Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
After more than 3 hours, the June 18, 2013 regular meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) adjourned, seemingly to the relief of both commissioners and the few remaining audience members. Two important issues—one involving the recommendations of the Community Redevelopment Area Advisory Board (CRAAB) and the other authorizing on first reading a ballot referendum to extend commissioner terms—were decided on 4-1 votes. The FBCC set new rates for private fire hydrants, authorized the City Attorney to initiate a foreclosure, listened to representatives of the Ocean Highway Port Authority (OHPA) present their case for increased street safety in the port area, and reviewed parcels of city-owned land for possible sale.
Without discussion the FBCC unanimously approved the appointment of Deputy City Clerk Kim Briley to the position of City Clerk Pro Tem. While appointing her to the office, they declined to give her an office, preferring to keep the Clerk’s physical office for use as a private meeting space for the Mayor and individual Commissioners.
Resetting the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA)
Following weeks of discussion and meetings, the FBCC conducted a public hearing and acted upon Resolution 2013-19 to reset the base year of the CRA from 2005 to 2013 and to extend the term of the CRA 40 years to sunset in the year 2053.
CRAAB Vice Chair Andy Curtin spoke on behalf of the CRAAB recommendations, reminding commissioners of the advice from Florida Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Carol Westmoreland that it is important that the CRA governing body show confidence and support for the CRA in order to attract private investment.
Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett received assurances from City Attorney Tammi Bach that the CRA could be sunset earlier than 2053. He said, “If we can pass it, then we can unpass it.”
Commissioner Pat Gass said that over the past weeks she has learned a lot about CRAs and understands that they can be a good tool for economic development. She also learned that Fernandina Beach is the only Florida city to limit CRAs to 2% of taxable land value. She said that she sees no reason to rush resetting the CRA until the citizens consider a referendum to remove the 2% limitation from the City Charter. Without input and guidance from the citizenry first she did not feel that she could support the other recommendations.
Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett asked Attorney Bach if the 2% issue had any bearing on the matters on the evening agenda. Bach said no, that the matters were not interconnected, but that the FBCC could consider a referendum as a separate matter now or in the future.
Commissioner Arlene Filkoff said that the 2% rule was added to the City Charter in 1984. She recommended that the FBCC charge the CRAAB to investigate how and why that limitation came about.
CRAAB Vice Chair Curtin told the FBCC that his board believes the 2% issue stands alone and should be addressed as a separate issue, not tied in with the recommendations to reset the CRA.
Mayor Sarah Pelican weighed in with concerns about public safety, asking what percentage of the increment would stay in the CRA fund as opposed to the general fund. Senior City Planner Kelly Gibson said that about 95% of the increment would stay with the CRA, but that base line revenues would continue to flow to the general fund to cover citywide expenses such as public safety.
Gass informed the commissioners that she would vote against the resolution, “not because I don’t believe in [the CRA], but because I want to get a pulse of the people first.”
The resolution was approved on a 4-1 vote, with Gass dissenting.
City Attorney Bach will draft a referendum for the November ballot to remove the 2% limitation via Charter Amendment. She will incorporate background history on this item for commissioners to consider.
Extending City Commissioner terms to 4 years
The FBCC held First Reading of Ordinance 2013-03, which authorizes a voter referendum to amend Section 9 of the City charter by increasing the term of commissioners from 3 to 4 years and providing for city elections to be held every two years in conjunction with federal, state and county elections.
Local citizen Lynn Williams rose to speak in opposition, suggesting that an annualized saving in election costs of $5,500 would be outweighed by the mischief inherent in electing a majority of the commission in one election. He suggested that a better way to save money was to return elections in house, as opposed to having them conducted by the Supervisor of Elections.
Commissioner Ed Boner took issue with Williams, citing low voter turnout in the off years that also presents an opportunity for mischief, since a small number of voters can sway an election. He did not believe that candidates run as a ticket, but rather run their own races. He also addressed the complexities of running in a presidential election year, emphasizing that candidates must work harder to get their message out.
Mayor Pelican appeared to waiver in her support for this issue, which she had advocated in earlier meetings. She said that there was merit to Williams’ argument, but that she felt it was up to the voters to decide. She was reminded that this was only First Reading and that she could reverse herself at the next reading.
Commissioner Arlene Filkoff said that while she supported the measure in principle, she would vote against it because it provided for “automatic” term extensions for two sitting commissioners. She said that when the issue came up previously, voters rejected it because of the automatic term extensions. In light of that message, she felt she could not support the measure as presented.
The ordinance passed on First Reading on a 4-1 vote with Filkoff dissenting.
Fire hydrants on private property
The FBCC considered on Second Reading ordinance 2013-10, amending the master fee schedule for the city’s Utilities Department relating to fire hydrants for the remainder of the Fiscal Year. City Manager Joe Gerrity asked Utilities Department Director John Mandrick to explain to commissioners the difference between city owned fire hydrants located in public rights-of-way and privately owned fire hydrants located on private property to serve specific, private communities. Mandrick did so, emphasizing that the location of fire hydrants is the developers’ business decision. They may choose to make the hydrant available to the wider community or keep them for exclusive use within their own development. While there are 47 “utility owned, private hydrants” throughout the city, other hydrants serve developments from public spaces.
