Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 24, 2020
Navigating any jurisdiction’s building rules can prove challenging for the average citizen. But two areas of Fernandina Beach are even more challenging, especially for people who are not architects or professional planners. Parts of downtown Fernandina Beach are included in the Historic District, the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) or both, each with additional requirements and design guidelines. The other unique area is the Old Town Historic District, the original Spanish platted city of Fernandina, which uses Spanish land measures and has its own set of design guidelines.
New construction, alterations to existing structures, and demolitions are overseen by City staff and ruled upon by the Historic District Council (HDC), an advisory group that must weigh evidence coming from both applicants and City staff in deciding whether or not a particular project conforms to Fernandina Beach City Commission-adopted design guidelines and guidelines put forth by the Secretary of the Interior. Without HDC sign off, a project cannot materialize.
Often forgotten is that the HDC is required to sit in judgment of applications as a neutral, not as an advocate for either the applicant or the city. The HDC’s primary goal is to protect the integrity of historic districts from development that is inconsistent with existing historic structures and FBCC-adopted guidelines. The decisions they render do not serve as precedents for future cases, each of which must be addressed on its own individual merits.
The review process
Building projects proposed for local Historic Districts generally undergo extensive review, starting with a pre-application meeting with the City’s Historic Preservation Planner, Sal Cumella, who reviews a long checklist of requirements with the applicant prior to the applicant’s appearing before the HDC. The HDC, which is composed of 5 voting members and 2 alternates, considers staff recommendations, evidence provided by the applicant and competent, substantial evidence offered by the public prior to voting. The HDC can approve, disapprove or continue the case until the applicant addresses concerns the HDC explains to the applicant.
For those applicants unfamiliar with unique requirements of the Historic Districts or the CRA, the HDC offers at no additional charge what is called a Conceptual Review. Such review can save applicants both time and money in designing their projects and avoiding the need to alter architect-drawn final plans.
During discussions at the Joint Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) – Historic District Council (HDC) Workshop on February 18, 2020, City Attorney Tammi Bach and HDC Chair Mike Spino advised that better than 95 percent of all cases that come before the HDC are approved, most after no more than two meetings. However, some cases take longer than others generally due to incomplete application packages and poor understanding of design requirements by the applicant.
Old Town issues
Complaints of excessive subjectivity and lack of consistency in reviewing similar projects raised by some recent Old Town applicants prompted the FBCC and the HDC to meet in workshop session to better understand the underlying problems.
Lots in Old Town retain the platting of Spanish surveyors dating back to 1811. The land measure is a peonia. A peonia measures 46’ 6” by 93 feet. Old Town also has a unique 46’-6” square block labeled as a media peonia or half peonia. These lots run north and south and on east-west facing streets. Taken together, these two lot modules create the pattern of land division within the town grid. Development in Old Town requires adherence to City adopted design guidelines, which mandate that lot lines and view corridors reflect the original Spanish plat.
Until recently, problems in understanding and working with the Old Town grid had for the most part lay dormant. However, recent upticks in new housing starts in that neighborhood have brought the problems to the forefront, causing strife between neighbors and generating accusations of favoritism and uneven application of guidelines in HDC rulings on cases.
HDC Chair Spino advised the FBCC that reconciliation between the Old Town Guidelines and the LDC has become more complex than first thought, and that was why the HDC was informing the City Commission. “What I hope you understand from this discussion is that some of this stuff is complicated,” Spino said. “It does lead to conflict between citizens who perhaps see one application go one way and another, another. That’s because this stuff is hard. If it were easy, we could just give it to Sal [for a staff approval]. [The HDC] is trying to resolve the problems.”
[Spino was referring to a long list of actions which require building permits, but for which the HDC has delegated approval authority to City staff. Examples include: paint color, fences, doors. The complete list may be found in a matrix in the LDC, Section Table 8.03.03 (B).]
Spino continued, “Do some projects get treated differently when they are presented [to the HDC]? Yes. Because sometimes the quality of the presentation we get is very good, and the drawings make it simple to understand that projects are consistent with the guidelines and the Land Development Code. Those projects tend to be approved following one or two reviews. Other cases contain drawings of poor quality. They lack detail; they lack height measurement. Those projects get kicked back over and over again with guidance from staff and the HDC until all the issues are resolved.”
In response to questions from Mayor John Miller, Spino said that Cumella works diligently with applicants to try to guide them in the right direction. But sometimes, the only way to get resolution is to take the application to the HDC for guidance.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich said that from his limited experience with the HDC and applicants, he believed that the disconnect comes when applicants believe they have fulfilled all the staff requirements but they are rejected by the HDC. “That creates the acrimony,” he said. “When they have gone through the bureaucratic process with the City expert, and then you all [HDC] debate the merits of it, and you don’t even agree [among yourselves]. The applicant walks away with a denial after having been told by the expert he’s good to go with no direction from you on what he needs to do.”
HDC Member Tammi Kosack relayed her personal experience in bringing a case before the HDC to rehabilitate her downtown home. She spoke to lines of delineation between City staff approval and HDC approval. She explained that staff was very clear that some aspects of her proposal relied upon judgment of the HDC, which is made on a case-by-case basis.
Lednovich questioned interpretation of the guidelines, which is left to individual HDC members on some points. “What I’m driving at,” Lednovich said, “is that there is a lack of clarity. When I am driving down a street and I see a posted speed limit of 45 mph, I know what to do. If I am in the shoes of an [HDC] applicant hearing two different board members saying that they interpret the guidelines in an opposite way, what do I do?”
