Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 29, 2020
Editor’s Note: There are times important information deserves a “re-run”. Although no votes were taken, the city commission discussed its goals for the year and its plan to focus on three issues. Join the conversation and let the commissioners know what you think.
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) convened its annual visioning session at 8:00 a.m. In the clubhouse of the Municipal Golf Course on January 28, 2020. A sparse audience, consisting primarily of City staff and representatives of various City Advisory Boards, watched intently as Commissioners reaffirmed strategic goals set last year: improving the Amelia River front, including the addition of a park; improving conservation efforts; and enhancing shoreline resiliency.
Because the visioning session was a workshop as opposed to a regular or special meeting, no votes were taken. But by mid afternoon the FBCC achieved consensus on several key points in the conceptual plans presented to address the riverfront:
1. Maintaining 2-way traffic on Ash, Front and Alachua Streets
2. Adding angled parking to both sides of Front Street to provide an equal or greater number of parking spaces than currently provided for in existing lots that would be eliminated.
3. Providing for 8 petanque courts, a lawn area and a band shell at the south end of the proposed waterfront park (between the boat ramp and the southern boundary of the city-owned property)
4. Including a drop off point for the marina users at the foot of Centre Street
5. Moving and elevating the Veterans Monument slightly west of its current location
6. Incorporating a radial pattern design into the central portion of the proposed park along with an interactive play area
7. Using bulkheads and living shoreline elements to protect the downtown shoreline to a sea level elevation of 9 feet, representing the 100-year flood line
8. Assigning a dedicated project manager to oversee all the operations related to improving the waterfront and adding the park.
With FBCC consensus on points listed above, the concept will next be reviewed for input by Main Street, the Historic District Council, the Marina Advisory Board, and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee in February before being presented for public input in March. City Manager Dale Martin estimated that the final concept will return to the FBCC for consideration in early April.
Commissioners also reaffirmed their earlier decision to ask voters via referendum in November 2020 to agree to a dedicated tax to purchase land for conservation. The half-mill tax that was adopted in the 2019-2020 City Budget to purchase conservation land expires at the end of the current Fiscal Year on September 30, 2020.
The FBCC also discussed the role of City Advisory Boards. They agreed to a suggestion from City Clerk Caroline Best that all board terms would remain staggered (1, 2, or 3 years) but coincide with the beginning and end of the Fiscal Year.
By far, the topic foremost on everyone’s agenda and generating the most discussion was downtown waterfront improvement. The FBCC saw for the first time conceptual plans put forth by three consultants working together to develop plans that would address traffic and resiliency concerns as well as park design. These plans had been developed with input from City Commissioners and a steering committee put together by City Manager Dale Martin which included the chairs of the Historic District Council, the Marina Advisory Board, and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee as well as the Executive Director of Fernandina Beach Main Street.
Over the course of study and input, the landscape architecture firm of Marquis Latimer + Halback developed a series of options for the park which built on ideas and plans proposed by earlier committees and Commissions. Jeremy Marquis, the firm’s President, presented the plans which provided broad views of the river, walkways along the waterfront and drop off areas for the marina. He reviewed input provided by each City Commissioner and Board Chair.
Marquis stressed the importance of providing opportunities for park visitors to view the river and take advantage of the westward views of sunsets, unique for Florida’s east coast. He expressed a need to better connect Centre Street with the waterfront, which he proposed to do with drop off area for the marina at the foot of Centre Street. This would necessitate moving slightly westward and elevating to greater prominence the Veterans Monument. A large circular lawn area and a band shell (as opposed to an amphitheater) would occupy an area in the southern part of the park. Eight petanque courts would anchor the southern end.
Other possible additions to the southern portion of the park included a 5,000 square foot public gathering building that could be used for public and private events (weddings, graduations, meetings, etc.) and a new Atlantic Seafood building.
The north portion of the park, where there is less land, would continue the waterfront walkway and add an interactive play area. Another option discussed was adding a gazebo to the walkway.
The 173 parking spaces currently provided in Parking Lots A-D would relocate to angled street parking along Front Street, where possibly 20 additional spaces could be added.
The consensus of the City Commission was to accept proposed design E, which incorporated many of the elements of the other designs and presented a “fan design” for paths and approaches to the waterfront in the central area.
In concluding his presentation, Marquis said that he hoped the exercise would produce a waterfront that would reflect the uniqueness of Fernandina Beach, focus on the water and that residents would believe that the result was worth waiting 40 years.
