Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 21, 2019 9:50 a.m.
More than 100 people packed Fernandina Beach City Hall Commission Chambers at the City Commission’s March 19, 2019 Regular Meeting, overflowing into the hallway and outside the building. Most were there to urge City Commissioners to vote down Ordinance 2019-08, changing the city’s Future Land Use Map (FLUM) from Conservation to Low Density Residential for approximately 6.4 acres of land known as Amelia Bluff located on the east side of Citrona Drive across from Fernandina Beach High School. Fifty-four people, mostly newcomers and city residents, spoke and urged commissioners to put environmental concerns ahead of concerns over potential litigation with the developer who has proceeded to clear land and construct infrastructure on the basis of permits given by the city and the St. Johns Water Management District.
After over 4 hours of public input, staff presentation and discussion, the Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC), with the consent of the property developer’s agent, agreed to put off a decision until their April 16, 2019 Regular Meeting. In the interim, the city manager, city attorney and staff will meet with the property agent to see if there is any way to resolve or ameliorate the associated problems.
[For background on this issue, see earlier articles and comments in the Fernandina Observer.]
In consideration of the large number of people attending the FBCC meeting for this particular issue, Mayor John Miller moved it up on the evening’s agenda. Discussion began at 6:10 pm and continued to 10:30 pm. The meeting itself went on until 11:35 pm.
Kelly Gibson addresses FBCC and citizens
City Planning Manager Kelly Gibson made a brief statement during which she apologized to the community for the error that underlay the controversy before presenting the case with the staff recommendation to approve the FLUM change. She said, “Before I get started, I would like to address the community, my community (I live here too!) and state that I sincerely apologize for the role that I have played in the timing of the issue at hand this evening. Staff analysis and mapping was not enough to convey this message. The issue should have been addressed at the time of the consideration of the [Gum Street Right-of-Way] abandonment. For not having raised my voice more loudly, I am genuinely sorry.
“Since 2016 when this development was first reviewed, my position within the organization has changed from Senior Planner to most recently Director of Planning and Conservation. Given my current position and moving forward, I can tell you that things will change. I do have the ability to support the community in its goals — more immediately through changes with respect to the timing of processes, the degree of deliberation, and the volume analysis that will be provided for public review. Over the next several months and extending into the fall, staff will be working on procedural changes for all of our planning review processes.
“As many of you know, we are already under a moratorium for any additional Future Land Use Map changes for a period not to exceed one year. Staff has already completed preliminary analysis and are working to present a detailed analysis to the City Commission and Planning Advisory Board along with a strategy for amending the FLUM. The goal is to align the Zoning Map with the Land Use Map and act upon this opportunity to modify the land use map and zoning map to better reflect the conditions of the land under which it sits for any future development considerations.
“Finally and perhaps most importantly, I would like to encourage everyone here this evening to stay engaged, remain active, and share your voice for how our City is shaped over the next 30-year planning horizon by joining us in the Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR) processes. This year, the City is reviewing the entirety of its Comprehensive Plan to understand how well we are performing with the current plan and determine changes that reflect the community’s goals for its future. For those unaware of the Comprehensive Plan it is essentially the document that provides a blueprint for the future growth and development of the City. Please take full advantage of this opportunity to shape our community by attending scheduled workshops occurring in various locations throughout the City during the last two weeks of April.”
Gibson went on to address the root of the problem, as city staff has concluded. “It appears that the scrivener’s error occurred as a result of the intent to protect the low-lying environmental sensitive lands (wetlands) located on the east side of the subject property with the previous Wetlands Protection FLUM Category. Through Resolution 2018-39, the 3.63 acres of wetlands to the east of the subject property has been deeded to the City for conservation lands in perpetuity. Further, the subject property is bound by a 25-foot wetlands protection buffer requirement for the development of the home sites. Therefore, Staff finds the applicant’s requested action to be consistent with applicable policies.”
She concluded, “Again, in my current role as the Director, I will reiterate my commitment to investigate and take immediate action on process and procedural changes that will enable more deliberate and detailed analysis but more importantly, in this position, I will not be a small voice. I will make sure that any issues are raised loud and clear so that not only do those inside City Hall know, but the entire community sees, hears, and understands any flaws in our procedures for handling development processes. This community, my community, deserves excellence in planning. We can and will do better moving forward.”
Gibson was assisted in her presentation by Senior Planner Jake Platt.
The developer’s position
Wirt Beard, on behalf of Amelia Bluffs, LLC, the applicant for the FLUM change, explained his client’s position, stating that it was unusual to have a land use issue come up this late in the development process. He said that although W.R. Howells, LLC had originally purchased the property, ownership subsequently was transferred to Amelia Bluffs, LLC. He said that the property is very much under development, that roads have been cut, water and sewer infrastructure has been constructed and curbs have been poured.