The city has a responsibility to maintain these hydrants according to state standards and insure that water pressure is adequate to support fire fighting.
The proposed change would lower the monthly fee for private hydrants from $117.23 to $37.00, following a re-evaluation request initiated by the City Manager.
Three residents of the Cape Sound development spoke before the FBCC protesting fees being assessed in their community. They maintained that they pay taxes to support fire hydrants throughout the city, so they are being unfairly charged for ones on their property. They objected to paying any fire hydrant fee, since through administrative error their community had not been billed previously for this service. City Manager Gerrity said that while he understood their unhappiness at being billed both prospectively and for the past 3 years of service, this was a matter of fairness. He said that in effect due to the city’s error Cape Sound owners will have received 5 free years of service, since the city by law can only back bill 3 years. He expressed a willingness to amortize the $15-17,000 over ten years. Attorney Bach said that by law the city cannot waive this fee.
Mandrick took issue with Cape Sound owners’ claims that their tax money was being used to support fire hydrants throughout the city. He said that utilities are an enterprise fund and as such exist based on fees, not taxes from the general fund.
While the homeowners association will be billed, the actual amount per unit is roughly $25-30 per year.
The FBCC passed the ordinance unanimously on second and final reading. Commissioner Boner said, “People living there [Cape Sound] should be happy,” referring to the fact that in effect they could not be billed for the 5 years of service beyond the statute of limitation.
Foreclosure proceeding on 501 S. 10th Street property
City Attorney Bach sought consensus from the FBCC to proceed with foreclosure filing based upon a recommendation of the Code Enforcement and Review Board. There are code violations involving structural integrity, cleanliness and maintenance of the property going back to 2012. Despite extensive efforts by the city to contact the property owner (“Cora Byrd Estate”), all written notices have been returned as undeliverable and no neighboring property owners have been able to help. There is also an open probate case for this estate. With reluctance, the FBCC agreed that in fairness to surrounding property owners, the City Attorney should begin foreclosure on the property.
Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) requests assistance on city streets in the port area
The OHPA brought three resolutions asking for assistance to the FBCC. These resolutions arose following a joint workshop with the city on safety and security issues surrounding port operations and warehouse operations. OHPA Attorney Clyde Davis asked that the city:
- Rezone two vacant, port-owned parcels of land at 3rd and Dade Streets so that they might be used for secure parking by the port and the Customs Office. This action would allow the port to relocate employee parking from its current location on the waterfront.
•Close the dead end portion of Calhoun Street between 2nd Street and port warehouses to increase safety during warehouse operations.
•Work with the port to provide signage, restrictions and warnings on city streets in the port area that are used by businesses and residents to help motorists and pedestrians understand that they are entering industrial areas. Davis said that the OHPA is seeking “the least restrictive measures” because the port does not want to create the impression that it is taking city streets.
Brian Reeves, the 2013 OHPA chairman, accompanied Davis with a graphic of the area of concern. He said that he did not believe that the half block portion of Calhoun Street had value to the public. City Attorney Bach suggested that if the FBCC were receptive to the OHPA request with respect to this small portion of Calhoun Street, it might consider granting the port an easement, as opposed to vacating the street or closing it. By doing that, the city would transfer liability but not ownership to the port. City Manager Gerrity supported this recommendation. At the end of the meeting Bach confirmed that the FBCC wanted her to pursue the easement.
Davis said that the OHPA will file a rezoning application for consideration by the city’s Planning Advisory Board on the proposed parking lots. Gerrity said that he will start working with Streets and Maintenance Manager Rex Lester on street signage and will arrange to ride through the area with a representative of the port to determine the most effective placement.
Review of city-owned property
At the request of Commissioner Ed Boner, the FBCC reviewed vacant parcels of land owned by the city for possible sale. Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary led the commissioners through a slide presentation representing 27 parcels, most of which staff had determined were either not developable due to wetlands, zoned recreation, in the airport flight path or which should be retained for potential future city use.
The previous commission went through a similar exercise about 2 years ago. The City Charter imposes strict rules for sale of lands zoned recreational. Section 10A of the city charter states:
(1)The city commission shall have the power, after approval by referendum of the electors of the city, to sell, lease, for any period in excess of forty (40) years, encumber or otherwise transfer, the municipally owned swimming pool or pools, any and all recreational facilities, or any portion thereof, and all buildings, improvements and appurtenances thereunto appertaining, whether presently built or hereafter built, upon such terms and conditions as shall be approved by an affirmative majority vote of the city commission; and the city commission shall have the power to issue a warranty deed in the event of a cash sale and if sold on terms, to make a conveyance and take back a mortgage with final payment date not exceeding thirty (30) years from the date of the sale.
