FBCC votes 3-2 to approve Simmons Road Park Plan

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Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
November 20, 2019

“Parks are supposed to be places of great joy.”
Quote from an audience member

The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) at their November 19, 2019 Regular Meeting approved Resolution 2019-189 (Simmons Park Plan) on a 3-2 vote following more than three hours of presentations, public input, and discussion.  The vote did not sit well with the audience which overwhelmingly opposed the revised plan.  Tempers flared between commissioners on opposing sides of the vote. The language of the Resolution, which was prepared prior to the November meeting of the Parks and Recreation Committee (PRAC) failed to reflect that committee’s vote to nullify its prior approval of the park plan on a 4-1 vote.

The proposed Simmons Road Park was originally conceived in 2018 as part of a State grant application, in part to address the identified lack of recreation facilities in the southern portion of the City.

Original Simmons Park concept

When the city became aware that the state had not approved the funding of grants under this program, the Parks and Recreation Department continued moving forward with plans for the park. The FBCC approved the use of Parks and Recreation impact fees ($400,000) for this park’s construction.

According to 8 Flags project architect Benjamin Morrison, the City approached 8 Flags Playscapes with an offer to partner on the development of the Simmons Road Park.  In his statement before the FBCC, Morrison said, “After discussing it at length, we decided that it checked every single box for us. We felt like it was truly an opportunity to make a positive impact in our community, and a meaningful step towards making Fernandina Beach the most accessible community in Florida. To create a universally accessible Nature Park, something that does not currently exist in the community, could make a significant impact on the lives of so many in our city and beyond. Further, when Project Chance approached us to partner and provide their expertise and financial resources, we knew this was a worthwhile endeavor. Not only could we partner with the City to make sure accessibility remains a top priority, but we could also offer around $100,000 in funding and services to help make it a reality. Truly a win-win for everyone involved.”

Plan presented to FBCC on 11/19/2019

Project Chance is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to aiding children diagnosed with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Proponents of Simmons Road Park Plan (l-r): Benjamin Morrison and Sharyl Wood of 8 Flags Playscapes; Matt Badiali (Project Chance); Trey Warren (8 Flags Playscapes)

With an understanding that the city would partner with them in the Simmons Road Park Project, 8 Flags Playscapes, which had contributed to the development of Pirate’s Playground and Egans Creek Park, had designs prepared by Gillette & Associates.  Also, the Parks and Recreation Department began purchasing equipment for the park, which had not yet been vetted by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee and/or approved by the FBCC.

PRAC met on October 8, 2019, and by a 4-1 vote recommended to the City Commission approval of the design for the proposed park. However, at their November 12, 2019 meeting, after having considered public input and concluded that more information was needed prior to formal consideration by the FBCC, the PRAC then voted 4-1 to withdraw their prior approval. 

The item is presented.

Parks & Recreation Director Nan Voit addresses latest Simmons Road Park Plan as Trey Warren (l) and Benjamin Morrison of 8 Flags Playscapes look on.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Nan Voit introduced the item to the FBCC at their November 19 meeting by recapping events in the approval and development process for the current plan.  Representatives of Eight Flags Playscapes joined her and provided plans for the proposed park showing reductions in tree loss and size of the pavilion from their initial submission.  Commissioner Mike Lednovich followed their presentations with a 60-plus slide presentation of his own, lasting about an hour and plagued with technical difficulties that prevented him from showing video clips of PRAC meetings during which the park plans were discussed.  

Lednovich’s presentation highlighted what he termed “process failures” that occurred as the original concept for a low impact nature park morphed into plans for a more developed park to include an accessible playground and nature trail in a heavily wooded 6-acre parcel.  He said that promised public meetings to seek input from surrounding neighborhoods were either not held or not documented.  He cited several instances from PRAC meetings where PRAC members did not seem to be in the information loop on park developments. 

Lednovich slide

Lednovich pointed to other parcels that could be used for a handicapped accessible playground.  He cited serious concerns about the impact of the park as currently presented on island wildlife.  He also questioned why the city would be allowing 69 trees to be cut down on city-owned property when the FBCC had just approved a half-mill tax increase to allow the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands for conservation and tree protection.