He agreed with commissioners who had described the current situation as “a conundrum.” He maintained that the seemingly arbitrary drawing of the FLUM line seemed to reinforce that it was a mapping error. He said that when he and Mr. Howells had originally brought this matter to the attention of Marshall McCrary, then city director of Community Development, they were assured that it was an error and would be corrected. He quoted McCrary as saying, “We know it’s there, we know it’s an error, and we will deal with it. Don’t worry about it.”
He reminded the FBCC and the audience that of the 15 acres they had purchased from the Nassau County School Board, five acres have been donated to the city as wetlands. Further, the company has agreed to pay $115,000 to the city for conservation purposes upon final plat approval.
Further development of the property has been halted at this time because the city has issued a Stop Work Order, pending resolution of the land use question.
The public speaks
The vast majority of speakers did not agree that the fault lay with a scrivener’s error, rather parceling out blame to city staff, city commissioners and the developer. As far as they were concerned the FLUM was correct as drawn in 2011, and because it represented the will of the community, it should not be subject to change. Although 67 people signed up to speak, the length of the meeting coupled with the cold weather for those forced to stand outside, reduced the number of actual speakers to 54, each of whom was allowed 3 minutes — sometimes more — to express their views.
Audience members generally adhered to the Mayor’s ground rules: no outbursts or applause for or against speakers, no signs in the chamber. All but three of the speakers were forthright, passionate and unswerving in urging commissioners to rescind any prior permits or agreements with the developer and halt activities that would
adversely impact the land currently designated for 30 homesites. Those who opposed moving forward with the development as currently permitted generally represented one or more of the following positions: pro-environment, anti-development and/or anti-city staff. Comments ranged from “We know better; we must do better” to “This whole thing stinks”.
Many criticisms were leveled against city staff and the developer for not getting verbal assurances to correct mapping mistakes reduced to writing early in the development review process. Both parties had cited distraction over other issues associated with this property, notably the Gum Street Right-Of-Way.
While not contesting that the property targeted for development was devoid of wetlands, speakers did not budge from their position that the land use designation of Conservation had been intentional to allow the land to serve as a buffer between developed lands and the Egans Creek Greenway. Speakers cited the many benefits of trees to the environment and quality of life of city residents.
Speakers raised concerns over the need to protect the Egans Creek Greenway from fertilizer run-off that would be generated by the new development as well as the need to continue to provide habitat for wildlife. Some cited the increased danger to homes and the neighboring schools from hurricanes as a result of loss of tree canopy. Many speakers cited concerns over what they perceived as out-of-control development changing the small town feel and ambience of the island. Also concerns were raised over the impacts of tourism and the proposed addition of five new hotels to the city.
Some people dismissed the cost of potential litigation as “the price of the lesson the city must learn from making mistakes. Speculation that the developer would “just go away” with increased public pressure appears to be just that. Wirt Beard, agent for Amelia Bluffs LLC, has not expressed any interest in selling the property to the city. He has said that the company has already invested more than $2.5M in design, permits and infrastructure, and that seven homesites have already been sold.
Local attorney Clinch Kavanaugh, one of the few voices heard supporting the FLUM change, addressed Commissioner Chip Ross to inform him that failure to approve the action would result in costly litigation that the city would lose. He suggested that instead of putting money into a lawsuit the city should put money into a reforestation program to replant trees where they were inappropriately removed and to replace dead or dying trees around the city. Kavanaugh’s idea was the only specific suggestion advanced to promote conservation in a broader sense.
While some audience members did not seem phased by the potential for prolonged litigation or resulting higher taxes to pay for a settlement, the Reverend Anthony Daniel spoke to concerns for those who live in the city at the lower end of the economic spectrum who have not only seen the changes to the community, but who have increasing difficulty affording to live in the city. He exhorted commissioners to consider the welfare of all the people and to remember that their decision making should not be driven by money.
Audience members were generally respectful to commissioners and city staff in expressing their comments. Speakers thanked commissioners for their service to the community, often acknowledging the difficulty of taking controversial stands. Commissioners returned the respect by sitting patiently through what often became repetitious entreaties to vote down the ordinance. Some speakers, however, chose to personalize remarks against those commissioners — Mayor John Miller, Vice Mayor Len Kreger and Commissioner Phil Chapman — who had voted to approve the ordinance on First Reading. Most of the negative comments were directed against Chapman from people who accused him of abandoning positions he had espoused when he ran for office.
Commissioners address public concerns
At the conclusion of public comment, Commissioner Chip Ross was the first commissioner to speak, thanking everyone in the community for turning out. He expressed his hope that all the commissioners would have listened to the speakers. “Thank you for coming, for your civility, and thank you for being my neighbor, and for bringing what you bring to this community,” he said. “The FLUM designation is not a mistake in my opinion…. It is the current law, and I think the law should be obeyed.”
Reading from a prepared script, Ross said that he saw two choices being presented to commissioners: continue the course of development or defeat the amendment. If the latter, Ross recommended having the City Manager meet with the developer “to unwind what has occurred to find something that works for the community and the developer.”
