Submitted by Dale Martin
Fernandina Beach City Manager
July 15, 2022
As I work with staff to complete the draft budget for next year (the draft will be presented to the City Commission at Tuesday’s meeting), let me offer a progress report on the most significant project as directed by the City Commission and included in this year’s budget: the seawall effort at the Amelia River waterfront.
The most notable accomplishment has been the completion of the seawall and riverwalk, which begins near the City boat ramp at the foot of Ash Street and goes south to the limits of the City’s parking lot property (the parking areas south of the boat ramp are commonly referred to as Parking Lots C and D). The seawall/riverwalk project also included some reinforcement of the shoreline for additional protection from waves and storms. At this time, in the vicinity of Parking Lots C and D, no future City projects are under consideration: despite initial City Commission and public support for park-style enhancements, that consensus has fractured. City staff will wait for direction, likely to be provided after the November and December City Commission elections.
As for the greater seawall project, planned to extend from roughly the S. Front Street terminus near the property of Rayonier Advanced Materials north to the Port of Fernandina, that project is experiencing challenges. The original project concept had the proposed seawall extend north from the City Marina along the existing (but significantly deteriorated) bulkhead to the City-owned property at the foot of Alachua Street. Then, due to the private properties north of the City-owned property, the seawall was designed to cross N. Front Street and continue north to the Port on the east side of N. Front Street (between the street and the railroad tracks). It was an interesting concept, but one developed due to the presence of private properties as well as the significantly reduced cost of building a wall (and in the area north of Alachua Street, the “wall” would be minimal due to the rising elevation approaching the Port) on land versus in the water.
The current City Commission, however, has a different philosophy than the City Commission that started this process. Projects of this magnitude take years: they are like a long-heavy train that requires time to build momentum. When these projects have fits and starts and changes of direction, it takes even longer to re-set and getting moving again.
In the case of the seawall, the acquisition of a piece of private property between the City Marina and the City-owned parcel at the foot of Alachua Street was pursued through eminent domain (after earlier negotiations were unsuccessful). Pretty much everyone agrees that this parcel, which is near the low-point and most flood-prone area of N. Front Street, is critical to the completion of the City’s flood protection effort. Eminent domain is a governmental tool to obtain property (at a Court-determined fair price) for a public purpose. It is a powerful tool and must be exercised with great caution and consideration. The current City Commission made the decision to cease the eminent domain process and seek alternative resolution with the property owner. Additionally, the current City Commission does not support the original concept of constructing the seawall north of Alachua Street between the road and the railroad tracks.
Recognizing that despite the revised philosophy, the objective of constructing a seawall to protect the economically critical downtown area from flooding remains the primary goal of the City Commission. With that in mind, City staff has been speaking and meeting with several of the private property owners for months to develop alternative plans. These conversations have been cordial and productive, and, at times, have included representatives of regional, state, and federal agencies. This collaborative effort has the ultimate goal of constructing a seawall, including an extended riverwalk, to the west of the private properties. Once a concept is prepared and supported by all of the property owners (including the City), the concept will be presented to the City Commission for approval to submit the concept to the appropriate regional, state, and federal agencies for preliminary review.
Most of the City efforts with the other property owners have been led by Mr. Charles George (City Engineer) and Mr. Jacob Platt (Project Manager). Those two have establish a strong rapport with the property owners and only rarely ask for my participation, but I, too, have enjoyed the conversations associated with this project. I believe that the desired outcome, as directed by the City Commission and fostered by the staff relationship with property owners, can be accomplished. Thank you to the City Commission and the community for your patience as this process continues.
Other key components of the seawall project continue the slow path to resolution. The current lease of Atlantic Seafood is likely to be transferred to a different leaseholder with the long-term intent to redevelop (at a similar scale) the site of the current facility. The future of the structure that houses Brett’s Waterway Café (restaurant) and Front and Centre (gift shop) remains in litigation. The City is waiting for an appropriate survey needed to prepare a Request for Proposals to redevelop the City-owned property at the foot of Alachua Street.
Finally, railroad crossing and sidewalk improvements are moving toward commencement of construction, but those issues, as with many other businesses and industries, are hampered by the current labor and equipment challenges. I do expect visible efforts within the next few months. Again, thank you for your patience.