By Cindy Jackson
May 24, 2022
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.