Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
January 8, 2015 3:38 p.m.
There was standing room only in Fernandina Beach City Commission Chamber the evening of January 7, 2015, as city and county residents hoped to learn new information and plans of the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) and the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) to deal with traffic and safety concerns that have surfaced in connection with city review of a draft master plan for the Port of Fernandina. After almost three hours of discussion, which included public input, there was no resolution. However, the parties seemed to be amenable to considering a separate agreement to more clearly delineate development restrictions on the port and a more specific action plan to reflect short-term, specific plans for the port. The parties agreed to resume discussions at a future meeting, perhaps in 60 days.
The joint special meeting of the two boards came six months following the initial submission of the draft master plan to city staff in June 2014. Because the plan would involve changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, it was forwarded initially to the city’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB) for review and comment in August. Due to significant public concerns over the plan elements, PAB Chair Len Kreger formed a subcommittee devoted to study of the plan. The subcommittee met three times during August 2014 and took many public comments orally and in writing.
During its regular meeting of September 10, 2014 the OHPA took public comments and questions regarding the draft master plan. They held a workshop on October 2 to review and possibly revise the plan. That amended plan was presented at the PAB’s November 12 meeting. The PAB, which serves as the city’s local planning agency, recommended denial because the plan was not sufficiently in compliance with applicable Florida Statutes.
While all five city commissioners attended the January 7 special joint meeting, only three of the five port commissioners—Chair Richard Bruce, Danny Fullwood and Adam Salzburg—attended. Fernandina Beach Mayor Ed Boner chaired the meeting. During his opening remarks he called for courtesy and civility from audience members, and for the most part the audience complied.
For many in the audience, including Planning Advisory Board members and Historic District residents, the meeting content was a repetition of both information and comments aired during meetings held during the previous summer and fall. In his opening remarks, OHPA Chair Richard Bruce spoke to what he termed “a blizzard of social media comments” on the port master plan, many of which were not true and could have been easily verified, but were not. He said, “Nothing that we have done or will do will adversely affect the community.” He said that world trade, not tourism, is the biggest business in Florida, and that it would be “a shame not to take advantage of that” at the Port of Fernandina. He expressed his hope that 2015 would be a year of civil discourse.
Much discussion surrounded the term “master plan” for the massive document that had been submitted to the city last year for review. As they have maintained consistently, OHPA commissioners have stated that the document is more akin to a report, which lays out all possibilities, whether feasible or not, for port operations over the next 10 years. OHPA Chair Bruce asked, “What is in a title? It is a 10-year horizon of possibilities … nothing in it has OHPA agreed to do.”
Mayor Boner expressed residents’ concerns over what appeared to be increased truck traffic levels in the plan. He said he was concerned over what impacts the Fernandina Beach community and asked, “Is it all good?” Vice Mayor Johnny Miller asked, “Did you involve the residents in the formulation of this document?”
Brian Wheeler, the Cardno consultant who compiled the plan on behalf of the port, replied, “We did not go door to door. We looked toward city staff and market trends.”
OHPA Commissioner Danny Fullwood expressed his concern over the large volume of truck traffic projected in the document, indicating that such levels could never be met given the physical constraints of the Port. Wheeler replied that he used a mandated state methodology in the calculations, and that the methodology does not work well for a small port. In response to questions from the OHPA commissioners, Val Schwec, who heads port operations for Kinder Morgan, said that the maximum number of trucks that the port can handle on a daily basis is probably 168, last recorded in 1992. To exceed that number, the port would require multiple loading points and to expand outside the existing footprint. Schwec added that the problem of trucks queuing on Dade Street to gain access to the port is “manageable if everyone stays on top of the situation and does what’s right.”
Commissioner Tim Poynter told OHPA commissioners that their repeated use of the phrase “as our footprint is now” with respect to the port’s boundaries sends warning signals to the community. OHPA Commissioner Danny Fullwood said that there is no intent to increase the port’s footprint. Consultant Brian Wheeler said that the port is limited to rearranging operations and functions within existing space and extending over the river.
Discussion continued over the port’s parking needs. The OHPA asserted that their needs for off-port parking were caused by 2003 Homeland Security regulations. Poynter said, “But you pulled your request for rezoning of lots for offsite parking. Are you in violation of those 2003 regulations now?” OHPA Attorney Clyde Davis said that the requests for zoning change had been pulled to allow the OHPA to discuss the problem with the FBCC at the current workshop.
City Commissioner Robin Lentz asked about a port property on the river that has been used for parking. She said that it is fenced and gated and although she has gone past it at different times during the day, there are few cars there and the gate remains open. A discussion ensued with Val Schwec on security requirements for that area which has been used for cargo in the past. In such circumstances the lot would need to be secured. A seemingly exasperated city commissioner Pat Gass turned to Lentz and asked, “Are you really going to call these elected officials liars?”
Commissioner Poynter, after listening to OHPA attorney Clyde Davis recite the various laws empowering the OHPA ranging from local to the U.S. Constitution, said, “From what I’ve heard, you are here as a courtesy because you can do what you want. You can usurp both city and county laws.”
