FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

FBCC votes 3-2 to kill progress on Bosque Bello columbarium plan

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 3, 2021

Those anticipating progress at the March 2, 2021 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) Regular Meeting on plans to build a columbarium in Bosque Bello Cemetery were disappointed when the FBCC voted 3-2 opposing moving forward to commission construction drawings from the landscape architectural firm Marquis Lattimore + Halbeck (MLH).

Although the City had been working with MLH at a staff level and in consultation with the Friends of Bosque Bello (FOBB) on a schematic design for the better part of a year, the process bogged down last summer when plans were presented to the City’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC). PRAC members raised many concerns relating to the proposed location, design, materials, cost and marketing plans.

The proposal before the FBCC last night was to move forward with construction drawings at a cost of $19K only for the first phase of the MLH columbarium design, which would have provided over 400 niches for cremains resting places and associated landscaping. The City had included $85,000 of Parks and Recreation impact fees in its current year budget for this project.

Impact fees, which are collected on new construction, can only be used to fund capital improvements needed to accommodate growth. Given the growth of the local population and that Bosque Bello is the only public cemetery on the island, the proposal was to use this funding to “prime the pump” for the project, which would only be built when sufficient money could be obtained through advance sales spearheaded by FOBB. No tax dollars would be used for this project, which would also have been generating additional revenue for upkeep and enhancement to the cemetery.

Audience member and former commission candidate Marian Phillips expressed her opinion that a columbarium would be out of place in Bosque Bello, and that it has not been needed in the past. PRAC members Jean Pugh and Eric Bartelt also surfaced their objections on multiple levels.

PRAC Chair Faith Ross

PRAC Chair Faith Ross was allowed to present the committee’s recommendation without time limits at the March 2 FBCC meeting. She reported that her committee had unanimously recommended “no approval” for the proposed design, citing numerous reasons including: the schematic design occupying too much space in the cemetery, limiting income sources for the cemetery in the future; inconsistencies with the Bosque Bello Master Plan; apparent tree removal, if the entire design were to be fully implemented; proposed use of materials (brick); cost for custom design; lack of stated warranty; maintenance. She cited concerns raised from some members of the public who believed that the design is “bloated” and out of scale with the cemetery.

Ross also presented PRAC recommendations, including: a design that occupies a smaller footprint; no removal of any healthy trees; construction material in compliance with the Florida Building Code. “A columbarium should provide a self funding mechanism for the cemetery,” she said. “It’s not a free public service. As with in-ground plots, it should also provide income to provide for the cemetery now and into the future in the perpetual care fund.”

Further recommendations called for a Commission-approved business plan and “funding restraint.” She presented an alternate site and plan advanced by the committee.

She acknowledged that FOBB had been working very hard on the plan, “but we have also tried to get it done.”

Commissioner Chip Ross

Commissioner Chip Ross, husband of Faith Ross, led off the discussion referring to the 2015 Bosque Bello Master Plan. He cited the more than 50 recommendations in the plan, most of which he believed were more important than the columbarium. “We have a great asset here, which we have ignored and not taken care of,” he said, indicating that he wanted to return to those concerns at a future time.

Commissioner Ross visited several area cemeteries with attractive columbaria built by firms that specialize in off the shelf production at a fraction of the cost proposed in the MLH plan. He contacted some of those firms and discovered that they offer a wide range of services including custom design and landscape design in addition to installation with a 25-year warranty.

“If we stick build this, who’s going to warranty it?” he asked. Ross appeared to advocate proceeding with a firm that would provide a fixed cost to include planning, installation and warranty, thereby eliminating the hourly costs of architectural oversight. “It’s not about bricks or design or anything else. It’s about cost,” he said. “Why is the City wiling to pay $37K to design a columbarium {$16K of which has already been spent) that costs 50-70 percent more than competitors?”

Ross reported that when he raised the question with City staff he was told that “the proposed columbarium is a custom product designed to be unique in character. Non-custom designed columbaria on the market were reviewed and found to be unacceptable by the Friends of Bosque Bello.”

Vice Mayor Len Kreger

Ross concluded by saying that he was not prepared to support a $1.4M project that could be designed and built at a fraction of the cost to meet community needs.

