OHPA responds, says Nassau property appraiser yet to serve notice of lawsuit

By Wes Wolfe
March 25, 2022

The Fernandina port authority won a December court ruling to preserve tax-exempt status.

The latest lawsuit to involve the Port of Fernandina has yet to be served on the named defendant, an attorney for the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) said at the authority’s recent board meeting.

“As everybody knows, the Nassau County property appraiser has filed a complaint against OHPA’s tax-exempt status,” OHPA attorney Patrick Krechowski . “To my knowledge, it has not been served (on OHPA). I have not been contacted by the property appraiser’s attorney. I’m a little perplexed.”

The lawsuit, filed March 15 in the 4th Judicial Circuit, follows a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling that required property taxes paid for a private entity running a golf course on public land in Gulf Breeze. There’s a similar arrangement between OHPA and Nassau Terminals, which operates the port.

The Nassau County property appraiser, Michael Hickox, lost a fight in magistrate court in December to collect the taxes, but decided to make another run at it because of the appellate court ruling.

“The property owned by the Ocean Highway & Port Authority of Nassau County was being used by a private, for-profit entity — Nassau Terminals LLC — for the purposes of generating business profits through its operation of the port facilities pursuant to the ‘Operating Agreement’ dated Oct. 19, 2018,” according to the document from the property appraiser denying the tax exemption in June 2021.

“Such a proprietary use of the property requires taxation under sections 196.199(2)(a) and (4), Florida Statutes, which provide that property owned by certain governmental units — including authorities — but used by nongovernmental lessees are exempt only when the lessee performs governmental, municipal or public purposes.”

At least one commissioner was upset at news stories about the lawsuit’s filing, saying the timing was unethical.

“I’d like to make a comment about that publicly, that we were not served,” Commissioner Mike Cole said. “We have not been served.”

As of noon Thursday, that continued to be the case.

“I think we’re on pretty solid ground, and we’re going to move forward whenever we can,” OHPA Chairman Danny Fullwood said.