Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 10, 2021
The Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC) met on February 9, 2021 to once again consider the proposed columbarium for Bosque Bello, the only public cemetery in Fernandina Beach. A columbarium is defined as a room or building with niches for funeral urns to be stored.
The City’s Parks and Recreation Department is responsible for the administration and maintenance of Bosque Bello. As a standing advisory committee of the City of Fernandina Beach, PRAC has been charged to “Recommend to the City Commission plans and programs developed and available designed to meet and satisfy the recreational needs of the community. Recommend to the City Commission improvements to the parks system.”
City Manager Dale Martin had requested that PRAC advance the project with an up or down recommendation vote in order to allow the City to move forward with construction drawings, which would address many of the questions PRAC members have raised in past meetings. Money has been budgeted for this in the City’s Capital Improvement Plan. However, PRAC instead unanimously voted to support a motion to charge a subcommittee with further investigations, delaying a recommendation for up to three months. In making their decision, PRAC members indicated that they were a committee responsible to the City Commission, not the City Manager.
The need for the columbarium was contained in the Bosque Bello Master Plan, adopted by the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) in 2015. At that time, it was estimated that Bosque Bello would exhaust its supply of available burial plots in the 2025-2027 time frame.
During the summer of 2020, a team comprised of Friends of Bosque Bello Members, Parks and Recreation Staff, Historic Preservation Planning Staff, Marquis Latimer + Halback Landscape Architects, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, and Historic District Council worked on refining a proposed conceptual design. After making several minor revisions based on the group discussions, the plan received unanimous support from all members.
Aspects of the plan included choosing a design that could be constructed in phases as the need arises and as the FBCC approves and creating a Bosque Bello Master Landscape Plan to address all elements of the Cemetery in a cohesive manner. The Department of Planning & Conservation has the funds allocated in their 2020/2021 fiscal year budget, as approved by the City Commission awaited finalization of the Columbarium plans before the Master Landscape Plan could move forward.
The schematic plan for the columbarium project was first presented to PRAC for consideration on August 11, 2020. Since then, PRAC has met in full committee or subcommittee multiple times to discuss the proposed design and other concerns about the project.
The Friends of Bosque Bello (FOBB) a subcommittee of the 501(c)(3) not for profit Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation (AIFRF), has also reviewed the conceptual plan prepared by the firm Marquis Latimer + Halbeck, and signed off on the modified, phased plan. The AIFRF, at a meeting attended by FOBB and PRAC Chair Faith Ross, supported the schematic plan on January 19, 2021. Ross did not not agree with the consensus decision.
February 9, 2021 PRAC meeting
All 7 PRAC members attended the February 9 meeting. Also in the audience were several AIFRF and FOBB members, as well as two City Commissioners.
PRAC Chair Faith Ross began the meeting with a call for civility, reminding the audience that meetings are conducted according to their bylaws, which generally follow Roberts Rules of Order, but which can be flexible. Only five speakers addressed PRAC. Parks and Recreation Director Nan Voit.operated the timer which limited speakers to 3 minutes.
AIFRF President Adam Kaufman asked, “Is it prudent, does it make sense, to have construction drawings prepared so that there is a detailed and specific representation of what is being proposed as the columbarium project?”
He added t hat the City has budgeted money for that phase. Because the cost would be less than $20,000, the City Manager could technically move forward on this without FBCC approval. Kaufman stressed that PRAC was not being asked to give final recommendation for project approval. “It’s about informed decision making,” he said. He acknowledged that there are many questions about Bosque Bello, but that the decision to contract for construction drawings does not need to await those answers. He was cut off after 3 minutes before he could complete his remarks.
Mary Anne Sharer, the spokesperson for the Friends of Bosque Bello, followed Kaufman. Sharer and two other women spearheaded the research into the problems associated with a columbarium on behalf of the 120 members of their group. Sharer said she was speaking because she supported the project and went on to quote from an email from another member who said, “I hope it gets built before I need it.”
“We want to make the point,” Sharer said, “that this is a self funding project.” She spoke to the various versions of the plan that would allow niches to be sold by phase to support not only additional phases of the columbarium, but also other physical needs of the cemetery. “We cannot pre sell anything until you give some sort of approval to the project, at which time we are prepared to mobilize to do that. By preselling 25 percent of the first phase, we can make it pay for itself and pay for the next phase or contribute to other cemetery needs.”
Former City Commissioner Philip Chapman also supported the plan. He cited PRAC claims made in an email to Adam Kaufman and attorney Buddy Jacobs regarding the effect of Westrock’s sulfur dioxide emissions on the brick surface proposed for the columbarium. He asked, “Could someone explain to me how our downtown brick buildings have survived for over 100 years without total decay and maintenance this email claims would be required?” He also cited concerns for the removal of trees that the columbarium would necessitate. He said, “The answer is simple: plant trees. Trees will die of old age and by planting new ones you are perpetuating tree growth for the next generation.”
Chapman also took issue with PRAC’s position that stone, such as granite, would outlast brick. He asked, “How many stone buildings do we have in Fernandina, especially in our historic areas? The nature of our downtown is characterized by brick.”
