significant public input over many years in putting together waterfront plans. A Waterfront Advisory Group (WAG) was formed to synthesize all the community input and produce a plan. That plan was adopted and modified further by a WAG2. It has been modified since adoption in 2014. To read more about the tortuous path of park design, public input and changing political views, search the Fernandina Observer for many articles that have covered the issue over the past 8 years.