New Commission; old problems

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
December 19, 2018 5:28 p.m.

 

As the newly seated Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) faced its first agenda at its December 18, 2018 Regular Meeting, it became apparent that their priority continues to be the city marina and Amelia Riverfront area, possibly extending as far east as 2ndStreet.

Commissioners expressed frustration at the pace of improvement as well as the absence of an overall plan and continued lack of clarity regarding buildable land available for unspecified development west of Front Street.

Other issues include:

  • Obtaining the permit to complete Hurricane Matthew-related repairs. The Corps of Engineers has not yet granted approval for the city to repair the existing northern attenuator, which affects the marina’s ability to sell fuel and offer pump-out service to boaters.
  • The existing seawall requires either repair or replacement.
  • Anticipated future need for more landside boater facilities like showers and laundry as a result of the expanded mooring field.
  • The timetable/funding for extending the marina docks northward. Although the city now owns the riparian rights to allow the existing northern docks to extend further north, money for that project has not yet been committed.
  • Solving stormwater problems along Front Street.
  • FDOT and railroad requirements, which could determine whether traffic flow on Front Street becomes one-way or remains two-way, remain nebulous.
  • Developing a strategy to alleviate marina debt. Although plans for a waterfront park have been in the works for several years, questions have arisen as to whether landside development might be a better way to help the marina achieve break-even financial status.
  • The role and responsibilities of the newly created Marina Advisory Board (MAB)
  • The future of the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA)

Money matters

Commissioners agreed that financial investment in the waterfront is needed in order to protect one of the city’s most important assets.  There was no disagreement among commissioners that the waterfront area, including the marina and the CRA, needs attention on many fronts from planning to design and execution.  However, the bill for improvements, repairs and long neglected maintenance is not cheap. Commissioner Chip Ross and City Manager Dale Martin compiled a chart detailing how much money has been committed to marina related projects in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.  To date, the city has spent or committed about $19 million, of which roughly $9 million comes in the form of grants.  The remaining $10 million comes out of city coffers.

A rough breakdown presents estimated capital expenses for each project as follows:

Another estimated million dollars is required to pay for non-capital expenses, such as personnel, insurance, maintenance and dredging.  Without additional grants or external sources of revenue, most of the needed funds will come from loans and the city’s Capital Improvement Fund.

Commissioner Lednovich questioned why the city marina remains an enterprise fund if there is no reasonable expectation that it can achieve profitability.  City Manager Dale Martin explained that if that status were to change it would cause accounting issues for the city with respect to maintaining higher levels of reserves.  City Attorney Tammi Bach also opined that she believed its current status as an enterprise fund is rooted in state law.

Commissioner Ross wondered whether, since the marina is a city asset, whether the city shouldn’t pursue more insurance coverage.

The new commission appears eager to embark on devising plans and a timetable to address the longstanding needs of the marina and neighboring waterfront.  Some actions are already underway, such as replacing the South Basin attenuator and preparations for work to dredge and realign docks in the South Basin.

The city-owned building at 101 North Front Street was recently demolished, and the city will soon consider expressions of interest from potential developers for that property. Commissioner Chip Ross has raised the question as to whether current CRA guidelines (to include setbacks and height restrictions) would reasonably permit potential development on that land.

Commissioner Mike Lednovich, in view of the financial plight of the city marina, has asked whether landside development should be considered as a possible means for the marina to offset operating deficits and pay off debt.

Commissioner Phil Chapman agreed with Lednovich that the FBCC should look into upland issues to raise money for the marina.  “Parks are nice,” he said, “but you don’t make money from parks.” In referencing the FBCC’s annual goal setting session scheduled for January 29th, Chapman said that he wants to see an overall plan and timetables attached to the marina goals.  “Let’s look more globally,” he said, “and at least explore options.”

While Ross agreed with commissioners, he also expressed a desire to start with one smaller portion, the city property at 101 North Front Street.  Lednovich expressed concerns about such an approach possibly creating a patchwork quilt look to the waterfront.

Main Street Executive Director Arlene Filkoff also made a plea for a holistic look at the waterfront.

Vice Mayor Len Kreger reminded his fellow commissioners that although everyone wants to fix the problems along the waterfront and in the marina, the city has other capital needs that must also be examined.

Non-utility impact fees

One way of raising additional money to fund capital projects would be to raise the non-utility impact fees, which have remained at a level set in 2015 and only increased with CPI increases.

These fees can only be used to fund capital improvements (not personnel) that are needed to serve a growing population.  The city has via outside consultant conducted a study to determine the validity of impact fee rates.  At the time the FBCC adopted the existing fees, commissioners opted not to charge the maximum allowable.  They will revisit this decision in early 2019 as a means of picking up additional revenue to fund capital projects.

Existing seawall

Seawall condition

At the request of Commissioner Ross, the FBCC discussed approaches to dealing with the condition of the city marina seawall.  Ross suggested that the city had three options:

  • Do nothing.Engineers estimate the existing seawall has about 5 more years of reasonable service.
  • Repair the seawall. This would probably prolong its live by 20 years or more.
  • Replace the seawall. The most expensive the three options would result in a seawall projected to last about 70 years.

After considerable discussion, commissioners instructed the city manager to commence work with engineers to develop plans and specifications to repair the existing seawall.  There is $400K currently available for this project. Should engineers uncover significant problems not immediately apparent, this decision would be revisited.   The FBCC will be required to approve any final repair contract.

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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5 Responses to New Commission; old problems

  1. Gerald Decker says:

    This brings home the point that the city has much higher and more critical priorities than buying land for conservation…glad to see the proper focus.

    • Yes, we need to complete the marina. Unfortunately, however, if we don’t pursue land conservation very seriously for the entire island, we will soon be South Florida. A substantial canopy is essential for storm protection, stormwater management, temperature mediation, reduction of pollutants in our air and water, etc. Land conservation also contributes to improving our flood insurance rating.

  2. Kris Bordnick says:

    Wheels on the bus go round and round

  3. Tom Dolan says:

    Towns all over the USA lose money on their marinas. This town excels! Honest, well intentioned citizens rotate through the city council. All express the same frustration. Meanwhile residents are surprised that a town would maintain a marina with insufficient water. Cut losses. Sell it! 50 cents of tax revenue is infinitely larger than $10Million of sunk lost capital cost with no end in sight.

  4. Dave Lott says:

    Tom, about seven years ago, the City put out a formal request for either the sale or management of the marina. The only party interested in the “purchase” had little if any financial depth or stability and some very unreasonable financial projections. For all the reasons that have plagued the marina since its development, why would anyone want to buy it? The “ATM Plan” for the northern expansion is the only viable long-term economic solution but the implementation of that plan will cost millions of additional dollars with a payback in the decades, not in years.

    The idea of selling off the uplands (lots C&D) verges on blasphemy and I think would ensure any commissioner voting for such to be serving their last term. The riverfront park has been advocated by almost all citizen and business groups for decades with fits of starts and stops. There always seem to be something new that has to be done first before any work on the park can be done. The uplands has always been separated from the marina from a responsibility standpoint with the Parks & Recreation and Maintenance Departments responsible for the uplands and the marina enterprise fund responsible for the water side of the area.

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