Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 21, 2018 8:24 p.m.

Although the word “compromise” may be banned from dictionaries used in the U.S. Congress, the word appears to be the key to resolving widespread differences among local residents on the wisdom of continuing to allow beach parking/driving at the Sadler Road Beach Access in Fernandina Beach, FL. Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) chambers were packed to overflowing for the March 20, 2018 Regular Meeting with residents anxious to express their views about a proposal to reduce the legal distance for beach parking at the Sadler Road Beach Access from 600 to 300 feet.

Slide provided as part of presentation from Citizens for the Preservation of Public Beaches

After two hours of public input (16 speakers) and discussion, Commissioners unanimously approved a greatly revised ordinance that retains the 600 foot limit but with many other changes mostly related to safety that will affect both driving and parking at the Sadler Road location as well as along the remainder of the beach within city limits.

Below listed in summary form provided by City Attorney Bach are the specific changes also proposed in the revised ordinance.  All but the last 5, which apply only to the Sadler Road Access, will apply to all city beaches:

  • Expands the scope of the Ordinance to include other provisions of beach conduct such as launching personal watercraft, fishing near lifeguard stands, etc.
  • Adds a provision prohibiting operation of a personal watercraft within 1500 feet of lifeguard towers, as well as adding requirements for personal floatation devices, boater safety regulations
  • Adds penalties for such infractions
  • Adds a provision allowing Fernandina Beach police and lifeguards to temporarily close beach due to dangers to public safety
  • Expands the scope of the Ordinance to include other provisions of beach conduct such as launching personal watercraft, fishing near lifeguard stands, etc.
  • Adds a provision prohibiting operation of a personal watercraft within 1500 feet of lifeguard towers, as well as adding requirements for personal floatation devices, boater safety regulations
  • Adds penalties for such infractions
  • Adds a provision allowing Fernandina Beach police and lifeguards to temporarily close beach due to dangers to public safety
  • Prohibits swimming/operation of a float more than 300 feet from shore when watercraft are present
  • Adds safety provisions for use of surfboards and boogie boards.
  • Restricts operation of sailboats and personal watercraft to an area greater than 500 feet from the water’s edge
  • Prohibits open fires on the beach
  • Adds to the dog control provision obligations of 
waste removal
  • Prohibits fishing within 300 feet of staffed lifeguard towers
  • Prohibits parking that restricts view of lifeguards
  • Prohibits parking within the Sadler Road right‐of‐way to the mean high water line and designates that area for emergency personnel only
  • Ensures protections for sea turtles and other endangered species. Beach parking is prohibited from sunset to 9:00am during nesting season (May 1‐ October 31). No driving/parking within 25 feet of marked nests.
  • Removes permit issuance for exceptions
  • Lowers speed limit to 5 miles per hour

Although this had been advertised as the Second Reading of Ordinance 2018-02 to reduce beach parking to 300 feet, the changes put forth by Commissioner Chip Ross so significantly altered the original proposal that it will return for a Third Reading at the FBCC Regular Meeting on April 17, 2018. Members of the public and some commissioners expressed their dissatisfaction with a decision by City Attorney Tammi Bach to omit the proposed changes from the back up material in the agenda for the March 20 meeting and consideration of the ordinances. When the agenda for the April 17 meeting is advertised, all that information will be available for the public in advance of future discussion and consideration by the FBCC.

None of the proposed changes will take effect until the FBCC agrees with, drops, or modifies all the elements of the revised ordinance. If there are significant changes made at the next reading, there may even be a Fourth Reading before the ordinance can be adopted. Commissioner Chip Ross said that it is his goal to have the changes approved and adopted before the 2018 beach season begins this spring.

Public interest

By 5:30 p.m. most of the seating for the 6:00 p.m. meeting had already been occupied. As members of the public continued to file in to address the proposed beach parking ordinance, police and fire officials stepped in to enforce room capacity out of an abundance of caution related to matters of safety. Police Chief Jim Hurley sat with the commissioners, and other police were present in the assembly. Audience members were advised that they could not sit on the floor or block passage at the rear of the chamber. Excess capacity was redirected to the hallway and outside the building, where the city provided audio broadcast of the meeting.

Out of additional concerns for safety and comfort of the people who had attended for what was listed as Item 8.1 on the agenda, the FBCC moved the item up on the agenda to be the first item of business after the Consent Agenda. The FBCC began consideration of the item at 6:55 p.m. and did not move on to the next item until 8:55 p.m.

Clash of Commissioners

It was the consensus of the commissioners to address the ordinance among themselves before opening it up to the public in the hopes that their discussion might answer many of public’s questions and concerns.