Also working from a prepared script, Chapman explained his position, citing the many challenges that the city faces when it comes to finding money to fund all the priorities set by the community. “Trust me when I say I have truly struggled with this issue. … But as a former science teacher, I do have to try to look at all sides.”
Chapman acknowledged that he had campaigned on the slogan: I will hear you. “Unfortunately,” he continued, “I don’t think most of the community heard me when I raised the financial question. I’ve gotten only a couple of emails suggesting ways to fund this [land buy back] other than raising taxes. One email said, ‘Everyone on this island can afford a tax increase.’ I don’t know what island that person lives on, but it’s not the one I live on.”
He went on to raise other interests of the community: beach walkovers, waterfront park, addressing sea level rise, adding bike trails, stormwater projects, expanding the city marina, developing Front Street, opening Alachua Street, better street maintenance, improvements to park and recreation facilities, improvements to Main Beach, Simmons Road park, Centre Street improvements, golf course improvements, replacing fire and police vehicles, adding lifeguards to the beach, improving accessibility to city buildings and meetings, restoring Greenway bridges. “These all cost money,” Chapman said. “Taxes will not cover them all. I haven’t heard anyone suggest which of these things we should cut.”
He said that he had not received any suggestions on a plan to pay for stopping the Amelia Bluff development if it ends up in court. Chapman reminded the audience that regardless of how the vote would come down, the developer would still own the Amelia Bluff property. “The developer still can put homes on Citrona,” Chapman said, adding that he could keep the conservation land as a private preserve.
Chapman said that no one has come forward with a specific alternative plan for the land in question.
He said that throughout the community discussion of this controversy he has concluded that “government is not a spectator sport played out on social media.” He said that while people are “up in arms” over this particular issue, at the last Planning Advisory Board (PAB) meeting when members discussed the fact that there are 70 existing conflicts between the FLUM and zoning maps, only three audience members attended, two of whom were city commissioners.
Chapman decried the slurs directed at his integrity and other commissioners on social media as well as the outrage against city staff for making a mistake. “Mistakes shouldn’t happen, but they do,” he said. “He or she who has never made a mistake in life, you should cast the first stone.”
He cited a number of threats that have been directed at him. “I hate to ruin your fun, but I have no plans to run for re-election. The ballot is open for you to take my seat. People with integrity stand up for what is right, and they are willing to pay the price for taking that stand. I am willing to stand up for what I think is right, not just for a group of people, but for an entire city, to keep that city financially [sound].”
Twice during his presentation Chapman asked for quiet from audience members who mumbled or sighed audibly at some of his comments. He reminded them that he had treated them with respect when they spoke and he asked for the same in return.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich spoke next. He thanked speakers for what he termed their eloquent, intelligent speeches. He read, “Even though I am sitting down, I’m standing up for the residents of Fernandina Beach. I’m standing up for all the people who showed up here tonight, for all the people who emailed and called me. Even though I’m sitting down, I’m standing up for the trees, because that’s why I moved here….And finally, I’m standing up for this city and this island and I’m voting no.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger held to his position that the heart of the problem was a mapping error; Mayor John Miller did not express an opinion.
The developer returns to the podium
Wirt Beard, the developer’s representative, spoke a second time at the request of the mayor. He said he was impressed with comments and had heard a lot of passion through public comments. He recapped briefly how events had transpired to get to the current state. “The verbal assurance I had from [former Community Development Director] Marshall McCrary I believed was very reliable. We spent 14 months on the Gum Street Right-Of-Way. When Marshall McCrary said we’ll fix [the FLUM discrepancy], don’t worry, I moved on.” He agreed with city staff. “We are very committed to this plan, the pre-construction sales plan is already underway. We want to move forward.”
Commissioners discuss a plan and delayed vote
Commissioner Ross circled back to Chapman’s concern that there is no plan. He suggested that the FBCC vote the measure down and then try to negotiate a deal with the developer, perhaps using impact fee money to purchase the land.
Commissioner Chapman asked if it would be appropriate to postpone the vote until the city could sit down with the developer to come up with costs and a plan. “I think that would be a better way to go. I have no problems sitting down with the developer. But let’s do it now before we go down the road to a lawsuit.”
After some brief discussion with the city attorney and the developer, Vice Mayor Kreger withdrew his motion to approve the FLUM change, and Commissioner Chapman withdrew his second. Beard said, “In the spirit of cooperation, I’m not sure what two weeks will accomplish, but we’ll certainly be willing to sit down and talk. We’re being asked to negotiate with [City Manager Dale] Martin, even though the property is not for sale.”
Ross said, “Everything’s for sale.”
Beard responded, “Well spoken, sir, but that’s not our first intent. There are 7 potential home buyers who are not involved in this conversation here.”
Kreger offered a new motion, seconded by Lednovich, to continue the item to the April 16 FBCC meeting. The motion passed unanimously.
Commissioners thanked Beard for his willingness to work with the city.
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.