Mary Ann Rood, who is a specialist in community branding, spoke next. She has been serving on the Fernandina Beach Main Street Board, but agreed to assist the Friends of Bosque Bello. She began by researching data locally and across cemeteries in general. “What I would leave you with is very simple,” she said. “I very seldom get to work on a project where all the indicators are so positive. I’ve spent my life trying to overcome issues for communities where it isn’t positive. Between the industry data that talks about the growing trend for cremation and the incredible response from over 200 people to the FOBB survey conducted in 2018, I cannot tell you how good you should feel about saying yes to this project.”
Marie Santry was the final public speaker. She has a long history of involvement with Bosque Bello from genealogical research and participating in the development of the 2015 Bosque Bello Master Plan. She said that she had “a lot of problems with this particular design.” Her first point had to do with opposition to building anything that would require relocation of graves. PRAC and other audience members were puzzled by this remark. Later in the meeting Scott Mikelson, who oversees the cemetery, stated that this plan does not require moving graves.
Santry also objected to the size of the proposed columbarium, which she felt was not consistent with the “flavor of Bosque Bello.” Her time expired before she could complete her comments.
While PRAC members claimed to be supportive of a columbarium and continuing to work on refinements and changes with the landscape architects, they raised concerns regarding the design, the orientation of the structure, tree removal, the need to change city zoning and ordinances. The discussion became confusing at many points and it seemed clear that not all PRAC members were clear on what the City Manager had asked them to do. Some members were not familiar with the 2015 Bosque Bello Master Plan or the 2018 Citizens Survey.
Chair Ross read excerpts from emails she had received that contained suggestions or criticisms about the plan.
There also seemed to be confusion among members regarding changes that have been made to the original plan that upped the number of niches to be provided from 180 to 420 and beginning with what had been proposed as phase 3 initially instead of phase 1.
Member Jean Pugh expressed concerns that PRAC had just received the revisions along with a business plan last Thursday. “Given that we haven’t really had a chance to look at this material, to make any kind of judgment. I personally would not feel comfortable making a recommendation,” Pugh said. She suggested that PRAC continue using its subcommittee format for the next 3 months “to meet as much as we can” to study the plan.
Pugh added that PRAC had also just received a copy of the 2015 Bosque Bello Master Plan which has been available on the City website since 2015. That plan detailed public outreach efforts, including the results of the citizen survey conducted in 2018. “We really haven’t even had a chance to discuss that,” she said. “We don’t even know what we are being asked to approve at this time.”
Parks and Recreation Manager Scott Mikelson explained that the only real change to the original schematic plan was rephasing, which flipped phases 1 and 3.
Chair Ross took issue with Mikelson’s comments. “It’s hard to make a recommendation when you have no idea what your plan is.”
After considerable discussion a motion was crafted to charge a subcommittee to meet with relevant parties to work toward forming a columbarium plan and a subsequent recommendation to the FBCC.
PRAC member Samuel Roberts disagreed. “I think we just need to go back to the architects and ask them for the plans and then it will be easier to discuss. Otherwise I think further discussion is not useful.”
AIFRF President Kaufman agreed with Roberts, but PRAC member Eric Bartelt disagreed, citing a number of design issues that he identified, such as orientation of the columbarium. “There is a fundamental design issue here,” Bartelt said, “whether the columbarium blends in with the cemetery or is it a completely different, stand alone, structure. We need to sort through that.”
Discussion continued in which PRAC members appeared to stress their support for a columbarium, and working with Marquis Latimer + Halbeck while expressing concerns with the financial plan and schematic design.
PRAC Member Michael Kegler referred back to remarks made by Adam Kaufman and said, “I think we are all saying that we need drawings.”
Chair Ross suggested that it was beyond PRAC’s remit to order these. She clarified the City Manager’s request that PRAC recommend for or against the schematic plan under consideration.
Member Roberts said, “So with our motion, we are doing neither.”
Member Pugh said, “No disrespect to the City Manager, but our charge by Resolution is to respond to the City Commission. And I have not heard the City Commission ask us for [a recommendation].”
The final motion, which had been revised several times, read “To charge a subcommittee to meet with relevant parties to work toward approving the presently proposed columbarium plan to include providing detailed feedback to the architectural firm on the design for the purpose of requesting a physical plan and to make recommendation to the FBCC within 3 months.”
The motion passed on a unanimous 7-0 vote.
For more information about the Friends of Bosque Bello, click here to visit their website. There you will also find the 2015 Bosque Bello Master Plan and more information about the columbarium.
Post meeting comments
Most audience members left the meeting following the columbarium discussion, discussing among themselves the confusion that seemed to exist among PRAC members on what they had been charged to do.
Kaufman said after the meeting, “Apparently [PRAC] believes it has de facto control over the design of the Columbarium project and that it can direct Marquis Latimer, the City’s architects, to do the Committee’s bidding in a time frame of the Committee’s choosing.”
He said “he was surprised” that at least one member of the Advisory Committee has yet to familiarize herself with the 2015 Bosque Bello Cemetery Master Plan that was approved by the City Commission.
[Full disclosure: The author of this article was a member of the citizens committee that prepared the Bosque Bello Master Plan and is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation.]