By Mike Lednovich
Championed by Mayor Bradley Bean and Commissioner Darron Ayscue, the Fernandina Beach City Commission approved a proposal to build a connector walkover over a 17-foot high secondary dune on a heavily wooded strip of land that would accommodate guests from one hotel being able to access the amenities of an adjacent hotel.
“It is a good plan that increases walkability for our city, and it increases different ways that our citizens and guests to our community can enjoy our environment, and that’s what we’re doing,” Bean said in support of the hotel plan.
At issue is the possible damage to a mile-long strip of city right-of-way on First Avenue starting at Sadler Road. The strip leads directly north into the Egans Creek Greenway.
A 4-1 vote now gives the Ocean Coast Hotel and Amelia Hotel at the Beach, owned by the same company, permission to go forward with a plan to build the walkover. Amelia Hotel at the Beach faces South Fletcher at the corner of Sadler, while Ocean Coast faces Sadler Road. The city’s First Avenue right-of-way separates the two complexes.
“What the public doesn’t get to see or understand is that these two properties are going to get a massive reinvestment,” Ayscue stated. “This hotel is going to be completely renovated and we’re going to see this be a jewel for Fernandina Beach at these two hotels. The ask is simple, it’s to try to connect and make this a resort area. So it’s going to be a complete resort area much like you would see at the Omni or Ritz. So start picturing that in your mind. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Those comments followed objections to the plan by City Commissioner Chip Ross, who advocated delaying approval of the walkover proposal until the hotel owners could provide more details.
Ross said there were no dimensions provided on the width or span of the walkway. He questioned how a walkway would be able to navigate elevation changes from one foot to over 17 feet in height over a secondary dune. Ross pointed out there were no dune protection plans in the city’s agreement.
“The agreement doesn’t talk about how they are going to go about preserving the oak trees in there that are heritage tree size,” Ross said. “Are they going to allow unlimited access to the public or just to their own customers? It doesn’t address who will be responsible for removing the boardwalk if this agreement is terminated, nor who will restore the land to its original state. I will not support this until I have written answers to all those questions for future considerations.”
Bean then summoned Pat Sidler, regional director of operations for the hotels, to respond to Ross’ concerns.
“Our company, we do all beachfront properties, so our first concern is the beachfront to take care of it and preserve it. Almost all of our hotels are key green hotels, so they pass all those certifications,” she said. “We don’t want to come in and cut a swath through that beautiful greenery and put down cement sidewalks. That’s not what we do.”
Sidler said the hotels would rely on an arborist to plan on protecting the existing tree canopy.
She said the walkover would enable guests from the Amelia Hotel to use the expanded pool deck and a planned lazy river at the Ocean Coast Hotel.
“The idea is to have our guests share the entire piece of real estate there,” Sidler said. “By doing that we can charge a higher rate, which means you’ll get more bed tax from us, which is a win-win.”
After asking Sidler several questions, Ross was abruptly cut off by Mayor Bean. “You know I can answer that,” Bean interjected.
“I’m not asking you, I’m asking her,” Ross fired back. “I’m speaking and I’m asking her.” Bean pressed on and said to Ross, “She’s being nice, I think you’re harassing her.”
But Ross told Bean, “The city is being nice by offering her a right-of-way. This is a public property, and this is going through part of our greenway, and I think the public has the right to know these answers. This is a private enterprise using public property.”
Later during his summation of support, Bean said Ross’ concerns “were serving to complicate the issue, I would say needlessly. You look at them and there are all common sense answers.”