Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
October 7, 2020
Much of the discussion at the October 6, 2020 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) meeting surrounded the rumored construction of two new hotels on the ocean side of South Fletcher just north of Sliders. Commissioners and City Attorney Tammi Bach shared information regarding the hotels’ current status and attempted to dispel many of the rumors and concerns that have spread through the City via social media. Several residents attended the meeting and also expressed concerns.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich, who brought this item to the floor for discussion, said that he wanted to bring this before the public to share current information on the project. “I want to preface this discussion by saying this Commission is not voting on anything.” He asked the City Attorney to provide a recap of activities related to the two adjoining properties proposed as the site for hotels at 1962 and 1974 South Fletcher Avenue.
- Property owners have been pursuing this project for 4-5 years
- The two 50×100 foot vacant parcels, which are zoned commercial (C-1), cannot be combined per ordinance and no variance can be granted to allow a height increase.
- There are no setbacks required between the two lots, which may be built to the zero lot line.
- Two, side-by-side hotels, separately owned and operated have been proposed.
- Buildings would be 5-story, with valet parking on the first floor, three levels of conditioned space and a roof terrace.
- Height limit remains 35 feet, as measured from the average natural grade (not the finished slab).
- Both projects must comply with all city codes prior to permitting. Stormwater must be provided for on the property; no fill can be brought in to raise the average natural grade of the property.
Bach said that currently there is no building permit application pending for either property.
Past actions include:
- Conditional approval from the City’s Technical Review Committee (TRC) in 2016-17
- Site plan approvals in 2017
Bach said that the site plan has not changed since 2017, and that if the developers can meet all the conditions levied by the TRC, they do not need to repeat the TRC review process.
Staff informed the developers that their site plan approvals expired in July 2019, and that they had failed to provide a request to extend the development order. Property owners disputed that and appealed the staff decision to the Board of Adjustment (BOA), which in October 2019 overruled the staff and extended the development order, which is today valid and good.
The covid pandemic caused Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to extend all development orders, meaning that the current development order is set to expire on November 4, 2020, “If the Governor does not extend this,” Bach said, “the property owners still have the right to ask for another extension [from the City] for six months, which we expect they will do, since there the City has not yet received any building plans to review for building permits.”
Lednovich asked about the request to extend DEP permits, which the property owners have also requested. He quoted from information received from Kelly Gibson, City Planning and Conservation Director, that DEP cannot extend the permits without City sign-off. She said that the City cannot sign off without architectural plans and an updated biological survey.
Bach said that the property owners’ attorney has indicated that they will produce an updated biological survey, but that architectural plans have not yet been produced.
In response to a question regarding dune intrusion, Bach replied that issues like that would be considered under the DEP permitting process.
Bach said that the next steps in the project would involve getting DEP permit extensions, and City sign-off of architectural plans and the biological survey.
Bach added that because of the 10-foot setback requirements on the north and south, balconies would not be allowed on those sides.
Commissioner Chip Ross asked to make comments to address concerns raised by citizens in many emails he has received. By zoning, hotels are allowed on these properties. The City cannot change the zoning without the permission of the owners. Doing such would lessen the value of the property and technically result in a “taking,” which would then result in costly litigation. He credited the sitting Commission with passing ordinances that both changed the base of height measurement to the natural grade and prohibited the grant of variances to exceed height limitations. “There are many restrictions on that property,” Ross stated, citing the new flood ordinance, the Coastal Control Line restrictions, parking, and stormwater requirements.
Ross stressed that under Florida law, the property owners have a right to develop their property. “The City Commission cannot just by fiat say you can’t develop it,” he said. “The only was we can stop development is to buy the property, and the City does not have the money to do so.” Estimates are that combined market value of the lots is around $2M.
“This is a process,” Ross stressed, “and I need to reiterate that the City Commission [is not in the approval process]. It all has to do with ordinances that have already been passed.”
Mayor John Miller thanked Ross for his remarks adding that there are laws governing the process, and where possible, the FBCC has made the rules as rigorous as possible. “No matter how restrictive the rules, we always knew that some developers would find ways around them,” Miller said. He added that firewalls were required between the hotels, which as separate entities would be required to have separate lobbies and separate facilities.
“We’ve done the best we can to protect these properties,” Miller said.