Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 9, 2015 1:00 a.m.
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) met in an hour-long workshop session at 4:00 p.m. on August 4, 2015 to discuss long-term planning regarding possible changes to the Comprehensive Plan (Comp Plan) and the city’s Land Development Code (LDC) for industrial uses and hazardous materials. This workshop was organized by City Attorney Tammi Bach and Community Development Director Adrienne Burke to address issues that arose during the June 16, 2015 FBCC meeting during which the commission denied proposed code changes arising from citizens’ proposals to limit and/or define certain industrial uses and hazardous materials.
Adrienne Burke led the workshop and discussion, which was well attended by local citizens who have been closely following this issue.
The consensus of the commission was to proceed with a visioning process in preparation for the Evaluation and Appraisal Review (EAR), which must be completed by September 2019 to meet state requirements. This decision met with mixed reactions from the audience, most of whom seemed to believe that action was needed more quickly.
Bach said that she and Burke would do their best to bring an action item to the August 18 FBCC Regular Meeting, to include cost and funding information.
During her presentation, Burke provided commissioners with possible ways to address the issues. She began with an overview of the city’s current comprehensive planning and highlighted the various elements of the existing Comp Plan that needed to be taken into account when making changes of the sort proposed: Future Land Use, Conservation and Coastal Management, Port, Historic Preservation, and the Economic Development Element.
She addressed the EAR process, which as a result of legislative changes made in 2011, has provided more flexibility to local government while watering down state involvement in comp plan development. She spoke to the ten-year EAR cycle, suggesting that if communities are constantly reviewing their comp plans, they do not have time to implement them.
Burke addressed the value of a formalized community visioning process in preparing to review the existing comp plan. She noted that there has not been such a process conducted in the city for more than 10 years.
She brought several decision points to the commission, asking what outcome the commission wanted to see from any undertaking: whether the desired outcome is limited to addressing certain industrial uses or a broader policy question. She said that the outcome desired should determine the process used to get there. She reported that staff does not think that proceeding with the EAR process is the best option at this time.
Mayor Ed Boner said that the issue seemed to be whether the FBCC wanted to look short-term or long-term. City Attorney Tammi Bach said that if the FBCC were just looking to amend two specific parts of the comp plan, the visioning process would not be necessary.
In referring back to the June 16 discussion, Commissioner Robin Lentz said that she understood that one of the underlying questions was whether private citizens could request land use and zoning changes for private property that they did not own. Bach replied that was not part of this discussion, because it would be taken up at the August Planning Advisory Board (PAB) meeting next week. Lentz returned to specifics of the denied case and asked if the FBCC should be looking at each of the items individually. Bach replied that her recommendation was that all stakeholders come to the table to discuss the matter. If done as a visioning process, that would take time. Bach said, “We are trying to balance economic development, the environment and our quality of life.” She asked commissioners if hazardous materials were something to be discussed at a higher level (visioning), or if they wanted to refer it back to the PAB to take each issue one by one. “That is your call completely,” she said.
Commissioner Tim Poynter expressed his preference for a visioning exercise. He said he did not feel comfortable taking each hazardous material one by one for discussion. He added, “It’s funny, we’re having this meeting now, and tonight [during the FBCC Regular Meeting] we are being asked to approve probably one of the worst things if there is ever a leak: liquid chlorine coming onto the island for our water system. That’s a really bad thing, but it’s also something we really need. I’m not trained to be able to identify each and every [hazardous substance]. I would like to have some outside help. It seems like you could make lots of different arguments that certain substances under certain conditions are hazardous.” He said he would opt for a visioning process in which experts could be brought in and the city would investigate how other cities handle such problems. “That seems to be more proactive than reactionary,” he said. “I would hope that this commission could move in a more proactive direction and get everyone involved. He also wanted to understand the effects of banning certain substances on existing businesses.
