By Cindy Jackson
Reporter
May 24, 2022

Many attendees held up signs, and most speakers wore stickers that read “NO MORE TOWERS.”

On May 24, 2022, the James S. Page government building was filled to capacity – not just the Commission chambers but the entire building. The issue that was top of mind was a proposed settlement with Riverstone Properties regarding its plans for a 50-acre parcel on the south end of the island. A very controversial issue, it pitted developers against those who want to protect and preserve the natural beauty of Amelia Island.

In this instance, “the people” won. By a vote of 3-2, the County Commissioners voted to stand by an ordinance passed in June 2021 which reduced maximum building heights (in unincorporated areas of Amelia Island) from 85 feet to 45 feet. Passage of this ordinance (2021-08), provided continuity with height restrictions in Fernandina Beach but also effectively “nixed” Riverstone’s plan to build 11 towers – two units to a floor and seven stories high.

Before the meeting even began, close to 100 individuals had signed-up to speak on this agenda item alone. Every seat in the house was taken and it was elbow to elbow along the walls. In addition, the corridors outside the meeting room were filled to capacity – all available chairs were taken and those left standing would pace the hallway.

Commissioner Aaron Bell, who serves as chair, had to pound the gavel a time or two in the commission chambers when onlookers would clap or politely cheer as a crowd is wont to do. But there was no silencing the folks in the hallway and the sound of their applause permeated the walls, and was heard by all.

In compliance with the established procedures for public participation in meetings, which states: “No disruptive behavior will be permitted (i.e., clapping, whistling, heckling, yelling . . . or other disruptive behavior” many attendees would hold up signs, and practically every speaker wore a sticker on their chest that read “NO MORE TOWERS.”

Despite the number of speakers, there didn’t appear to be any duplication of salient points. There were individuals speaking about conservation, others to the need to protect the birds, the turtles and endangered species . . . the dangers posed by hurricanes and concerns about evacuation plans . . . the need for more fire and police protection . . . tree conservation, beach access, and preserving the skyline. To view the meeting in its entirety, go to https://nassaufl.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=1421&meta_id=159342

County Attorney Denise May briefly outlined the options before the Commission as required by law. The Bert J. Harris Act, under which Riverstone Properties is “staking its claim” against the county lays out a statutory timeline. Based on official filings and notices presented, the County was faced with a deadline of June 6, 2022, by which to respond, which explains the sense of urgency.

Susan S. Erdeli,  with the law firm of Marks Gray (a practice that has represented the county in the past and which has been assigned as defense counsel), then addressed the crowd, detailing her experience with the Bert J. Harris Act.

She began by describing it as “a creature of the Florida legislature . . . and is a law that only exists in Florida . . . and is pretty aggressive to protect the rights of private property owners to the detriment of local government.” Ms. Erdeli noted that she has litigated 10-15 cases in this area over the years and has even defended a claim against the same law firm that is representing Riverstone – and was successful in prevailing.

She outlined the options available to the Board of County Commissioners in this way:

1. Direct the County Attorney to present the Settlement Offer and Agreement as presented
2. Direct the County Attorney to modify the Settlement Offer and Agreement as amended by the Commission
3. Direct the County Attorney to present a settlement offer with no changes to the regulations and a statement of allowable uses to the claimant.
4. Direct the County Attorney to take any other action the Board of County Commissioners deems appropriate and in the public interest.

Confirming that these types are cases are very expensive and that “the stakes are so high if you lose,” Erdeli stated that “you do have defenses,” and estimated that the case could take one to four years.

Before inviting public comments, Commissioner Bell made this statement, “I have received 51 telephone calls and 507 emails opposed to this settlement from my constituents and have only gotten two in favor. This is in my commission district . . . I cannot and will not support this settlement. My vote would be for Option Three where the county tells Riverstone to pound sand and see you in court.” The room erupted into loud applause.

And Option Three it was. Approved by a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Bell, Martin, and Farmer in support and Ford and Gray dissenting.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

A summary of the public comment period will post tomorrow.

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Marjorie Anderson Anderson
Marjorie Anderson Anderson(@dickie-andersongmail-com)
6 months ago

Proud to be there! Cindy, good job.

Jeffrey Bunch
Jeffrey Bunch(@j-bunch)
6 months ago

Now you know how we felt in the early 70’s when they built Amelia by the Sea and Amelia South.

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
6 months ago

It was very inspiring to hear so many people speak up for conservation and for an end to the bullying by multi-millionaire developers. We finally have a majority County Commission who understand that development does not pay for itself and that we have had enough of it. Misters Ford and Gray are out of touch with many of their own constituents in west Nassau County, who also are dismayed by the onslaught of rampant development ruining the rural character of their area. Time for these two to be replaced by people who understand the problems uncontrolled development brings and have the courage to do something about it.

Randy
Randy (@guest_65160)
6 months ago

so now there will be 38 mega homes built on the property….

Jason Collins
Jason Collins (@guest_65165)
6 months ago
Reply to  Randy

Yes so the property will still be developed with 45’ tall buildings or 40 some odd mansions. The trees will still come down. But now the rest of the county will make up the difference if we lose the law suit.

Jason Collins
Jason Collins (@guest_65164)
6 months ago

This was a 3-2 vote and here is why:
In defense of Commissioners Gray and Ford the problem we have is that it can be argued that County officials enacted the restricted height ordinance last year specifically against this particular property owner hence the lawsuit that will come. There are already multiple 84’ towers on the OMNI Plantation and at the Ritz (Carlton Dunes). Not saying it’s right or wrong but there is always more to the story. I’ve read that if the County loses the lawsuit then County residents throughout would pay an additional 3.2 mils in property taxes to defend the suit. In perspective the County homeowners would pay as much taxes as City residents with none of the benefits if we lose.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_65166)
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Collins

Jason – Let the chips fall where they may here. Bean and Byrd both voted for the bill that set up those that don’t own large swath’s of land primed for development. It’s a bad bill, in numerous ways.

Sarah Gant
Sarah Gant (@guest_65168)
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Collins

Jason, except that the more rural residents of the county have benefited from the tax income that the Island brings in every year. Better roads, hospitals, schools. There is a tradeoff always, but it is the dollars that come in from the expensive homes and the tourist dollars that run the engine that is Nassau County. Neither Gray nor Ford mentioned that west county residents have benefited from the tourist dollars and property tax income for fifty years. And no matter what, there will be lawsuits, and if not one from Riverside, multiple from organizations that represent differing interests on the Island.

Donna Ballard
Donna Ballard (@guest_65170)
6 months ago

You did a good job with this article Cindy.

Dan Cheek
Dan Cheek (@guest_65176)
6 months ago

Thank the three commissioners who did the right decision. Everyone knows there is absolutely no advantage and indeed only destruction of the Island if this type development goes forward. Need proof? Panama City, Myrtle Beach and on and on and on. The only gain is the financial gain of the developers.

missyjean
Active Member
missyjean(@missyjean)
5 months ago

Development is a good thing when its paced with population and business growth as long as it maintains the character of the county…we cannot be anti-growth but we can continue to manage along the way so it works with the community and keeps the lifestyle of Amelia Island in tact.

Last edited 5 months ago by missyjean
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