(2)The city commission shall have the power, after approval by referendum of the electors of the city, to sell, lease, for any period in excess of forty (40) years, encumber or otherwise transfer the municipally owned golf course or golf courses, or any portion thereof, and the buildings, improvements and appurtenances thereunto appertaining or used in connection therewith, whether presently built or hereafter constructed, upon such terms and conditions as shall be approved by an affirmative majority vote of the city commission; and the city commission shall have the power to issue a warranty deed in the event of a cash sale and, if sold on terms, to make a conveyance and take back a mortgage with the final payment date not exceeding thirty (30) years from the date of the sale.
(3)”Recreational facilities” as used in this section is hereby defined as any real property, including improvements thereon, owned by the City of Fernandina Beach and used or intended for use by the general public primarily for parks, playgrounds, amusements, resorts, pleasure, nature preserves, botanic or zoological conservatories, sporting events, pleasure boating, swimming, fishing or any other recreational activity.
(4)”Recreational facilities” as used in this section shall be designated by the city commission and will be described and identified by resolution.
McCrary recommended that the FBCC ask the Airport Advisory Committee and the Golf Course Advisory Committee to review the appropriate pieces of unused land and make recommendations to the committee.
Commissioner Ed Boner seemed to be the only commissioner interested in selling unused city property. He appeared motivated by the desire to get more land on the tax rolls to benefit the city’s general fund. He believed that several parcels would be of significant interest to developers interested in residential or perhaps commercial building. Commissioner Filkoff reminded commissioners that the citizens value undeveloped, tree-covered land as evidenced during recent controversies involving tree removal and the potential RV resort. Others cited the referendum requirement, which would make any sale problematic until voters weighed in. There were also issues identified involving vertical structures on lands in the airport’s flight paths.
Boner suggested that the city rezone the lands from recreation to avoid the referendum problems. Mayor Pelican replied, “That doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Local citizen Lynn Williams criticized staff recommendations against sale of the properties saying that Deputy Manager McCrary was “insufficiently greedy” for the money that the city could bring in through property sales. He acknowledged his priority interest in the Amelia riverfront. He suggested that the city try to package some of its surplus properties to barter for the Lane property in the CRA. He believed that the Lane property was more important for the city to own in the long run. McCrary responded that since Williams is a big proponent of riverfront development, he should keep in mind that if the city owns all or most of the CRA property, there will be no money coming into the development fund to support improvements.
City Clerk’s Physical Office
During City Commissioner remarks, Commissioner Filkoff opined that since Deputy Clerk Briley had been officially appointed to the Clerk Pro Tem position, she felt it was time for Briley to move into the Clerk’s physical office, which has been vacant since Mary Mercer vacated the position in January 2013. This suggestion was met with strong and immediate opposition from Mayor Pelican, who allowed that she had spoken to Briley about this matter and had decided that she and other commissioners needed private space for meetings, so Briley could stay where she currently sits in the open room. Filkoff, who seemed genuinely surprised, asked, “So now we have a Mayor’s Office?’ Pelican refuted that, saying that there are times when the city hall conference room is not available and that business cannot be confidentially addressed at a coffee shop.
Filkoff said that she had never had difficulty finding a meeting place at city hall and that since Briley had been given the job of Clerk Pro Tem, it was appropriate that she also have an office where she can perform her duties privately and handle sensitive matters out of the public space. Commissioner Boner agreed with Filkoff. Pelican said that the decision was up to the commission. With that, Vice Mayor Corbett said, “She can stay where she is.” Gass also agreed.
- VRL Architects have delivered the plans for the renovation and expansion of the library building on N. 4th Street. The city’s pre-permit review process has begun. Once input has been received on the need for any changes required to meet building and safety codes, the plans will return to the architects for revision. Manager Gerrity estimated that the process would probably take one to two weeks. Once the plans are approved by the city, the RFP for construction can be issued.
- While plans for this year’s July 4th fireworks are set, the Historic Fernandina Business Association does not appear to be interested in coordinating the effort next year. Commissioner Boner reported that they are considering other ideas for next year, but that they have no time frame as yet.
- The FBCC approved the award of a bid for installation of a solar heating system for the Atlantic Avenue Recreation Center pool to A1A Solar Contracting, Inc. Local environmentalist Len Kreger said that this action is a win-win for everyone because it will save $400K over the life of the system with a payback in 2-5 years, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and award the bid to a local contractor. Commissioner Filkoff asked Gerrity to build in consideration of solar and other forms of alternative energy when doing cost-benefit analyses for future major building or renovation projects.
- By approving Resolution 2013-81 the FBCC granted one facility rental fee waiver annually for all non-profit groups located within the city limits in lieu of grant funding for FY 2012-13. This action was initiated by Commissioner Gass. To assist those wanting to reserve city facilities, Fernandina Beach’s online Facilities & Reservation system just got better. This new upgrade will allow you to search and view details of city facilities; create reservations, rate facilities, and much more. Consult this link for more details: http://www.fbfl.us/Facilities/FeatureOverview.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.
June 19, 2013 3:46 p.m.