Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 24, 2019 10:04 a.m.
Fernandina Beach City Commission Chambers filled early to overflowing for the FBCC’s May 21, 2019 Regular Meeting. Many concerned city and county residents patiently sat through the regular business meeting waiting for the first Discussion item placed on the agenda by Commissioner Mike Lednovich: Land Conservation – Amelia River Golf Course. There was no backup material accompanying this item, but it quickly became apparent that many audience members had been made aware of the issue in advance of the meeting.
The discussion, which lasted more than 2 hours and brought 20 speakers to the podium, centered around a proposed development of a multi-million dollar car-centric complex on what is today the Amelia River Golf Course (ARGC) leasehold and Lednovich’s counter proposal for the city to take over the lease and convert the property to conservation and recreational land. Even though the developer had not yet submitted a proposal to the city for formal consideration, Lednovich decided to submit his own proposal.
The developer had, however, presented his concept to the city’s Airport Advisory Commission earlier for their consideration and input, thereby generating rumors and alarms throughout parts of the island community that intensified as they made their way through social media sites.
The FBCC discussion quickly bogged down over issues involving the leasehold. City Attorney Tammi Bach cautioned commissioners to stick to policy and avoid wading into issues that could result in lawsuits for the city. It was also clear that Lednovich was presenting his personal proposal for an alternative use for the ARGC property and did not represent the FBCC.
There has been no proposal or application submitted to the city yet for consideration of alternative use of the ARGC property, but informal discussions between the developer and individual commissioners have taken place.
In 2016-17 it was brought to the city’s attention by a local realtor that the Sheffields were marketing their lease for the Amelia River Golf Course. The city exchanged correspondence and made an offer for purchase, which was rejected at that time. The issue was not pursued further at the time.
In an undated but recent letter to city commissioners, George Sheffield, head of the family group that currently holds the ARGC lease wrote: “As you may know, we have a contract to purchase the property. We are not in a position to negotiate with the City nor anyone else while this contract is in force, nor do we desire to do so. It is not the “right’ thing to do.”
That contract to purchase is with Signature Land, Inc., whose president, Steve Leggett, has met privately with city commissioners and city officials about his plans to construct a car centric complex on the former golf course. His public presentation of the project has been scheduled for the June 18, 2019 FBCC Regular Meeting.
Lednovich preempts developer by presenting his alternative plan for the land
Lednovich, who lives in a neighborhood near the proposed project, decided to head off this project at the pass before it could be seriously considered. He developed an alternative plan for the property that would convert it into conservation and parkland. At the May 21 FBCC meeting, he stepped down from his seat on the commission to present his alternative plan, which would, among other things, save existing trees and add more; provide land for future sports fields; eliminate the need for Simmons Park; increase business for the city’s golf course; help the city’s flood rating; and eliminate the potential for increased noise and traffic.
In order to move forward with his plan, Lednovich asked for agreement from his fellow commissioners to vote to terminate the ARGC lease on the July agenda. He suggested that the purchase of the lease could be financed via Parks and Recreation impact fees and a one-time half-mil property tax increase. He allowed that there could be roadblocks if the Sheffields challenged the city’s right to early termination of their lease via litigation.
Attorney Jon Lasserre of the Rogers Towers law firm followed Lednovich’s 20-minute presentation. “I’m not sure where to begin. I’m not sure how we got here the way we did,” Lasserre said, adding that he was representing the Sheffield family on the issue of terminating the lease, not the developer. He said that the current situation is potentially damaging income to the city of Fernandina Beach by raising doubts in the public arena about the future of the lease. “It is not healthy for our clients’ ongoing business, their situation with their employees or their membership.”
He expressed concerns that the manner in which the termination of the leasehold is being discussed could be construed as tortious interference. Wikipedia defines this term thusly: Tortious interference with contract rights can occur when one party convinces another to breach its contract with a third party (e.g., using blackmail, threats, influence, etc.) or where someone knowingly interferes with a contractor’s ability to perform his contractual obligations, preventing the client from receiving the services or goods promised.
“We are bewildered by this,” Lasserre said. He said that earlier negotiations with the city had broken down because the city’s offer to buy out the lease was “insulting, preposterous.” This comment was in reference to the discrepancies in the parties’ assessed value of improvements to the ARGC. The city via the airport actually owns the land itself.
