Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 23, 2015 1:00 a.m.
All island homeowners, except for those who already contribute to the South Amelia Island Shore Stabilization Agency (SAISSA), may soon be part of a new taxing district to provide a sustainable fund for beach renourishment along Amelia Island’s Atlantic shore. Both the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and the Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC) gave preliminary approval at their joint meeting held on March 19, 2015 to begin work on creating a Beach Protection Fund financed through a taxing district, which does not require voter approval. According to Shanea Jones, Nassau County’s Office of Management and Budget Director, the tax would amount to around $20 per year per homesteaded property.
The new taxing district—known as a Municipal Services Taxing Unit, or MSTU—would relieve county and city governments from having to fund beach renourishment out of their general funds. The money collected would continue to accumulate so that the local match for federal and state funding would be readily available for each new round of beach renourishment.
Budgeting for beach renourishment has been an ongoing headache for local government, especially during the recent economic slowdown. While most of the cost of beach renourishment is borne by the federal and state government, the local cost share is about 11 percent of the price: $1.5M. The original understanding between the local jurisdictions seemed to be that the county and the city would split this cost, but over the years tensions have grown between the two bodies over discharging those responsibilities. Caught in the middle has been the Tourist Development Council (TDC), which collects and administers bed tax revenues on behalf of Nassau County. The TDC sets aside a certain percent of its revenues to monitor and clean up beaches, but there have been increasing calls for that organization to foot an ever-increasing share of the county’s share of beach renourishment costs.
Erik Olsen of Olsen & Associates briefed both commissions on the history of beach erosion problems reaching back to the 1800’s with the building of the jetties. The first beach erosion study was conducted in 1946, followed by several additional studies. It was not until 2008 that beach reconstruction began in earnest with legislative and lobbying help along with support from the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Navy. Olsen called the City of Fernandina Beach “The Poster Child of Perseverance” for its steadfast efforts to protect its beaches.
Olsen said that the Amelia Island beach renourishment project is unique among federal funding projects. The federal government picks up 79 percent of the project cost and the state picks up half of the remaining 21 percent, leaving the smallest portion to be funded locally. The schedule for periodic renourishment has been put back over recent years, with a new cycle to begin in 2016. Since there is no money in the 2016 Federal Budget for any beach renourishment activities on the East Coast, Olsen said that he will work with local governments in an attempt to secure the needed funding from leftover 2015 funds that were either not claimed or returned unspent from other localities. Permits are already in place, and state matching money has been escrowed. But the local match must be in place by October 2015.
Nassau County District 1 Commissioner Danny Leeper recalled changes in the beach during his lifetime spent on the island. He said that he regards beach renourishment as an insurance policy, because it protects not only the beaches, but property west of the beaches from future erosion.
Mike Zaffaroni, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Amelia Island-Fernandina Beach-Yulee Chamber of Commerce, delivered an endorsement of the creation of a Beach Trust Fund, financed through a special taxing district, on behalf of his board. He said, “The Nassau County Shore Protection Plan is designed to protect our property values from the effects of outgoing erosion and flooding associated with a major storm. Therefore, for less than $2.00 per month for most residents, this taxing district will enable the county to collect upwards of $350,000 annually, allowing our community to fund these needed improvements going forward.”
Fernandina Beach resident Mac Morriss asked why the tax would not be county wide, except for those who are already paying for beach renourishment at the south end of Amelia Island. He said that the entire county benefits from the tourist draw to island beaches and that the mainland benefits greatly from the island’s buffering the effects of major storms.
County Manager Ted Selby replied that there must be a defined benefit to a property taxed for this purpose and that it would be difficult to make that case to properties in Hilliard or Callahan.
Fernandina Beach commissioners expressed unanimous support for pursuing the creation of the MSTU. Mayor Ed Boner emphasized that such a mechanism would guarantee sustainability. The project will now be taken up by county staff to work out details.
In response to a question from city commissioner Robin Lentz, County Attorney Mike Mullin and County Manager Ted Selby replied that TDC money could not be reprogrammed to repair beach accesses or signs. The TDC would continue to pay for beach monitoring and clean up, holding money in reserve in case of emergencies affecting the beaches.
The BOCC will take up the matter of funding beach renourishment for the current fiscal year at their April 13, 2015 Regular Meeting.
Erik Olsen made several observations on the importance of Florida beaches. They are the most visited beaches in the country, with 810 million daily visitors each year, three times the daily visitors that the National Park Service receives daily. He said that if Florida were a country, it would be the world’s leading tourist destination.
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.