Commissioner Pat Gass agreed with Poynter on the need for a visioning process. She expressed broader concerns relating to density, roads and congestion asking, “At what point do we decide [the city] is full?” She said the discussion must take place honestly and openly, because with each new person more of the environment is being impacted. “It cannot go on forever,” she said. She cited Cumberland Island as a place that has limited visitation to preserve natural habitats. She allowed, “I’m not sure we are in a position to be able to do that, but certainly we can examine density and road usage, our [Land Development Code] based upon this information. I, too, don’t have all the information, but there are people out there who do. … I’m for visioning for sure.”
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller also concurred. He said that while chlorine has been around a long time and people have learned how to handle it safely, there are new hazardous “materials coming down the pike all the time.” He said, “Let’s bring in experts so we can all hear the same thing at the same time. I’ve done the research, I’ve vetted it, but bringing in experts is the way to go.”
Mayor Boner said, “At a minimum we should be looking at visioning in a deliberate process, follow staff recommendations on how to do this. Try to follow it to be impartial and pick up any unintended consequences.”
Gass asked about cost. Burke said that she had not researched the matter because she wanted to make sure which direction the commission wanted to follow. She said that visioning is not a bad process to conduct in advance of the EAR process, which would probably begin in early 2018. The audience reacted unfavorably to the extended time frame.
Bach explained that while she did not have costs, the visioning process itself would cost less than $100K, the amount the Ocean Highway and Port Authority spent on a consultant to develop a Port Master Plan. The cost for an outside facilitator would be several thousand dollars. She said the FBCC needed to decide the scope of the visioning: the entire comp plan or just certain elements.
Poynter indicated that he did not want to wait, but wanted to get the ball rolling soon. “There’s a lot of concern in the community that needs to be addressed now,” he said. “I would like to see [the scope] more narrowed, because when you make it too big, you tend to get nothing done.” He said that he would like to start with the topic of hazardous materials because of public concerns. “Where are we going to be 5-10 years from now? If processes will change, people need to know that. It will give some of the big stakeholders an opportunity to start planning and consider changes as well.”
Gass said she would agree to start with hazardous materials, but preferred to work through the entire comp plan via a visioning process to get everything done by the 2019 deadline date for the EAR. Commissioner Lentz seemed to agree with previous speakers suggesting that “the sooner the better” to begin the visioning process. She counted herself among citizens concerned about health and safety issues arising from hazardous materials, and endorsed bringing in experts to educate the public and the commissioners about such things.
Poynter clarified his position, indicating that to spend city money wisely, he wanted to see experts brought in for hazardous materials discussions, but did not see the need to bring in experts for visioning every element of the comp plan. He agreed with Gass that the city could continue making its way through the entire plan over the next 3 years.
Bach said that she saw the expertise of the visioning facilitator to be in community planning, the state’s Growth Management Act, in addition to having experience in industry and balancing quality of life and environmental issues. The subject matter experts might just come from state agencies, or paid on a need basis for a specific issue. Bach said that she and Burke would do their best to bring an action item to the August 18 FBCC Regular Meeting, to include cost and funding information.
Burke said that this process could also identify major elements of concern to the community that would be helpful in planning for the EAR process. Burke said she supported narrowing the scope of the visioning because that might result in amendments that could be made to the comp plan in advance of the EAR process.
The mayor opened the floor to public comment and several people stepped forward with input.
PAB Member Chris Occhuizzo delivered copies of a petition signed by more than 200 people opposing a coal transfer facility in the city. He called the results of the workshop encouraging. He supported Commissioner Gass’ call for a broad approach to visioning, but starting with the hazardous materials concerns. He expressed concern that because the process would occur over such a long period of time, there might be a need for a moratorium to prevent actions before amendments could be made to the comp plan.
Anna Occhuizzo also supported a building or development moratorium while acknowledging it probably would not happen. She urged commissioners to begin the visioning process as soon as possible, which would serve as an educational process for commissioners and the public over time. “We have to spend some money,” she said, “and this is really, really important for the city. We aren’t who we were 20 years ago; we aren’t facing the same problems we faced 20 years ago.”