“Here we are in a new day, with a new potential project and you may be foreclosing on a great new opportunity when you haven’t even heard a real proposal yet,” Lasserre said, adding that the proposal’s formal presentation on June 18 had been preempted by Lednovich’s presentation with no advance warning.
“At best we’re jeopardizing current income to the city by having this discussion in this manner; at worst we are costing the city an awful lot of money to get to what may or may not be a better solution,” he said. He questioned certain matters Lednovich had presented as fact and cited the problems caused by social media spreading information out of context.
Lednovich reminded Lasserre that the developer had appeared twice before the Golf Course Advisory Committee to present plans for the property, and that ARGC had sent a letter to members advising of their intent to cease operations in December. Lasserre referenced a letter that had been sent out providing a status report but stating a commitment to remain open for a year.
George Sheffield, Jr., known throughout the community as Wes Sheffield, spoke next on behalf of the Sheffield family. “I find some of what you have done, Mr. Lednovich, as very appalling,” he said. “We have not even had a chance to speak to our employees about what may or may not be going on. You could have given us at least a day. Instead we have information leaked about our business that affects us immediately.” He stressed the longevity of his family in the Fernandina Beach community dating back to the 1890’s.
Sheffield said he had dressed in red, white and blue to let the commission know that “you can’t just take people’s stuff.” “You can’t just make some arbitrarily low offer and expect me to take it,” he said. “We have a long lease, and we have chosen to sell it. We have a potential buyer who has an idea for something they’d like to do with it, and I think it’s a cool idea. Maybe everyone doesn’t agree, and that’s okay. But the bottom line is that I have a right to that lease and I have a right to get a fair value for that lease. You don’t have the right to dictate some arbitrary low number way, way, way, way below our appraised value of $8 million.”
He reminded commissioners of the costs the city of Jacksonville recently incurred to break its lease and move its tenants. “This is not play time,” he said. “It’s not fair; it’s not right.”
Sixteen city residents and three non-city island residents spoke next to express their opposition to the proposed car centric proposal and their support for Lednovich’s idea. Speakers encouraged the city to buy out the Sheffield’s lease in the interests of all the citizens who support the need for conservation lands, green space and tree canopies.
Speakers characterized the project as a race track for wealthy outsiders who would not be a part of the island community. They feared excessive noise from racing cars, and large increases in traffic along the Amelia Island Parkway. Speakers had no concerns over continued use the property as a golf course.
But some speakers also raised concerns over the city’s obligation to pay rent to the airport for use of the land, per recent interpretations of FAA rules. Although the land is not currently part of the airport’s holding, the FAA has determined that funds from use of the land must go to support the airport, not the city of Fernandina Beach. This could mean that even if the city designated all land for conservation, it would be required to pay the airport, which currently receives revenue from the Amelia River Golf Course.
In general public speakers expressed concerns that additional development degrades the quality of life that has characterized the community.
Developer responds to Lednovich, public
Following public comment developer Steve Leggett addressed the commission. He also expressed surprise over what appeared to be Lednovich’s preemptive approach to kill the project. He said that his firm has done a lot of ground work, including speaking with all the commissioners to gather their thoughts, and that to date $400,000 has been invested in the project.
Leggett explained that following discussions, the plan had been changed to eliminate the golf course and devote 115 acres of marsh side property to conservation with development closer to the parkway. He said that his firm has searched FAA releases, surveyed the property and conducted other studies in order to prepare a proposal to bring to the FBCC. “And we have not yet brought anything to the Commission,” he said. “We’ve been working in good faith with the city to bring a proposal forward in June, and that is what we still intend to do.”
He provided commissioners with an executive summary that also included a list of discussion points, including trees, traffic and noise.
Since the most heavily wooded area would be designated conservation, it would not be touched. The golf course area has been cleared more than 85 percent, and the area slated for construction has no trees. He said that since the ARGC is already a country club that accounts for more than 30,000 rounds of golf a year, there is already traffic associated with the site. The new plan would not add any rooftops, but would generate $2.5-3M in new ad valorem taxes as opposed to the current $52,000. He indicated that he was considering roundabouts for the area.
He reminded commissioners that golf courses put down heavy doses of pesticides and fertilizers, in addition to pumping millions of gallons of water out of the aquifer to water the greens. “That will stop as well,” he said.
The current lease generates about $225,000 per year for the airport and keeps it in the black. Leggett said that his proposal would double the amount of money going to the airport.