Jeffrey Seaward of Ayres Associates discussed Front Street, parking and traffic flow, as well as the Alachua Street opening to Front Street. He reaffirmed that there would be sufficient space to provide angled parking on both sides of front street and to allow two-way traffic on Alachua, Centre, Ash and Front Streets. He provided two options for the Alachua opening, one a regular T design and the other incorporating a roundabout.
Commissioners seemed intrigues with the roundabout, which could keep vehicular traffic from ending up in the Port of Fernandina area. However, some concerns were raised about cost, taking land away from the park and addressing railroad safety concerns.
Andrew Holesko of Passero Associates addressed options for solving resiliency and waterfront erosion concerns between the Port of Fernandina and Rayonier. He said that sea level measurements along the proposed park area ranged from 5-7 feet, with only 3 areas protected to 7 feet, which represented the 50-year flood mark. He suggested a variety of approaches to protect against sea level rise throughout the area.
Holesko said that the south end of the park, which is at a higher elevation, can be adequately protected via a landscaped berm and living shoreline. In moving north, failing bulkheads need to be replaced. He added that the current boathouse is located in the wrong place and needs to be replaced by a building which is elevated.
There was also discussion of the need to elevate and repair the boat ramp.
In moving to the area north of Brett’s Waterway Cafe, Holesko noted that this was the lowest area that flooded even in high tides. He discussed options for increasing elevation in that area using wall or riprap.
Holesko raised an intriguing option that involved filling in land to which the City has claim under the 1921 Butler Act. This law allowed landowners to lay claim to submerged lands if they were able to prove that the land had once been developed and usable before it had eroded. There is approximately 0.6 acre of land which could be filled, if permits could be obtained. The land area has not been designated wetlands and FDEP has not raised objections. However, to do so would require assent from the Army Corps of Engineers, a time-consuming and difficult process.
Holesko provided preliminary cost estimates for protecting the waterfront ranging from $11M to protect to 7 foot elevation to $18M to protect to 9 foot elevation. It was the consensus of the FBCC to go to the 9 foot level.
Commissioners discussed several options in pursuing a bond to purchase land for conservation. Underlying the discussion was a concern that voters this fall will be asked to approve bond referenda for the School Board and Nassau County as well. They expressed fears that if voters were asked to approve three separate tax increases, they might vote down all three.
Since Nassau County is also proposing a bond to acquire land for conservation, Commissioners asked City Manager Dale Martin to approach the county seeking an agreement that if their measure passed, they would guarantee a proportionate amount for conservation land within the City of Fernandina Beach. Absent such an agreement, it appeared that the City was prepared to move forward seeking voter approval for a land conservation acquisition bond at the same rate as the Greenway bond, which is set to expire in 2 years. In effect the new bond would replace the Greenway bond and result in no increase in the rate of taxation while adding approximately $400K to the land conservation fund.
Regardless of which path the FBCC ultimately selects, voters would get the last word on whether they wanted to pursue land acquisition with tax dollars.
The FBCC discussed the nature and role of City Advisory Boards. While the mission and goals of several boards are clearly established by law and precedent (Board of Adjustment, Code Board, Historic District Council, Planning Advisory Board), responsibilities and goals of other boards are not as clearly understood. Some do not even have bylaws.
Commissioners agreed that the boards needed to understand that they are advisory; policy is made by the FBCC. With respect to complaints from some board members that they do not have adequate information to discharge their duties, City Manager Dale Martin said that it is the job of the staff liaison to provide that.
Commissioners considered reinstituting a requirement mandating periodic board reports at meetings, highlighting the work of their committee, problems or need for guidance.
Capital Improvement Plan
Commissioners spent some time reviewing the current Capital Improvement Plan and the use of Impact Fees to fund some of the improvements.
Estimates for completing work on the waterfront exceed $20M.
Commissioner Chip Ross suggested that City Departments needed to focus on maintaining and repairing what the City already has, as opposed to building new and better. “We are a town of 12,000 residents,” Ross said, adding that most of the impact money would be going to to the waterfront park. “I think we are in crisis.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger agreed with Ross and said, “We need to live within our means and take care of what we have.”
Commissioner Mike Lednovich asked if the waterfront park should be delayed because the city has other priorities.
Kreger added that the majority of projects proposed in the Capital Improvement Fund did not involve new construction.
Ross expressed his belief that much of the waterfront cost could be defrayed via dedication of Impact Fees, grants and FDOT assistance. But he suggested that certain projects — such as extending the marina northward — needed to drop off the list. He said that currently City debt on the marina exceeds its assessed value. He proposed either repurposing the FIND matching grant that had been awarded to extend the marina northward or returning the grant unused.
Ross also suggested that the City needed to get creative in seeking financial solutions to funding the waterfront improvements.
Other commissioners agreed.
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.