PAB Member Chip Ross tried to solicit information from the audience and commissioners. Mayor Boner asked Ross to direct his remarks to the commission and not try to elicit individual responses from commissioners. “My point is,” Ross said, “that I believe the current comprehensive plan is a good comprehensive plan.” He suggested that the problem lies in the Land Development Code (LDC), which implements the comp plan. Because the problem lies in the LDC, he said that the FBCC is “just kicking the can down the road” by addressing the comp plan. “What we need to do,” he said, “is have a process for implementing the LDC. It also turns out that the two major industrial sites on this island do not have to go through the LDC for building changes. There is no building permit process for the two large industries. And this is set out in city ordinance. I think that should be another item for discussion.”
Faith Ross expressed a concern echoing that of Ms. Burke, that if you keep visioning things, you never implement them. She spoke to current disconnects when comparing the comp plan to the LDC. She expressed her belief that most people would be happy with the comp plan, but that the city has never taken the time to fully implement it. She also questioned whether the city has been receiving copies of permits for industrial processes when they have been issued by other agencies.
Poynter asked City Manager Joe Gerrity where the city was on that process. Gerrity replied that he would be talking with the city’s Building Official about what the city requires in this respect. Burke added that the city does permit work at the mills for smaller projects, but the code exempts Group F industrial buildings. She said the city is not familiar with this type of building. She said that the city has no record that the mills have even built this type of structure since the 1990’s.
In response to a concern raised by Commissioner Lentz, Burke said that city staff are in the process of revising code to bring it into compliance with the last adopted version of the comp plan. All of the changes cannot be implemented at once because of limited resources and available staff time. “If we want to elevate [the hazardous material questions] to a higher level of concern, we can certainly do that,” she said.
Bach said that the reason staff is suggesting to proceed with potential changes via a visioning process arose from citizens wanting to add specific items to the LDC Table of Uses. Industries objected to this and threatened legal action if the city failed to follow normal procedure. Bach opined that this point the industries believe they have been put into the position of reacting to proposed changes that they oppose. She said that if the city invites them to be part of the process, the city is in a better position to go forward. She also said that the comp plan calls upon the city to support industry and protect the environment. She said that the city would benefit from having more specificity in this regard.
Poynter said that there is an issue with one person being able to interpret whether a proposal reasonably fits within allowed uses specified in the code. He said he would like to see a modification to the code to require approval by a majority of the FBCC. Such a change would make every commissioner and members of the public aware of proposed activities. Burke said that in some instances staff has advised the applicant to come before the FBCC with a request for a text amendment. She cited a recent example of adding crematorium, which had not previously been specified under “funeral home.” Burke cautioned against moving too far in the direction of Poynter’s idea, citing the previous problems when the commission got involved in approving conditional uses. She said the move to the current process was designed to remove politics from land development code decisions.
City resident Ann Thomas agreed that the comp plan is a very good document, but that it needs work. She expressed concern that Bach and Burke had only identified one direct conflict between the comp plan and the Port’s Master Plan. She opined that there were many items in the Port’s plan that should have been prohibited by the comp plan. She said that the City Manager has way too much discretion under the city’s code. She said that generally if an item is not allowed under code, it is prohibited. She said that a good visioning process would result in a huge public buy-in. She suggested that it would be good to be able to consider the entire island, not just the city in such a process.
Clinch Kavanaugh’s request to speak had initially been rejected, because he submitted it more than 15 minutes after the start of the meeting, a procedural rule. But commissioners finally agreed to hear him. An aggravated Kavanaugh, who is both a lawyer and candidate for City Commission Group 5, cautioned commissioners about restricting citizen comments claiming that such a rule is a Sunshine Law violation. He said to the mayor, “Ed, I don’t give a damn what your rules say, because the state statute preempts your rules—period. Period.” Boner cautioned Kavanaugh about his language. Kavanaugh went on in a similar vein, accusing the mayor of ignoring his earlier complaints. With a sweeping gesture, he informed the commission, “Quite frankly, you are all guilty of participating in that violation. It needs to stop and it needs to stop now. So you need to think about that, and you need to rescind that ordinance [that sets out rules of procedure for city commission meetings.]. And you need to do it immediately. Thank you.” Kavanaugh did not provide input or comments on items covered during the workshop.
The meeting adjourned upon conclusion of public comment.