Leggett said that he takes the noise issue seriously and wanted to correct the notion that the development would bring a racetrack to the property. He said that there would be a driving course, not a racetrack, that would let car owners try out their cars and various innovations, but that there would not be car racing on the site. “This is not for race cars,” he said. “It’s for luxury manufactured cars that are not modified, with a high focus on electric cars, which are the way of the future. We see research and development being done here. We see a lot of high skill jobs that are clean industry.”
“We are interviewing sound engineering companies right now,” Leggett said. The buildings are being designed in a way to be a sound barrier to the road course. He and his team are taking sound measurements from other car events at the airport for comparison measurements.
Mayor Miller called for Commission Discussion after more than 90 minutes of input from the public and affected parties, allowing that upon advice of the city attorney, he would not comment at this time.
Lednovich said, “The question before us, commissioners, is do we want to be proactive with the intent of reclaiming city property? And by that I mean termination of the lease. Or is it your desire to hear this proposal all the way through a new lease consideration?”
He argued that because the lease was not being turned over to another golfing concern, the FBCC needed a new lease for the property.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger said that on advice of City Attorney Tammi Bach he would not say much. He did advise commissioners, however, that Simmons Park has been approved and work is underway.
Commissioner Chip Ross said that he had not talked with the City Attorney, but that before going on about “terminating the lease,” he wanted a written opinion on why the city believes it can unilaterally terminate the lease. He also expressed concerns about many unanswered questions involving the airport, the FAA, etc. His preference was to allow Leggett to go forward with his June presentation. “Just saying we’re going to terminate the lease is not a prudent way to go,” Ross said. “We need far more information.”
Commissioner Phil Chapman said that he had many questions and felt it was premature to ask commissioners to commit to any proposal at this point.
Lednovich, who appeared to ignore Bach’s advice to avoid talking about the lease, asked Lasserre and Leggett if the revised lease would be ready for consideration by July 16. Leggett replied that he intended to present the revised lease during his June 18 presentation. Bach clarified with Leggett that on June 18 he will make a presentation but not seek a vote from the FBCC. She added that a lease agreement or assignment only takes one reading because it can be adopted by resolution, not ordinance.
Kreger reminded commissioners that the land is zoned Industrial, and that the FBCC would need to know if the uses that Leggett proposes are allowed in that zoning category.
Ross also said that the FBCC needed to know the position of the FAA prior to making a decision and implications for the city and the airport.
Bach and City Manager Dale Martin are already in discussion with the FAA over the matter of grant assurances. Martin told the audience that following extensive discussions with the FAA, that agency agreed to allow the city to place the Ybor Alvarez fields on airport property at no charge. But the FAA has the authority to determine if proposed rents for other uses meet fair market value criteria, whether the Leggett proposal or a park.
City Attorney cautions commissioners
Following the meeting, City Attorney Tammi Bach sent the following email to all city commissioners and city staff:
“I am advising City Commissioners and City staff to decline making any further comments about the Amelia River Golf lease in public, including what the City or lessee’s rights may be under the lease. I have been asked by the media this morning about the City’s interpretation of the Amelia River Golf lease. I declined to comment on this issue and hope you all will do the same.
“The real issue here is what you want to do in the future with the Amelia River Golf Course property in light of the fact that the Sheffield’s have been marketing their lease for years, and you are welcome to discuss this policy issue in public. Discussing the legal technicalities of how the City handles the assignment of the lease or buy out of the lease is for the City Attorney and City Manager to figure out as your professionals, which does not include television cameras, social media or discussions at public meetings. Discussing legal technicalities, lease interpretations, appraisals, etc. in public is not your role as policymakers. Making policy involves high-level decision-making regarding goals, direction and policies which are executed by City staff. Details are to be handled by your professional staff. As a member of the City’s professional staff, I am happy to discuss legal technicalities, lease interpretations, appraisals and details with any of you in private. However, I do not expect that our conversations will be “played back” in public or otherwise divulged to members of the public. The City Commission is heading down a very dangerous (albeit expensive) path if we continue to negotiate agreements and discuss legal strategy or positions in public.
“I respect each and every one of you for your prior professional experiences. I have never served a more knowledgeable City Commission. The City Manager, City Attorney, City Clerk, City staff and consultants are here to take on the tasks necessary to implement your policies. Please allow us to do our jobs and continue to move this City forward in the direction you choose.”
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.