Vice Mayor Len Kreger expressed support for the recommended project which has been under consideration for months. “What I’m seeing now is exactly what I’ve seen on the waterfront for 20 years. It’s obstruction and offering all the reasons we can’t [move ahead].” Kreger reiterated points in the plan put forward by the FOBB: trees would not cut down; bodies would not be moved; and the project would be financed by advance sales conducted by FOBB. He reminded commissioners that the project is in the 5-Year Capital Improvement Plan. “This is a project plan with flexibility,” Kreger said. “It’s not going to get old; it’s a quality product.” He referenced “pages and pages of data” provided by FOBB and the Building Official to address Ross’ concerns.

Commissioner David Sturges

“It’s in the budget and the staff recommended it,” Kreger said. “This is exactly why we don’t get anything done. We go over and over things because someone doesn’t like the plan. I think we should move forward with the construction drawings, which is all this is.”

Commissioner Bradley Bean

Commissioner David Sturges agreed with Commissioner Ross. He advocated a plan which could be expanded if demand justified it.

Commissioner Bradley Bean acknowledged the work of the FOBB, commending members of citizen groups that are willing to give of their time and efforts in volunteering to help the City. He said, “One of the issues that we have been seeing with the waterfront park is that it is plan after plan after plan. I do not want to enter the same cycle of talking and not doing with the columbarium. I like the plan and understand that it does not take down trees or move bodies or roads. It saddens me that there is misinformation about the good work that FOBB has done. I will vote yes on this.”

Mayor Mike Lednovich

Mayor Lednovich said that he did not want another situation like the Simmons Road Park, where trees were removed to make room for the park elements. He said that he has attended the PRAC meetings since August and followed the issue. He expressed discomfort with recently announced changes from the original plan that had not been fully considered.

“I feel like I’m on a jury,” Lednovich said, “and I respect what Commissioner Bean said about FOBB. They have put tremendous effort into this project and I support a columbarium. Now it’s what form, what design, and how much money do we spend on it. But I feel like I’m on a jury because I get conflicting input from FOBB and PRAC.”

“But my major problem is with our visioning process, where we said, let’s get our house in order,” Lednovich added. “I think the overwhelming sentiment of this Commission when we talk budget is going to the rollback rate. The City Manager said, at the end of the visioning session, ‘Don’t be distracted by bright, shiny objects.’ And yet shiny object after shiny object appears before us. I’ve been in this City long enough to understand that we hire consultant after consultant to produce construction plans that go to the elephant graveyard. I argued against bringing in MLH on this project from the beginning because it was the start of Covid and we needed to curtail spending.”

“If we approve these plans, they will go to the elephant graveyard until FOBB can raise the money for construction, because the City does not have the money in a rollback budget,” Lednovich said. He objected to using impact fees on this project when ball fields need that money for repair. “I support the columbarium, but I do not support spending money at this time,” he said.

Kreger disputed Lednovich’s claim that the columbarium is a “shiny object,” citing its inclusion in the 2015 Master Plan for the cemetery.

Commissioner Ross moved to call the question. The item failed on a 3-2 vote, with only Vice Mayor Kreger and Commissioner Bradley Bean voting in favor.

No direction was provided to the City Manager for future action on a columbarium.

No one from FOBB spoke at the meeting, although leaders of that group and their parent group, the Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation, have been meeting with City staff and attending PRAC meetings as well as meeting individually with Commissioners. They have regularly provided information and corrected misinformation about the MLH plan.

In an email thanking Kreger and Bean for their support, FOBB spokeswoman Mary Anne Sharer wrote in part,

“I want to thank you for your clarity, your understanding, and your willingness to listen to the facts …

“I am still not sure why Mr. Sturges and Mayor Lednovich failed to understand that the proposed BB plan would have been self-supporting, that the funds would have been raised by the selling of the niches and plaques, and that other contributions would be raised by FOBB. AND that the small First Phase was the ONLY thing being asked for by FOBB.  As I have always said, I doubt that the other phases would have ever been built — that would have been entirely up to the Commission in the future. …

“It is a shame that the City has squandered even the small initial investment,  and more so the potential aid from such a large group of citizens who wanted to volunteer to help. It has also been difficult to see how the role of City staff became so unimportant, ignored, and even disparaged by some Commissioners during this process.

“You both have my respect and our thanks for listening to the facts and for recognizing that citizen input and involvement are important parts of governance.”

While debate continues,  burial space at Bosque Bello is projected to max out by 2027, according to the cemetery master plan.  There is no place for cremains except in plots designed to accommodate coffins.  And as society changes, so do preferred burial customs.  More and more families are opting for cremations over traditional burials.  At some point the City will either need to reconsider alternatives to traditional burials or close Bosque Bello to new burials.

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