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.
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.
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.
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.”