Commentary: Much Ado Over an Old Waterfront Plan

Editor’s note: It’s unusual, I know, for one news organization to publish a rebuttal to something published by another one. When I met Bob Allison a few weeks ago, he was hoping, I think, that I would take up his cause. I told him two things: 1) If he wanted his waterfront ideas published, he should do the writing himself and 2) He should go over to the waterfront work already completed and realize that some of his ideas have been overtaken by recent developments, I liked the guy. He’s pleasant, intelligent, and it’s fun talking with him. But I think he realized that I would be dubious if he submitted waterfront ideas that are no longer feasible (if they ever were). So he got his story published elsewhere. City Commissioner Chip Ross asked for a rebuttal in the Observer. And I said, Why not? –Mike Phillips

By Chip Ross

Conditions, people, public desires, regulations and resources have changed since Mr. Bob Allison presented his waterfront plan to the City Commission on July 18, 2017.

I was present at that meeting and recently reread an account of the meeting published on July 24, 2017.  In the words of Mr. Allison, the most important aspect of the plan described how the “bulkheads at the marina could be relocated to create valuable new land” and further suggested that the city could place bulkheads “wherever it chooses.”

At the time, I was interested in Mr. Allison’s proposed plan and met with him at his home to view the model of the waterfront he had constructed with his grandchildren. It was interesting, and if implemented, might have created many opportunities for activities at the waterfront. However, after careful scrutiny, the “relocated bulkheads” would have required the filling of 3.5 acres of sovereign waters of the State of Florida (Amelia River) and wetlands.

Many years ago, it might have been possible to fill wetlands and state waters. Today, however, it requires intense permitting from the St. Johns River Management District, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The filling of wetlands is prohibited by the Fernandina Beach Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code.

He suggested that the city manager ignored the plan, leading readers to believe the statement that the plan’s ideas “were never even brought before the city commission for discussion.”  When the plan was presented by Mr. Allison at the July 18, 2017 meeting, the city commission chose not to discuss the plan in any detail.

Mr. Allison calls a purchase of waterfront land at that time a “waste of City funds,” and faults brand new City Manager Dale Martin for the purchase. It actually was arranged by the previous city manager, and the city commission backed the purchase unanimously.

Mr. Allison suggests that “the reconfiguration of the marina’s docks totally failed to address the parking crisis at the west end of Center Street.” The need to reconfigure the marina occurred to gain more profitability – not parking.

The Community Redevelopment Area Advisory Board (CRAAB) recently unanimously recommended that parking west of the railroad should be minimized and efforts should be made to replace it in areas east of the railroad. CRAAB does not share the view that there is a parking crisis on the west side and believes parking should be located on the east side of the railroad tracks to allow for more green space along the river.

Mr. Allison says “tens of thousands of dollars were wasted building the largest dinghy dock in the free world.” But in fact, the dinghy dock was cobbled together from salvaged portions of the old docking system at a minimal cost. And it is used by visiting boaters wishing to visit our downtown businesses, as well as dinghies.

Mr. Allison believes that “the marina has been operating at near capacity for years and yet not one single provision was made for its future expansion.” For years the marina was mired in mud with more than half of the marina unusable. The marina was redesigned and dredged and is now operating at near capacity.

To expand the marina, it must go north. This option has been studied extensively. The current federal channel marking prohibits any northward expansion. The first step is to move the channel marker to the west. This request must be approved by Congress. The request has been made and is awaiting congressional action. Additionally, to expand north means acquiring the privately owned property north of parking lot A, which the new docks would block. The owner does not wish to sell his property.

Finally, an excess of $5 million would be needed to build new docks. I do not believe the taxpayers of Fernandina Beach should pay that expense.

I agree with Mr. Allison that “for the city’s citizens to have something really special on their waterfront, there first has to be a vision and then a common sense plan.” However, conditions, regulations, public views and resources have changed — and what may have made some sense in 2017 likely makes little sense in 2023.

If you have any questions or concerns I may be reached at [email protected].

(Dr. Ross is one of the city commission’s five members.)

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

DAVE LOTT(@dave-l)
8 months ago

A solid rebuttal. Chip’s response doesn’t even mention the proposed costs of Bob Allison’s redevelopment plan which was going to be in the tens of millions of dollars. And how did Bob propose repaying that substantial cost – why commercial development on that 3.5 acres of “reclaimed” land of course. They did it on the southern end of Manhattan so why can’t we do it here? Bob is a very creative and imaginative thinker from this plan to his idea of creating a luxury RV resort on undeveloped city golf course land. It is great that there are those that are always pushing the boundaries of conventional thinking; but just because a plan is proposed doesn’t mean it is feasible.

Lucy Peistrup
Lucy Peistrup(@lucyp74)
8 months ago

I know Mr. Bob Allison. He is a very intelligent BUSINESSMAN. If he proposes something, it is because he has put forth the thought and effort to create the PLAN worthy of his time to INVEST his energy into it. His beautiful subdivisions off of Barnwell Road are the ONLY tastefully done developments in this area. If other developers would follow his model then perhaps we would still have some majestic oaks left in Yulee. People complaining about where to get the money to build this should ask WHY millions were spent on an AIRPORT that is used by FEW for an annual event instead of a waterfront project that would truly benefit EVERYONE, regardless of their income. I’m disgusted and disappointed by the previous local government choosing to cater to the wealthy rather than the CITIZENS! Hopefully the newest batch of Fernandina local government officials will do what is right and just for We the People.

DAVE LOTT(@dave-l)
8 months ago
Reply to  Lucy Peistrup

Lucy, the airport is an enterprise fund. Its revenue is received from grants from the FAA and FDOT and user fees. NO general ad valorem property tax money is used to fund the airport. I would suspect that the hundreds of vendors and the beneficiaries of the charities from the Concors d’Elegance proceeds will strongly disagree with you over the value of that event.

Alyce Parmer
Alyce Parmer (@guest_66868)
8 months ago

Once again Commissioner Ross demonstrates he represents our city well. He is bright, measured, articulate, and calls ’em like he sees ’em. Thank you for Commissioner Ross for your good sense, your fair-mindedness and your non-partisan handling of issues. You demonstrate you put the citizens and the interests of our fair city first and foremost. Can we clone you?

Bob Allison
Bob Allison(@bob-allison)
8 months ago

Dave, now that the Observer has published the plan, take a look at it. Commissioner Ross’s objection to the relocation of the City’s bulkheads will be found to lame and pointless on closer inspection. A small portion (less than 15%) of the City’s property can be used for commercial buildings to capture the extraordinary rents paid by businesses in the downtown area. But more importantly these new buildings can offer important sound, wind and visual buffers giving citizens and visitors a truly memorable experience of using the City’s new downtown waterfront park overlooking the marina.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_66934)
7 months ago