FBCC hears Old Town complaints about HDC process

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Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 9, 2020

Several residents of Fernandina Beach’s Old Town neighborhood took full advantage of their opportunity to speak during Public Input to air their grievances with the city’s Historic District Council (HDC) at the January 7, 2020 meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC). New Old Town homeowners claimed that the HDC was inconsistent in deciding cases and interpreting guidelines. Specifically, they alleged that while their particular cases were closely scrutinized to insure their compliance with Old Town guidelines and to maintain visibility corridors, the HDC unanimously approved a case for one of their own members that violated those same rules. Furthermore, they claimed that when they had tried to appeal that HDC decision, they were told that they could not do so.

Lynn Green, Old Town appellant

The HDC functions to protect sites of historical and architectural significance by acting as a design-review board for exterior alterations, repairs, moving or demolition of structures or historic landscape features within the city’s local historic districts. The purpose of the review process is to ensure that any proposed changes are compatible with existing historic features in terms of design, texture, material, siting and location.

Commissioners listened intently as the speakers laid out their complaints with the HDC process. The overarching concern centered on consistency in applying guidelines to similar cases, and whether guidelines are are interpreted as rules for some while remaining guidelines for others. One speaker quoted an HDC member as allegedly saying, “We are consistent in our inconsistency.”

Residents claimed that HDC rulings have resulted in significant rifts in the Old Town neighborhood, sometimes pitting neighbor against neighbor.

Tim Green, Old Town appellant

The particular case sparking the public outcry was HDC Case 2019-16, which was unanimously approved on July 18, 2019 (Michael and Jennifer Harrison, 800 Someruelos Street). During the HDC hearing  two residents raised objections to the manner in which the applicants had addressed a requirement to architecturally reflect view corridors on media peonia lots. Staff pointed out discrepancies in city code on how this should be done. HDC members agreed that the discrepancies needed to be eliminated and expressed a desire to do so by October. That did not happen. However, HDC members agreed that the Harrisons had addressed all their concerns sufficiently to warrant approval.

Michael Harrison, an HDC member, had recused himself from voting on the case, as he was the applicant.

Andrea Power, Old Town appellant

Following the vote on the Harrisons’ case, City Attorney Tammi Bach advised audience members of their appeal rights. Tim and Lynn Green and Andrea Power subsequently filed an appeal on the decision on August 15, 2019, claiming that the HDC decision “was not made in the best interest to the historical value of the Old Town grid that is the single reason for Old Town’s designation as a National Historic Site on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Upon review of the appeal, Bach reversed herself, stating, “I regret to inform you that upon reviewing your application for appeal to City Commission of the Harrison s HDC Case, it came to my attention that only applicants can appeal an HDC decision. Therefore, the City Commission cannot hear your appeal since you are not the applicant in that case. claiming that she had made a mistake and that the only the party could file an appeal for a hearing before the FBCC or Circuit Court.”

However, the Greens cited inconsistencies in City Code regarding who may appeal board decisions.

After listening to residents, city commissioners decided they should intervene, because  it appeared that the underlying issues affected an entire neighborhood. Commissioners agreed with speakers that consistency should be applied to similar cases. They decided to convene a joint meeting with the HDC. Options discussed included dissolving the HDC and placing the work in the hands of staff or taking the hearings themselves; replacing all or some of the HDC members; clarifying whether the Old Town guidelines should be made into rules.

Later in the meeting Commissioner Chip Ross agreed with the Greens, saying that the appeals process for all boards other than the HDC allows any affected party — usually interpreted as any city resident —to appeal a decision. He asked that all the appeals be handled the same way. With consensus among commissioners, City Attorney Tammi Bach agreed to do so.

When contacted for comment about concerns raised at the meeting, Michael Spino, who chairs the Historic District Council, provided the following response:

“Residents of Old Town have much to celebrate.  Many have worked tirelessly to build quality homes that fit into the unique site plan that the Spanish settlers left us.  The Old Town Design Guidelines provide a detailed road map for anyone applying to the Historic District Commission to build.  In the two years that I have  been on the HDC I have seen numerous applications for new construction.  Quality applications with professionally prepared architectural drawings that are consistent with the Old Town Guidelines move smoothly through the process and receive timely approval.  These applications provide detailed site plans, material lists, building measurements including heights and set-backs and tree surveys.  The well prepared applications are consistent with the Old Town Design Guidelines and the Land Development Code (LDC).

“Over the last two years I have also seen poorly prepared applications with drawings that don’t meet the guidelines and are unbuildable.  Some of these applications lack basic requirements like building heights or are outside the set-back requirements.  The proposed homes are sometimes not harmonious in size, spacing and shape.  These applications require multiple visits to the HDC and many revisions.  The applicants often ask the HDC for design direction.  These types of applications often also have problems during construction.