Lednovich slide

Earlier in the meeting Morrison had said, “We are aware that others in the community have proposed alternate locations that they say can provide a similar opportunity for development with less environmental impact. We are familiar with these sites, and have considered the feasibility of whether they offer an opportunity that we feel fits the goals of our organization and of the individuals and organizations that support our endeavors.  An airport location, including the soccer fields, does not offer the calm environment necessary for a playground to be considered universally accessible. The golf course is significantly more complex than presented and a retention pond location next to a busy parking lot presents many challenges and is not conducive to a calm environment.  We are supporters of the River to Sea Trail, but it too does not offer the amenities that the Simmons Road Park site offers, and should not be referenced as a baseline for accessibility in the community.  We can say with certainty that these locations do not offer what is possible with the Simmons Road Park location. It is because of this that 8 Flags Playscapes is 100% committed to this project as well as the location as presented this evening.”

Morrison said that the playground has been designed on a Timucuan Indian theme.

Morrison provided some examples of playground activities envisioned for toddlers to 12 year-olds.

Prior to the FBCC’s vote on the Resolution, 21 members of the public addressed the FBCC with their concerns.  The theme that pervaded their comments was the apparent lack of process and transparency in changing the original, FBCC-approved concept from a nature preserve with a couple of parking spaces and a bathroom to a full blown park with an accessible playground and a nature trail that would require the removal of 69 trees.  

Speakers, most of whom were city residents, urged commissioners to postpone consideration of the park until a compromise could be worked out or another location could be found for the playground so that the original concept for the Simmons Road Park could proceed. While speakers for the most part were calm and respectful, there was no doubt that they were both confused and disappointed at what appeared to be a breakdown in approval process for a new city park.  They cited the FBCC’s ignoring the latest advice of the PRAC (approved on a 4-1 vote), which recommended that the FBCC not consider the current proposal until PRAC could further study and evaluate the current plan.  Several speakers suggested that the city should focus on improving existing parks, especially restroom maintenance, before adding to existing maintenance woes with a new park.  Some expressed frustration over the “us vs. them” attitude when it comes to allowing non-city residents to use city facilities.

Some notable quotes:

“Simmons Park has become the city’s Brexit.  Why don’t we just start over?”

“The city approval process is broken; the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and there is no guidance provided to PRAC.”

“What’s the rush?  Both sides have good intentions.”

“You ask citizens to get involved, and then you ignore what they have to say.  This government is not serving the people.”

One resident, who spoke at the end of public discussion, expressed exasperation with the FBCC and the audience.  “Fernandina Beach is better than this.”  He went on to say that he was put off by the criticism being directed at “people who are trying to do good.”

There were several instances of less than civil discourse.  Commissioners sniped at each other; audience members talked in low tones among themselves during the FBCC’s discussion, disparaging both commissioners and city staff.  One speaker made not-so-veiled accusations against commissioners for displaying disrespectful attitudes and behavior toward those who disagreed with them.  He was challenged by Mayor John Miller, who was under the weather and took offense at the comments.  Commissioner Phil Chapman also challenged the speaker.

 Ideas and suggestions were put forward, including:

  • Reducing plans for parking on site by allowing parking on Simmons Road;
  • Making existing city parks handicapped accessible, thereby reducing the need for a playground at the Simmons Road Park;
  • Considering other possible locations:  airport, golf course, soccer fields

Commissioner Chip Ross, who had earlier listed all the approved projects which are looking for funding from Parks and Recreation Impact Fees on the city’s Five Year Capital Improvement Plan, urged caution in proceeding with the Simmons Road Park at this time.  He reminded commissioners that the FBCC’s priority has been to construct a waterfront park downtown.  As development opportunities disappear, less and less money will be collected in impact fees.  He believed that existing funds must remain available for the waterfront park.

Commissioner Phil Chapman

Vice Mayor Len Kreger argued that because impact fees are collected from new development, they should be spent to provide amenities in the neighborhoods that have generated the revenues.  The residential growth in the city is toward the south, including the Simmons Road  area.  He declared that the proposed project is a legal expenditure of impact fees, consistent with the Comprehensive Plan and the Parks Master Plan.  He supported the plan.

Commissioner Phil Chapman, a strong advocate for handicapped access to all areas of the city, made an impassioned speech on the problems facing disabled people in the course of a normal day.  He reminded commissioners that one of their goals was to be the most handicapped accessible city in the state.

Mayor John Miller

Mayor John Miller also supported the plan, expressing confidence in 8 Flags Playscapes based upon their work partnering with the city on two earlier projects:  Pirates Playground and Egans Creek Park.

When the vote was taken the Resolution was approved without an accompanying plan by three commissioners:  Chapman, Kreger and Miller.  In opposing the motion, Ross indicated that he wanted to see the item postponed until questions could be answered.  Lednovich also opposed the resolution out of process and conservation concerns.

Following the vote outcome which was not unexpected, several audience members directed loud, critical comments toward the FBCC before storming out of the chamber.