Vice Mayor Len Kreger questioned whether, due to lack of enforcement, the 600 foot parking limit remained viable because the Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 2011, when the actual parking space was limited to 300 feet. City Attorney Bach said that the existing ordinance (600 feet) governed the enforcement. She delivered a summary slide presentation highlighting all the commissioner suggested changes that had been incorporated following the first reading.

Commissioner Chip Ross

Commissioner Chip Ross said that personally he believed that there should be no driving or parking on the beach. But, he allowed, that there are many residents who hold strong beliefs rooted in local cultural values and historical memory that vigorously support vehicular access to the beach. He explained that in studying the problem he had reached out to a wide audience in an attempt to understand the issues and seek a solution that all parties could live with as an effective compromise to retain beach parking/driving while promoting increased safety and beach protection. He believed that the changes he and other commissioners had added to the draft ordinance were positive.

Mayor John Miller asked if the Commissioners were in agreement on considering the expanded ordinance. He acknowledged that commissioners might want to discuss some items in more depth.

Commissioner Roy Smith

Commissioner Roy Smith disagreed. He said, “I personally don’t think we should have all these other items mixed in with beach parking. We’re just combining too many things. I don’t agree that we should put al that stuff in there, because we are going to have people who like some parts but not others. It’s going to get confusing because there are so many parts to it. We’ve got enough contention [with beach parking]; why do we want to put all that other stuff in? We don’t have to clear it up all at one time. We can make another ordinance.”

Commissioner Chip Ross quickly replied. “I totally, totally, totally disagree. This is what continues unremittingly in the city of Fernandina Beach. We come up to a contentious issue, and then we kick the can down the road. I think that all of this was put forward, it was vetted by the Police Department (they asked for this), the Fire and Rescue people, people who have asked us to address dogs on the beach — all these issues have been going around and around for years. We are elected to proceed and put something forward [to resolve these issues].”

Addressing Smith, Ross continued, “You’re right. There are a lot of things in here, and all might not agree. But we need to come to consensus on what needs to be done and not kick the can down the road. I’m in a hurry. We need to save the beach NOW.”

Commissioner Phil Chapman said that his biggest problem with the wider scope of the changes was that he was unsure that the general public had had an opportunity to see what was being proposed. “I don’t think it’s fair that we don’t even have a projection up on the screen to let people see what we’re going to look at,” he said. Attorney Bach agreed to project portions of the ordinance so the public could view the proposed changes. She agreed that this would be the public’s first look at the changes, but that it would come back for another reading.

Smith again raised his objections to proceeding with the expanded ordinance. “I am again going to disagree with Commissioner Ross. This is a separate subject. We don’t have to rush and get all these things in one ordinance, although we are not doing things as expediently as he wants. Let’s get it straight on the beach parking, which has been the big bugaboo out there for months now.”

Mayor Miller tried to suggest that many of the items included in the expanded ordinance are already covered by ordinances. But Ross interrupted saying, “Actually we don’t have all these things in ordinances. That’s why Fire and Rescue is asking for them, so that we mirror what Nassau County has [on their portion of the ocean beach].”

City Attorney Tammi Bach and Mayor John Miller

Miller said that most of the changes he read as “common sense things.”

Ross stressed, “Most of these changes are proposed by Fire Rescue, so they can run a safe beach. That’s why I think this has to be adopted before the beach season starts. Everybody wants the laws enforced, and this ordinance gives them the authority to enforce them. That’s what we’ve talked about and that’s why I believe we need to move forward.”

Miller said that he had also spoken with the Police and Fire Rescue, as well as with a Florida surfing organization. His only concern was eliminating handicapped driving permits. He said the city only allows 15 such permits and they are not all currently being used. He suggested expanding the privilege to county residents until the permits are gone.

Bach ran through some of the proposed language in the changes that would promote dune protection and sea turtle nests.

Also, the new ordinance does not allow driving within 25 feet of a dune.

Commissioners also discussed the problem of vehicles getting stuck in the sand, suggesting at one point that fines be assessed if vehicles needed to be towed. Ross said that he preferred a “Driver Beware” warning for vehicles approaching the beach parking areas.

Before taking public comment, Smith once more voiced his objection to expanding the ordinance beyond its original scope of dealing only with the beach parking area. He made a motion to limit the consideration to beach parking only, but his motion died for lack of a second. With that, Mayor Miller called members of the public for comment.

Public comment

The proposal under consideration would divide the parking at the Sadler Road Beach access into two distinct portions: one, running south of the southern point of the Sadler Road right-of-way to the southern limit of Seaside Park, and the second running north of the northern limit of the Sadler Road right-of-way to the northern limit of Sliders. The space between the two parking areas would remain open for access by emergency vehicles.

Top: current allowed parking; Middle: current actual; Bottom: proposed

Sixteen individuals addressed the FBCC with their concerns over the ordinance. The overwhelming majority supported retaining the 600-foot limit for beach parking. The common sentiment was that fining drivers for getting stuck in the sand was “ludicrous”. They agreed that having to pay for a tow was fine enough.