“The Old Town Guidelines are not inflexible rules and by design allow for some subjectivity and interpretation.  We heard some residents voice concerns about the consistency in the application of those guidelines.  HDC will work to bring more consistency to our interpretations.

“However, given the public’s desire, as expressed through the Guidelines, that good quality design should be used in Old Town it would be inconsistent and unfair to existing residents to approve substandard housing.  The HDC will continue to apply the Design Guidelines fairly and rigorously going forward.

“In March 2019 the HDC held a workshop to review the Old Town Guidelines.  The well- attended meeting yielded a broad consensus on many Old Town standards.  As a result the HDC has asked the City to revise the LDC to bring consistency with a short list of Guidelines.  An update to the Guidelines is moving forward under Bill Tilson’s skilled hand and should begin later this year.

“Old Town is an evolving, living community.  The HDC looks forward to helping it to be successful while building on its substantial historic past.”

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6 Responses to FBCC hears Old Town complaints about HDC process

  1. Jennifer Harrison says:

    Just to pit set the record straight, our application was first turned down. We had to pay the architect to make changes to our plan before it was unanimously approved by the HDC.

  2. Evelyn McDonald says:

    Regarding set backs, I have to assume that Lady Street has either no or minimal setback requirements as the two new houses being built there are an arms length from the edge of the street.

  3. Marlene Chapman says:

    The same rules should apply to each homeowner equally and right now this does not seem to be the case! The procedure needs to change and the requirements and rules need to be fairly set. Just because someone is on a Board DOES NOT mean that they should receive special treatment or exceptions. Fair and right is just that!

  4. Andrea Power says:

    You are correct Ms. Chapman! During the first hearing in May 2019, the board chose to not even discuss the fact that staff was recommending waiving the traditional variance requirement for encroachment of more than 24 inches into the view corridor. From the staff report – The Historic District Council has previously held projects to this 24 in maximum encroachment into side yard corridors. Traditionally, a variation from the Land Development Code would require a separate hearing as a variance. Since this conflict in language occurs in both the Guidelines and the Land Development Code, staff feels that it is appropriate for the HDC to determine the intent an applicability of these sections on a case by case basis until a resolution to the inconsistency can be implemented. How could the board and city attorney neglect to discuss this? Is this legal?

    At the May hearing, I raised concerns during public comment and Chair Spino included addressing the view corridor encroachment as part of his instructions to the Harrisons on how to proceed with the design for their next hearing (July). No changes were made to the encroachment and the board approved the design with no discussison. To add insult to injury, during our June workshop, based on consultation with Professor Bill Tilson, staff recommends the LDC be updated to remove the inconsistency between the guidelines and the LDC to protect and maintain the integrity of the grid. The board is in agreement except for board member Harrison who is also the applicant. It is hard to understand why the board approved this encroachment that historically would have required a variance. The Harrisons have been long time advocates for Old Town and protecting the grid, so it is difficult to understand why they would use discrepancies and gray areas between the guidelines and LDC to make the design they want fit. Why would a board member not use this new construction opportunity to build a best in class design based on the guidelines? I encourage City Commissioners, Staff and the citizens to reach out to the Harrisons and ask them to correct their design and remind them the grid is the main historical feature of the town and its preservation is of utmost importance.

  5. Betsie Huben says:

    I watched this mess unfold at the most recent City Commission meeting. And I have thought about it a great deal since. I tend to think somewhat more globally than others. Taken in the context of the recent Parks and Rec Advisory Board issues over Simmons Road Park, the mess at Planning Advisory over Amelia Bluff and many other divisive decisions that have taken place, I can only come to one conclusion. The various boards that exist to do the deep dive on important matters and then give good guidance to our City Commissioners do not function well – if at all. Case in point? After the first vote on Simmons Road Park, the P&RAB voted to reverse its recommendation! And then it got ignored on it’s request to pull back and provide more time to review. When I look at the last 2 to 5 years of city government, I am in awe of how many problems started with an issue at the board or committee level designed to prevent all the chaos we have been experiencing. Further, I think the deep frustrations people feel on both sides of the many issues is the direct result of this breakdown in the board/committee structure and the results it yields as things are moved up and on to the FBCC. When I read that a member of the P&RAB said he does not know what his role is, I shudder. When I listen to citizens report they did not receive equal treatment in front of a decision making body like the HDC, I cringe. We need to fix what is broken with the structure and operations of our city government PROCESSES and fast!

  6. Frank Quigley says:

    It is an open question whether our city commissioners study the issues and prepare before these meetings. From the peanut gallery it looks like decisions are made on the spot, in the moment, when emotions can sway critical thinking. Add the over-dependence on paid consultants and surveys to make decisions, that are not necessarily complex, is of great concern.

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