The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) met in workshop session on September 2, 2015, to discuss one item: beach access rights-of-way (ROWs). The intent was that the FBCC would review and discuss staff’s recommendation concerning future requests for encroachments or use of public ROWs at beach accesses.
This issue arose following public outcry over the city manager’s exercising authority given to him under city code to allow a private property owner to landscape the adjoining city property designated as Beach Access 33, thereby creating the impression that the landscaped city property was part of his property. City Manager Joe Gerrity acknowledged after the fact that his decision to grant permission was a mistake.
Baxter Hayes, the private property owner, has agreed to build at his own expense a handicapped beach access at Beach Access 33 where before there was no access at all as a goodwill gesture to the community.
Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary presented the FBCC with an option to make sure that such a mistake could not be made in the future. He suggested that the authority to make decisions regarding beach access or beach parking encroachments be transferred from the City Manager to the FBCC, thereby insuring full public participation going forward in any request to encroach city property in these specific locations. Commissioners seemed receptive to this idea at the beginning of the meeting.
City Manager Joe Gerrity also expressed his support for the recommendation. Gerrity also asked for and received permission from the FBCC to proceed to negotiate with Baxter Hayes on constructing the handicapped accessible beach access at Beach Access 33. He agreed to bring back drawings to the FBCC for their consideration.
What could have been a relatively short meeting, focused on the advertised agenda item, morphed into a wide-ranging discussion spearheaded by local environmental activists to cover beach problems, as they defined them. Part of the confusion resulted from a call at an earlier meeting for a workshop to discuss beach issues, of which Beach Access 33 was only one.
Before opening public comment, Mayor Ed Boner advised the audience that generally workshops are an opportunity for commissioners to discuss issues among themselves. Eleven speakers, some of whom spoke more than once, brought up topics such as providing more parking at beach accesses, revising code language to mirror state and federal laws, getting more money from the Tourist Development Council (TDC) to maintain beaches, improve code enforcement to stop individuals and businesses from “claiming” parts of the beach, the unsightly dumpster at Main Beach, opening abandoned streets along the beach to provide additional beach parking… and more.
- Joan Bean said that beach accesses were to Fernandina Beach what the oaks were to the MacArthur property in the county. She asked that changes regarding beach access encroachments be made retroactive to reverse the decision made to allow heavy landscaping at Beach Access 33.
- Kevin Leary reminded commissioners that visitors come to Fernandina for the beach. In addition to Beach Access 33, he cited a grove of trees blocking Beach Access 22.
City Commission Candidate Roy Smith asked the city to consider working with FDOT to provide parallel parking along certain stretches of South Fletcher Avenue. In response to McCrary’s suggestion to amend city code with respect to granting variances or permits to encroach beach accesses, he said, “I don’t think anyone should be able to encroach beach accesses. They belong to the people of Fernandina Beach.”
City Commission Candidate Clinch Kavanaugh suggested language changes to existing code to remove ambiguity and therefore avoid lawsuits against the city. He said that definitions in city code should mirror those of the state to minimize areas for dispute. Later in the meeting Chip Ross, a member of the city’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB), advised that the PAB was reviewing all definitions to do just that. Deputy City Manager Marshall McCrary reaffirmed that was the city’s intent as well.
- Eric Hatton suggested that before the city look into buying more land for beach parking it first looks at land it already owns. He spoke about dead-ended streets that run to the beach. He also suggested that an abandoned portion of Ocklawaha Avenue presents an opportunity for parking.
City Commission Candidate Jennifer Schriver suggested that the cost of building additional beach parking could be reduced by not using concrete, which is non-porous and adds to stormwater problems.
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller, who appeared to have wrested control of the meeting away from Mayor Ed Boner at times, deferred to Commissioner Tim Poynter, who had to leave after an hour due to a previous commitment.
Poynter thanked everyone for coming and said, “As I have said many times lately, you have to look at your own city government. When people are talking about ‘we can’t spend any more money,’ maybe we need to talk a bit more about spending money more wisely, and if there is something that makes sense, go ahead to spend money to do it. At budget time we hear, ‘Don’t raise any rates,’ ‘Don’t raise our taxes;’ ‘Don’t spend any money.’ Then the rest of the year we hear ‘we need to do this, we need to spend this, we need to do that.’ Well, it just doesn’t work that way.”
Poynter went on, “We can’t just keep saying no, no, no to raising property taxes and [saying] we don’t need to spend any money and then the rest of the year we talk about everything we should have done, should have bought, and should have pursued, but we don’t have the money. At some point we should look at each other and say: what’s the best for the community, not just today but 10 or 20 years from now? So when properties come up for sale and projects are proposed, we don’t say, ‘Not today, we don’t have the money.’ This was a reference to the private property at Beach Access 33 that had been for sale but which the city declined to purchase for parking.
