Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 19, 2018 – 3:30 p.m.
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) devoted 1.5 hours of its April 17, 2018 Regular Meeting to considering whether to approve a request from the MacArthur YMCA for a Planned Unit Development (PUD) overlay (zoning change) to the Amelia Park neighborhood regulating plan for 4.42 acres of undeveloped land located on Lake Park Drive. Despite a 4-1 show of support for this change issued by the Planning Advisory Board on October 11, 2017 and support from the city Planning Manager, this item failed when Commissioner Roy Smith’s motion to approve did not receive a second. There was no indication of further consideration.
Although initially it appeared that the item would be approved, commission opinion seemed to change once arguments were put forth that recreational green space areas of the PUD should be maintained as such, as opposed to being converted into more residential housing.
At the end of the discussion, Commissioner Chip Ross said, “I don’t believe that any city commissioner has run on a platform that we need more high end houses.”
Joel Embry and Mike Antonopoulos, the developers of Amelia Park, explained their plans to build what would be known as Amelia Park Lakeside on the land that the YMCA has declared surplus to its needs. The land in question is not currently part of the Amelia Park PUD.
They explained that they had met numerous times with the Amelia Park Neighborhood Association and Amelia Park residents. From those meetings they had identified 25 concerns, 23 of which have already been addressed. The remaining two are either in process or outside their control (noise from a business outside the development). They explained that while they could potentially build 28 homes on the 4.4-acre parcel, they would limit themselves to 17.
The land in question is currently not used or maintained for recreational purposes. There are some claims that it has become a refuge for homeless people.
In response to commission questions as to reasons for the deviation from the original PUD plan, Embry explained that over the years the plan has changed for various reasons: the town square was enlarged, the area set aside for commercial development had been converted to residential when after years of marketing experience, it became clear that the area was not ideal for commercial use.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger expressed concern over the YMCA’s efforts to realize its initial plans that called for a ball field and other recreational use of the areas that it was now proposing to sell. Eric Mann, MacArthur YMCA President and CEO, explained that there was little interest among YMCA members for such activities. He added that because the city has many viable ball programs, there was not an unmet need in the community for more ball fields. The demographics of the population of the Amelia Park community do not support such a need either.
Mann said that the YMCA would use the proceeds from the sale of the property to improve existing facilities and programs that were in demand by their members.
Embry added that the YMCA was not “abandoning an unmet need” as Kreger suggested, but rather abandoning an effort that was not successful.
Attorney Theresa Prince spoke on behalf of the Amelia Park Neighborhood Association. She echoed comments of previous speakers and added that a 10-page agreement had been executed that would also be binding on any future developers. She said that the developers, the YMCA and the neighborhood association had reached agreement. The only remaining obstacle was FBCC approval.
Three Amelia Park residents spoke to the item as homeowners, not representatives of the neighborhood association.
- Tom Washburn said that when he bought into Amelia Park he had been given a plan and assured that the space in question would remain recreational green space.He said that keeping a green space is essential to the quality of life of the neighbors.
- Robert Buckley said that while he believed that the development plans were excellent, he preferred to see the area remain green space. He said he had approached the YMCA to see if the community could purchase the property, but had never gotten a response.
- Robert Duffy echoed previous speakers and addressed concerns in not knowing the terms of the agreement between the YMCA and the developers. He questioned the economic viability of placing 16 homes behind a shopping center.
At the conclusion of the public hearing, Commissioner Ross announced that he was adamantly opposed to the ordinance. In explaining his reasoning, he said, “The developer promised in the beginning open space and recreational space. When developers come in and promise things, they need to meet their promises. I understand that things change over time, but what doesn’t change is the amount of land on this island is not getting any bigger…. I don’t believe that any city commissioner has run on a platform that we need more houses … or that we need to convert recreational or open space to high end housing. … I would be interested in knowing why any one of the other commissioners would vote to take dedicated recreational and open space and turn it into houses.”
No commissioner replied. After a pause Commissioner Roy Smith moved to approve the item, but no commissioner seconded his motion. Because it failed to receive a second, it will not go on to a second reading.
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.