By Dale Martin
January 21, 2021
For many years, if not decades, Fernandina Beach has been teased by two significant projects: the re-opening of the Alachua Street railroad crossing at N. Front Street and the development of an Amelia River waterfront park. Once again, both efforts will likely be at the forefront of the City Commissioners’ discussions at next week’s annual goal-setting session.
The Alachua Street crossing was closed over thirty years ago for reasons that are unclear, unknown, and unverified (many stories and urban legends abound). When open, as evidenced by photographs, it was a simple crossing, marked with a traditional crossbuck sign- no gates, no lights, no other “modern” safety measures. The crossing provided another connection to Front Street, which now when closed, somewhat inhibits vehicular and pedestrian circulation in the vicinity of Alachua and N. 2nd Streets- no westbound or southbound traffic is available at that intersection.
The City has squandered many previous opportunities to re-open the crossing, highlighted by a signed agreement with railroad officials that gave the City nearly ten years to open the crossing. No action was taken, despite the apparent support for the project. When the agreement lapsed several years ago, railroad officials voiced no interest in once again extending the agreement.
Over the course of the last five years, City staff has worked with State transportation staff and railroad officials to re-establish a relationship to again have the opportunity to open Alachua Street. It has been an arduous challenge, with State and railroad personnel changing faster than, ironically, Fernandina Beach City Managers. The lack of confidence in the ability to bring the project to fruition culminated when the City Commission opted to allocate the funds set aside for the project (approximately $800,000) to other projects.
Despite the changing personnel, the persistence of state, railroad, and city staffs has succeeded in building a new relationship. In part for the railroad’s consideration to open Alachua Street, the State Department of Transportation is providing safety funding for safety improvements at Ash and Centre Streets (and two other off-island crossings in Nassau County). Railroad officials have signed an engineering agreement with the City and a draft version of a new agreement, drafted by the State, to open Alachua Street is working through railroad review. The goal to open Alachua Street should be realized within the next few years.
Projects like the Alachua Street crossing inevitably take time to conceive, plan, design, and build, made all the more difficult by changing personnel (political and staff) and priorities. The development of the Amelia River waterfront is another example, and could again become another outstanding success.
The desire for the development of the waterfront is evidenced by the stack of plans associated with the waterfront. All of those efforts failed, but throughout my tenure, the development of the waterfront has been among the top three, if not topmost, priority of every City Commission with which I have served and staff efforts have been considerable in moving toward that goal.
In 2017, the National Citizen Survey provided to hundreds of randomly selected residents (yes, I know you may not have been one of them, but that’s how random surveys are conducted) illustrated overwhelming support (nearly 90%) for the use of the waterfront for open space and recreation. Some of the current City Commissioners were seated during the conduct, completion, and review of the survey.
City Commissioners, in 2018 following the survey, at the annual session again indicated a strong desire for the waterfront park, specifically stating that the goal was to have the park completed by 2024. The commitment to continue that effort was yet again confirmed by the same City Commissioners at the 2020 annual session, specifically endorsing a conceptual design that had been vetted and supported by a separate steering committee of several board leaders.
The subsequent design was available for public review and comment for an entire month. The availability of the “Community Hub” for public comment was promoted through local media and a variety of online sources such as websites, blogs, and social media. Approximately two hundred responses were logged. Most comments were generally supportive of the effort, and others voiced concern or opposition to the project. For a project of this magnitude (and even smaller projects), unanimity of support will never occur: it is an unrealistic objective.
The concept presented to the City Commission earlier this week incorporated many of the comments offered through the Community Hub and by City Commissioners. It has been a remarkable effort to get to this point. Projects like the waterfront park take time and cost money, and the designer of the current concept has provided an estimate of the cost of the park. City staff does not support several of the proposed components and costs and believes that the costs can be significantly reduced over time. The funds for the first elements are actually already included in the current budget, adopted by the same Commissioners that have indicated support for this project for nearly three years.
I look forward to continuing this effort at next week’s goal-setting session.