The motion that was finally approved called for a timetable to be presented to the FBCC in December.  Additionally, City Manager Dale Martin today said that there will not be any construction work initiated until points raised during the meeting can be fully addressed and clarified by the appropriate city staff.

CORRECTION:  Nan Voit has clarified that she proceeded to purchase equipment for the Simmons Road Park because the  FBCC had approved both the concept and the $400K budget.  There was always an intent for a playground in the park.  She also said that she, not 8 Flags Playscapes, obtained the surveys.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’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.

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11 Responses to FBCC votes 3-2 to approve Simmons Road Park Plan

  1. Dave Lott says:

    Defies common sense in light of the forced conservation tax. This has never been an issue about support for an all accessible playground, but this specific location. I fear that time will show that this location will be plagued by vandalism and other negative actions. There clearly was a breakdown in the process here.

  2. Brandon Farmand says:

    This thing went off the rails with the 82/18 argument. The minute this turned into a city vs county thing is when tensions rose, people picked sides. I was glad to hear the commissioner point out that these city residents had paid around a million dollars of park impact fees. Those 18% of residents should get their due benefit. Could that benefit have been built somewhere else? Perhaps but once this thing pitted neighbor vs neighbor, that was over. But I also appreciated and agree with Commissioner Ross regarding accessibility at the existing parks. I’m glad he read excerpts from that op ed. I hope they make all parks fully accessible, despite this decision. And Dave, to your point, there are very interesting ideas out there from other cities to prevent vandalism in public parks and keep facilities clean. Maybe this one can be a test case for some new ideas. Lastly, as 8 Flags and the City finalize this design, I hope they work hard to give consideration to these legitimate concerns and continue to minimize the impact.

  3. Betsie Huben says:

    Why have advisory boards at all if you are not going to actively consider their advice? Of course, it would have been super helpful if Ms. Voit, the P&R director, had done the right and honest thing and chosen to include a synopsis of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board’s follow up discussions from their November meeting and their votes as part of her lead-off, timeline presentation. (Did she really think folks in the audience would not notice her glaring omission?) This entire matter has been a complete fiasco of process on every level. Instead of stopping for a pause to regroup with their advisory board, three commissioners voted to plow ahead with $400K for a park that is 3 times the size originally outlined with features never included in the original draft that will be incorporated into a plan that is not even finalized at this time. When Mr. Morrison, the “volunteer:” who is leading the charge and who appears to be in charge of the project for the city, who has already spent $65K of the money allotted for the effort but who is not under contract of any kind with the city, finally hatches a plan that HE likes (recall – there is no contract providing scope, sequence, or deliverables) he will then proceed to plow up the very thing the commissioners voted they want to save – nature! If it is not a plan or HE likes, he will simply take his drafting marbles and go home. If any of this sounds familiar, it is! We just came through a similar disaster of process with the planning department at Amelia Bluff. If I had not actually watched the final act of this tragedy of government play out, I would not have believed it. But it really happened. It is shameful. And since our fair city does not seem to learn from its past mistakes, it will absolutely, positively happen again because the definition of insanity is…

    • Dave Lott says:

      Betsie, while I agree with many of your points regarding the Simmons Road location, it is important to remember that the city’s advisory councils are just that – advisory. One should always listen and consider that advice but there is never any obligation to adopt that perspective as I am sure the commissioners get advice from other perspectives. In past years, advisory groups from the golf course and marina became very self-serving in their recommendations to the commission and they were abolished. Certainly not the case here and the recommendations of the PRAC should have been contained in the presentation.

  4. This has blown up from a simple walking trail to what I call a development complete with restrooms, parking for 9 vehicles, playground and pavilions. I, as a resident of Simmons Cove (City taxpayer) have never been contacted by the P&R Dept. but they held a neighborhood meeting with the residents of the County neighborhood to the East. The City denied several developers attempts to purchase the site to maintain our “greenspace” but now it appears that they are willing to destroy the greenspace to benefit an agenda. I have walked these woods many times and there is plenty of wildlife that will lose their home if this is allowed including the deer that walk through the neighborhood nightly. What’s next, clearing it completely and adding ball fields? Keep it a simple stable ADA walking trail and I’m OK with it, cut trees and I’m opposed.

  5. Christine Corso says:

    I agree with all who think this project has gone off the rails. A simple nature trail available to bicyclists and others walking, or walking while surprisingly pushing baby trams, on the now completed bike path would offer an enjoyable respite.