City Attorney Tammi Bach interjected in an attempt to explain the legal process imposed by state law. She explained that in cases before the HDC, the City is a party, the applicant is a party, and the HDC is a board of judges. On a panel of judges, different judges have different interpretations of the law, which they argue. “It may not make sense to the average citizen, but that is exactly the case you have in coming before the HDC. That is exactly what HDC members are supposed to do.” She told the FBCC that their only recourse is to rewrite the guidelines to make them more black and white. “What you have given the HDC to work with are guidelines with lots of room for interpretation; they are intended to be that way because [the HDC] is a panel of judges. When Sal sends a case to the HDC, he is a party, but the applicant is literally on the other side of the case. The HDC has to take the evidence before them only during the quasi judicial hearing — not from emails or telephone calls —and make a decision.”
Lednovich said, “I think the process is flawed from a customer service perspective.”
Spino addressed Lednovich. “Your focus on the customer, the applicant, is not entirely correct. We represent the Historic District broadly. That’s why each application is interpreted subjectively against the guidelines. I think you are asking for things that cannot be done under the guidelines you gave us. You haven’t had a whole lot of people from the downtown Historic District complaining to you about our interpretation; it’s only Old Town.”
“That’s correct,” Lednovich said.
Spino said, “It’s only a small group of people who are doing new construction in Old Town. We will work to interpret the guidelines more consistently, but you must understand that we have very competent people on this board.
HDC Member Benjamin Morrison suggested that going forward the HDC needs to make sure the applicant fully understands what needs to be addressed in an application before it can come back for consideration for approval. Spino added that the HDC rarely denies a case. Rather it does provide guidance so that the applicant might secure approval on a future visit. In response to a call from Vice Mayor Len Kreger for more consistency in application of standards, Spino disagreed. “I think we have been consistent,” he said.
Ross asked if the process of reviewing an application before it reaches the HDC could be improved to avoid wasting everyone’s time. Spino replies that Planner Sal Cumella goes through a long checklist to determine if a case is ready for a hearing, but that the applicant can always request HDC review and guidance. “Perhaps Sal just needs to say to an applicant, ‘You are just not ready,’” he said.
Cumella pointed out that he goes through a checklist before moving a case to the HDC but does not do a full review of the case in order to meet publication deadlines for meeting agendas. He will sometimes circle back to the applicant before the hearing to advise that certain other information will need to be provided to the board. “I see a large array of quality on cases submitted,” Cumella said. “Just because I can check all the boxes does not mean that it is a good application. It makes it harder for me and for the HDC to quickly look at an application to know it is meeting all the requirements.”
Spino said, “It’s incumbent on the applicant to meet the requirements, not for the HDC to force the applicant to meet the requirements.”
Bach said that at times when the HDC does give guidance to help move a case along, they are accused of inappropriately interjecting themselves into the design process.
HDC Member James Pozzetta, an architect, said that the HDC is only supposed to give general design guidance. “We don’t want to tell them exactly what they have to do,” he said. “I don’t think it’s our place to design their house for them.” In referring back to Lednovich’s argument about a 45 mph speed limit, Pozzetta said, “We don’t have a speed limit. Instead we must interpret what a ‘Go Slow’ sign means.”
Commissioner Phil Chapman said he had attended HDC meetings and heard members tell applicants, “These are the things you need to do.” He added that he has seen applicants return multiple times after the HDC has told them that they cannot do something, still seeking approval for the same action. “A lot of times you [HDC] members are getting blamed for things because people are not listening to you. I think you do a good job explaining what applicants need to correct. What you say to them and what they hear are often not the same. I think sometimes they don’t listen because they know that your recommendations will cost them more money.”
The discussion continued into current guidelines delineating media peonias and the need to maintain a ten foot visibility corridor. Cumella said that the HDC position on delineating this corridor has become more strict with increased construction in Old Town. Spino said that with new construction this can be taken into account in early design.
Spino concluded, “I think what I am hearing [from the FBCC] is that we need to instruct Sal to be even more rigorous in reviewing applications to prevent incomplete applications from coming before the HDC. I think he tries to be customer friendly. I think I would tell him to be a little less friendly?”
Cumella added, “We also have something called a Conceptual Review which we offer as a courtesy at no charge allowing the applicant to come as many times as s/he wants to seek guidance before requesting final approval.”
Kosack said, “We see cases for Conceptual Review from the more diligent applicants, who want critiques and guidance. They are playing by the rules.”
Morrison added, “They want to make sure before they invest a lot of money in design that they are going in the right direction.”
Cumella said that while he always offers Conceptual Review in his pre-application meetings with applicants, often the applicants just want to rush their project through. Spino added, “It is a long process.”
Bach said that while only applicants can appeal an HDC decision to the FBCC, any affected party can contest the decision in court.
The FBCC expressed confidence in the HDC, although some commissioners seemed unhappy with the inherent subjectivity in interpreting guidelines that can lead to charges of bias or inconsistency from some applicants. However, commissioners acknowledged that the complaints they receive primarily come from Old Town, not the larger downtown Historic District and CRA.
In order to address confusion and some contradictions between the guidelines and the City’s Land Development Code (LDC), the City is pursuing grant funding to revisit the guidelines. Although the state grant has been approved, the status of funding will not be known until summer.
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.