Some speakers stressed the need for handicapped access to beach parking and hoped that the permits for such access could be extended to county residents as well.

Lowell Hall (l) and Mac Morriss

Beach access activist Lowell Hall and Mac Morriss, Citizens for the Preservation of Public Beaches, presented a brief PowerPoint showing where the new parking area would be, demonstrating that it takes up an extremely small portion of a very large beach.

One speaker expressed concerns that the expanded ordinance had not been included for public review in the agenda back up material for the meeting, meaning that the public had not had time to consider implications for changes affecting dog owners, beach fishermen and swimmers.

Mary Duffy, who has been working on the sea turtle nesting project for more than 30 years, said that her bottom line was that beach driving and parking should not be allowed at night during turtle nesting season.

Frank Hoff, a retired geomorphologist and self-proclaimed highly trained beach bum, stressed the importance of finding a way to protect the sand dunes. He reminded commissioners and the audience that the dunes protect the entire island, not just the beach homes, during major storms. He said that the Sadler Access is the weak point on the beach when it comes to dune protection.

In representing the Sierra Club, Julie Ferreira said that she hates to see issues that seem to divide the community into camps of newcomers vs. island natives. She suggested that handicapped beach access remain as a privilege for city residents. She also expressed opposition to proposed language regarding the elimination of fires on the beach.

How did it happen?

Lowell Hall

Lowell Hall, who has headed Citizens for the Preservation of Public Beaches since 1973, addressed the commissioners on the mystery of how the original beach parking got reduced to 300 feet from the authorized 600 feet. He said he was asked a question last week: why nobody complained when the pole was moved to 300 feet? “Why was the pole placed 100 feet short of what the ordinance allowed?” Hall asked. He said that when the sign was originally placed in 1989 the “measurement was not pulled.” There was only a vacant lot where Seaside Park exists today. “The sign was placed in front of the first house on the beach [going south from Sadler Road]. That was the Burns house. Myself and a couple of workers from the Public Works Department placed the sign at a location that seemed at the time adequate for demand. … The pole has drifted north over those past 28 years due to dredging or whatever means.” Hall said that people would come into his store complaining that the sign wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and he agreed to take care of it. “But,” he said, “if I didn’t do something, nobody else did. And if they didn’t push too hard, I didn’t do it.” Hall said that the distance regulation was loosely enforced, and there were no complaints from the ocean front homeowners. “But if there is blame to be had for not putting the sign at 600 feet, I’ll take the blame. And my wife Sharon is going to take half of it.”

Back to the Commission for more discussion

Attorney Bach projected the new, revised ordinance for commissioners to consider, to include changes but to retain the beach parking area at 600 feet.

In response to concerns raised from the public, Bach said that the changes do not restrict surfers.

Commissioner Chip Ross

Ross moved to approve the revised ordinance, and with no second readily forthcoming, Miller stepped down as mayor to provide a second.

Smith said that he wanted to eliminate nighttime beach parking year round, not just during turtle nesting season. “A lot of bad things can happen at night,” he said. He expressed concern that otherwise the city would in effect be providing free parking to Sliders. Although Sliders had agreed to construct a dune walkover at their expense to keep patrons from damaging the dunes, Smith claimed that he did not trust them to follow through. He cited previous unkept promises with regard to Sliders patron parking at the Days Inn.

Chapman expressed concerns that the wording regarding personal flotation devices requires that they be equipped with a rope. He said that none of the local businesses that sell inflatable rafts and floats carry such merchandise.

Kreger said that he believed the proposal was a reasonable compromise, but that there would be time during the next reading to address some of the areas where disagreements still existed – such as fines for getting stuck in the sand.

Commissioner Roy Smith

Ross called the question. As City Clerk Caroline Best called the vote, things bogged down when she got to Smith, who continued to harangue over his concerns. He said, “As I stated before, I believe in the 600 feet. … I’m not happy with Sliders getting a free parking lot out there at night when they did not fulfill what they were supposed to do the first time. Be that as it may, I would like to see an agreement with Sliders that they would put this crossover in at their expense … we’re putting a parking lot in for a private business.” He went on to talk about paid parking not being included.

Kreger, who was chairing since Miller had stepped down to second the motion to approve, reminded Smith that his concerns would come up again at the next reading. Smith finally said, “I vote yes, but I feel bad about what we’re giving the parking to …”

The Clerk moved on calling the vote.

All commissioners supported retaining the reconfigured 600 feet of beach parking and the other changes relating to health and safety of the beach and beach goers.

The ordinance adjusts the designated parking area to be 375 feet south of Sadler Road to the south point of Access 21 and 225 north of Sadler Road line for a total of 600 feet.

Editor’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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