    Instead we have parking spaces and a pavilion and a retention pond. (The need for the retention pond is indicative the destruction that is about to occur with this project.) And then there is the use of Airport Runway 4/22 (virtually overhead) by private aircraft and corporate jets resulting in a sensory overload which defeats the notion that the property is a perfect place for a playground for children with anxiety issues.

    The public dismay about the absence of adherence to process by Parks and Rec management is not new. Readers are directed to an Observer article dated August 15, 2016 entitled, “Auditors report on Parks & Rec internal controls, cite deficiencies”.

    One would expect that the “poor business practices” highlighted by external auditors in 2016 should have resulted in a “do-right” attitude by Ms. Voight. Unfortunately, any solutions to correct and/or prevent future occurrences of this type fall to the City Commissioners, most of whom easily spend taxpayer money, but are incapable of dealing with staff issues.

  6. Jack Knocke says:

    How does our City staff and our Commissioners continue to run down a path of conflicting decisions, wild spending, and just plain bad management.

    Here are a few key points that strike me:
    – The advisory board voted 4-1 to table the measure, why even vote on it?
    – The grants that originally funded the park are no longer there, why are we spending this money?
    – The commission just voted to tax residents $1.2MM dollars for conservation, yet the vote to mow down 69 trees? Seriously?
    – City employees started buying equipment before it was even approved? Dale Martin continues to defy reason. What a poor city manager. We can do much better.
    – 82% of the homes in the area are OUTSIDE the city limits. Seriously! Commissioners are building more facilities for Nassau County with no coordination or funding assistance.
    – Who estimated the cost to maintain this property? Now they’re going to want to hire another park manager – no problem, just tax the citizens.
    – 21 speakers spoke in opposition, yet the vote carried. Why are the commissioners not listening to their advisory board or citizens?

    This is government out of control. They continue to say trust us and continue to breach our trust with bad decisions. This is one more case where there could have been more inclusiveness, more thought put into funding options, more consideration for the conservation rhetoric that appears to be complete BS.

    Our city continues to bow to a small vocal minority with a city manager that is railroading his personal agenda at the expense of us residents.

    Proposed action:
    Vote to put a hold on the project until the Advisory Board can do a further review and make a recommendation.

  7. With the way City commissioners give away our trees (while pretending they care about the environment) you’d think they were running a lumber mill.

    Countless trees disappear all across the island on a weekly basis – trees lost to development are never fully replaced and now the FBCC decides to destroy a natural habitat and call it a park.
    Invest the money in upgrading the parks that already exist and look at planting trees instead of destroying them.

    A better proposal would be to improve land that’s been neglected and is now devoid of trees and turn that into forested land that generations in the future will be able to point to with pride. Parks should not be parking lots.

  8. John Callen says:

    Well the only defense taxpayers have is to vote Kreger out of office come 2020, and to replace his and Miller and Chapmans seats with more environmentally friendly commissioners.

  9. Bob Weintraub says:

    Commissioners Miller, Kreger and Chapman all campaigned on the need for commissioners to listen to the community, but repeatedly they have not. They continue to destroy confidence in city government.

  10. Frank Quigley says:

    Yet another “ready, fire, aim” episode for Fernandina Beach city government. While this goes on, other reporting shows that in the Amelia Bluff soap opera 55 trees, or 36%, were removed in violation of the tree protection ordinances of the city of Fernandina Beach. Oh, oops. So while the city government including staff and elected officials are distracted by issues such as the one in this article – is anyone minding the store? If you want preservation, enforce the code! Developers build fines for such violations into their business models. So . . . put some teeth in it and enforce the code. Make every tree illegally cut down cost them $50,000.00. See what that does to the model, and actual behavior.

    Add this Simmons Road imbroglio to Amelia Bluff, the lack of ANY coherent thinking about what to do with the downtown waterfront, letting Taylor Rental Center off the hook from paying code violations are just the most memorable of a litany of flubs. All the while, critical issues pertaining to the current and projected explosive growth in Nassau County including Amelia Island go un-tended. I don’t think any real governing is getting done here and it is disheartening to say the least.

    In the future we will soon outgrow the region’s infrastructure and our public service departments will be strained to the point of not being able to support the residential and commercial population. We won’t have enough cops, firemen, code enforcers, EMT, teachers, etc., etc. This means in Nassau County and it does include Amelia Island which hosts Fernandina Beach. We need commissioners with more actual skin in the game. As in do they own land and pay taxes on it? Do they have children and grandchildren who live here and who will be affected by commission decisions? And – hear me out – will they be buried here or shipped back to Ohio when they pass away? If not to all these then we have short-term transactional narrow-issue leaders who have little or no incentive to take the broader and more long-term view.

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