Davis replied, “The fact that the OHPA has such powers doesn’t mean that it is prudent to do so.”
Poynter went on to the existing Development of Regional Impact (DRI) executed between the city of Fernandina Beach and the OHPA, which limits port expansion and calls for a $50,000 payment to the city in lieu of taxes and fees. He said that the DRI will sunset in 4 years. He asked if, to reassure the community, the OHPA would be willing to enter into a new DRI that would include some of the restrictions that the OHPA seems to have agreed to orally. Port Commissioner Fullwood replied that he would absolutely work toward a new DRI, but consultant Brian Wheeler interjected that by state law DRIs have been removed as requirements. He added that the parties could, however, enter into an agreement with restrictions.
Mayor Boner opened the floor to public input and first to speak was Chip Ross, a Historic District resident and port neighbor. Ross said with regard to the port’s plan, “We have three concerns: we don’t want to be poisoned, blown up or run over.” Ross raised the matter of handling hazardous materials at the port. Port Commissioner Danny Fullwood asked Rob Bishop of North Florida Shipping to speak to the shipping of gas canisters. Bishop said that he ships 6-8 canisters per month from the port. He said that the nature of LPG is such that it is less dangerous than “visiting a gas station.”
Christine Courso spoke next and said that her concern was not with the OHPA but with Kinder Morgan, the OHPA tenant hired to run port operations. She claimed that Kinder Morgan was a private company that would run the port for the first 8 years of the 10-year proposed plan. Just this week Kinder Morgan laid off 16 port employees. OHPA Chair Bruce said, “We don’t want to see people laid off. We wish we had known in advance, but Kinder Morgan held on to those employees for 2 years in hopes that work volume would increase.” He added that there are 4-5 pieces of new business pending that might result in recalls.
Medardo Monzon also expressed concerns about Kinder Morgan. Mayor Boner would not allow him to continue with charges against the firm, but Monzon distributed to the audience a URL address from the Sightline Institute for information about the firm’s problems. He also informed the audience that recent OHPA elections had been mishandled, because by the OHPA Charter elections are supposed to be non-partisan. He suggested that the charter needed changing at the state level and asked for a remedy for the improper elections.
Mayor Boner called for a short break before the meeting resumed with three more speakers.
Historic District resident Ann Thomas said that the Port of Fernandina accounts for only 0.5% of Florida’s port business. She added that the blast zone for LNG is 3 miles.
County resident Phil Scanlan said that the problem is not with the people but with the plan. He asked the commissioners to read the document to see if it is something “you can live with.” He said, “If you need a plan, get a plan,” adding that it is not rational to label a document a plan but then tell people that although the plan calls for 750 trucks a day to transit the port, really there will be no more than 168. Commissioner Robin Lentz thanked Scanlan and expressed her concern that there be a written understanding of what both elected bodies have agreed to honor because in ten years (the time span of the draft master plan) people who were part of the discussion will no longer be in positions of authority. They will rely on a written record. If the only thing to consult is the port master plan, the assumption will be that everything in that document was adopted, regardless of the intent of the parties.
Commissioners engaged in some discussion over the draft master plan, what it was and what it wasn’t. OHPA Chair Bruce said that an approval of the document signifies “an adoption of the work done.” Any final decision to implement any of the points included in the document would need to be done specifically by the OHPA. Mayor Boner said, “This is a ‘what if’ plan, a feasibility study.” Attorney Davis added that the flaw in the plan was the modeling done according to state methodology. Poynter asked Davis, “Could you do a real plan now?” Davis replied that such could be done at a local level. OHPA Chair Bruce said that he would suggest to the OHPA Board at their next meeting that they develop a more specific, short-term plan.
Chuck Hall, the final public speaker, asked if the OHPA would incorporate the following three points into its plan:
- Limit truck traffic to no more than 168 per day
- Refuse dangerous and polluting cargo
- Design a port entry point to eliminate truck queuing on Dade Street
OHPA Chair Bruce said that the OHPA has no authority to limit legal cargo. OHPA Commissioner Fullwood said that he wants to explore the 168-truck limit.
Commissioner Robin Lentz said that as the wife of a former submariner, she was well aware of the risks of hazardous material posed by Kings Bay Naval Base, a short distance from Fernandina Beach. She also noted that hazardous materials are trucked into both Fernandina Beach mills. Port Commissioner Adam Salzburg, who had been silent throughout the meeting, said that as a firefighter he was more concerned about gasoline than LNG. He suggested that community fears might be addressed through a more aggressive public education program.
Senior city planner Kelly Gibson informed the boards about the formation of a PAB subcommittee to address a request for a text amendment change on hazardous material transportation and handling within the city. The first meeting had been scheduled for January 13, but will be rescheduled due to a conflict with a meeting being held by State Representative Janet Adkins.
Readers interested in more background on the port master plan may search the Fernandina Observer for reports on previous meetings or consult the city’s website for agendas, minutes and documents www.fbfl.us.
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.