Poynter used as an example a piece of property along the Amelia Riverfront, which if the city purchased, would allow it to flip the city marina to the north and save $300-400K every two years in dredging expenses. “Maybe it makes sense to spend the money now to avoid that ongoing expense,” he said. “We can apply those same thoughts to other areas of the city. It is really up to the citizens and this commission to get our act together to start looking to the future, not at the expense of today.”
The audience reacted to Poynter’s remarks with a round of applause.
Following Poynter’s departure much of the discussion surrounded a slide presentation prepared and delivered by local beach advocate Michael Leary. Leary’s slides were not limited to city beach, but also covered county beach areas. He and his brother Kevin singled out local businesses that appear to reserve parts of the beach for their own customers. Michael Leary also called attention to existing beach access parking areas that did not meet today’s width standards. He claimed that beach accesses are useless unless there is also parking available. He suggested that the city get additional funding from the TDC for that purpose.
Miller proceeded to go through his list of items identified by speakers, even as Mayor Ed Boner tried to get both commissioners and the audience to focus on the specific purpose of the meeting. He commended speakers for bringing up important points, seeking clarification from staff on legal and code enforcement matters. Gerrity said that city staff is striving through code enforcement to allow no more encroachments into city ROWs.
Miller asked, to a round of applause, “Why are we discussing how we can hear requests to encroach beach accesses rather than just saying there will be no encroachments to beach accesses?” A discussion ensued with respect to various types of encroachment, which could range from boulders to tree overhangs.
Miller seemed especially intrigued with the idea of using “unopened” streets as parking areas. He asked about the Ocklawaha example cited by an earlier speaker.
“Let’s put a parking lot there. Can we put a parking lot there?” he asked.
Streets Supervisor Rex Lester in response to a question estimated that it would cost about $200K to build a parking lot in the area in question that runs between First Avenue and South Fletcher. Lester added that the city could make that a paved street with angled parking.
Miller said, “I would like to direct city staff to find $200K to put in beach access parking there. Take the trees out.”
Gerrity reacted with surprise, “Take the trees out?” Miller is a strong tree advocate.
Boner suggested that a better move would be to put this project in the capital improvement plan for consideration going forward.
“Let’s figure out how to do this,” Miller said, “and yes I know there are trees there. I like trees. Trees are important.” He launched into additional comments on the importance of trees. Lentz chimed in directing her comment at Miller, “Except for when we want to tear them down to make parking lots.”
Later in the meeting Miller realized that his comments about tree removal might be misconstrued. Miller said, “For some reason out of this meeting I think there will be one big issue taken out of this meeting: Commissioner Miller wants to tear down trees and build a parking lot. … Any time we do anything like that we should form a committee and work with the Tree Conservatory [sic] and have them in the process, just like the PAB … and try to save as many trees as possible. We can still put in a parking lot and save trees.”
Lentz expressed her concerns over points raised by the Leary brothers over people taking up portions of the beach with chairs and umbrellas over long periods of time. She said that while she agreed that such beach furniture and shelters should not be allowed to stay up overnight, she felt that people who make this a destination should be allowed to occupy space during the day, even if they left briefly with an intent to return. Kevin Leary countered that his concern was more with those who were making money off the beach, citing Pipe Line Surf Shop and Elizabeth Pointe Lodge.
Commissioner Pat Gass expressed her opinion that perception becomes reality. When beach accesses are landscaped or businesses put up signs on the beach, the perception is that the areas are off limits to the public. She suggested that at sometime in the future the FBCC look at examining the issue more closely. “When is enough enough?” she asked.
The discussion got so off topic at times that Marlene Chapman, a citizen who had been extremely concerned over issues specific to Beach Access 33, asked for clarification that something was actually being done to address that specific problem. Gerrity assured her it was.
Miller took it upon himself to summarize and direct staff, with no objection from other commissioners. He said that the city manager would not longer have the authority to encroach on the right of way access to the beach. Miller suggested that any encroachment that the FBCC might consider would not be able to impede access to the beach.
An hour and 42 minutes into the discussion, Mayor Boner said, “I have a suggestion. Let’s ask the city attorney to watch this video and come up with language to include in a code revision incorporating these points.” Miller agreed. City Attorney Bach was not in attendance due to previously scheduled vacation.
McCrary suggested that language be written in such a way that the commissioners, not the code, will be responsible for deciding what type of encroachment may be permitted. He also added that the question arises only rarely. “You’re safer,” McCrary said, “in reviewing every request in a public setting.”
Boner gaveled the meeting closed at 6:42 p.m.
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.