HDC workshops Old Town Design Guidelines

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 3, 2019 9:00 a.m.

On March 27, 2019 the Historic District Council (HDC) of the city of Fernandina Beach met in public workshop session to talk about Old Town Fernandina, its unique history, existing design guidelines for new construction and rehabilitation of existing structures.  The workshop provided Old Town residents and opportunity to express their opinions on these topics as well.  Public input was useful to HDC members, who will wrestle with some of the issues raised in the months ahead.

University of Florida School of Architecture professor emeritus Bill Tilson, author of the original Old Town Design Guidelines and former HDC member, began the workshop with a slide show that presented a brief history of Old Town and the importance of its street grid system.  Tilson explained that Old Town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of the significance of its street grid, laid out by the Spanish in 1811.  This factor means that Old Town was the last Spanish platted city in the Western Hemisphere.  Maintaining the grid as development occurs is essential to Old Town’s unique historical status.

“New Town Fernandina,” which was platted by the Florida Railroad Company in 1855 after Florida achieved statehood, holds many structures built during the town’s historic period from 1858 to 1910.  But Old Town has no surviving structures dating to the Spanish periods of occupation.  With the exception of what is commonly known as the Pippi Longstocking House on Estrada Street, most of the older residential buildings are modest in size and scale.  Existing Design Guidelines, updated most recently in 2013, emphasize the importance of keeping new houses in scale and massing to match the existing homes.

HDC Chair Mike Spino, along with city Preservation Planner Sal Cumella, structured the discussion around three major themes: identifying areas of the Old Town guidelines in which HDC members had general consensus, those for which there was some consensus, and those that appear to be contentious.  Following the presentations, the audience was invited to join in discussion. 

Items for which there appeared to be a general consensus included:

  • The unique nature of Old Town
  • The importance of building site and protecting the Old Town grid pattern, including blocks, constant width streets, right of ways and peonias and media peonias [Note that the term “peonia” is a Spanish land measure for a lot 46’6” by 46’6”.  A “media” is half a full peonia.]
  • The street system of crushed shell and ribbon curbs
  • Current zoning that allows for single family residential and limited commercial
  • Accessory dwellings limited to 500 sq. ft.
  • Required off street parking
  • The 5’ setback on all street edges and the importance of massing of buildings and lot visibility corridors
  • The importance of trees, fencing and landscaping in defining private spaces and connecting outdoor spaces
  • Construction of buildings and landscape requires careful attention to scale and detail
  • Lot coverage limited to 45 percent
  • Window and door openings proportionate and sharing similar size, spacing and shape
  • Building height limited to 35 feet
  • Building elements are primary buildings and accessory structures should be ancillary in size.
Building on piers

It was agreed that there is some consensus for recommending no specific building style while insuring that building design and materials be harmonious and of good quality.  Likewise generally it has been accepted that driveways should not be located side by side without some visual separation, and that new construction should be on piers or continuous foundation.

Other items generated more discussion, both among HDC members and the audience: 


1.  Demarcation of media peonia lines in new construction (mid-lot corridors)

Depiction of peonias and media peonias

While there seemed to be general agreement that there should be some sort of demarcation, opinions differed as to  how that might be best achieved.  Some expressed satisfaction with a marker while others believed an actual view corridor was a better solution.

2.  Ability to rent accessory structures

Both HDC members and the public were split on this possibility, with some viewing it as a boon to the city’s quest for more affordable housing and others fearing it would change the nature of the neighborhood and lead to parking congestion.

3.  Future of unimproved rights of way

A concern underlying almost all comments from Old Town residents—11 of whom spoke at the workshop—was parking and traffic flow.  With increased development, it is difficult to accommodate parking needs for guests, visitors, and tradespeople without blocking streets or severely restricting both views and traffic flow.  There are no sidewalks in Old Town, so pedestrians and vehicles share the same space.  

The HDC will return to consideration of Old Town issues at future meetings.

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.