Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
[BACKGROUND: The City of Fernandina Beach’s Waterfront Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) was established in 2003. A development plan for the CRA was prepared by Ivey Planning Group, Real Estate Research Consultants and Zev Cohen and Associates in February 2004. It was amended by the city in 2005. The area included in the CRA roughly runs along the Amelia River from the Port of Fernandina on the north to property bordering Rayonier on the south. Land west of Front Street is included along with portions of 7 blocks east of Front Street. The City Commission appointed itself as the governing board of the CRA. In that capacity, the City Commission is also called the CRA – Community Redevelopment Agency. In the summer of 2012 the CRA appointed a citizen advisory board (CRAAB) to recommend actions and increase revenues. This article highlights the first formal report of the CRAAB. Additional documents explaining the history of the CRA may be requested from the Fernandina Beach City Clerk’s Office.]
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) held its quarterly meeting as the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) on December 4, 2012. The sole item on the agenda was to discuss action items for the Community Redevelopment Area based on recommendations of the recently formed CRA Advisory Board (CRAAB). Andy Curtin, current CRAAB vice chair, updated the FBCC on the board’s activities during its first five months of existence. He spent about 10 minutes briefing the FBCC on early recommendations, priorities and short term plans with assistance from city planner Kelly Gibson on graphics. The FBCC spent another 20 minutes discussing the proposed actions.
To date, the CRAAB has spent considerable time reviewing CRA documents, including plans, design guidelines and applicable sections of city codes. They have walked the area designated as the CRA and developed a CRA Plan Matrix to assist with establishing priorities. They have set regular meeting dates and elected officers to include Vice Chair Curtin and Secretary Asa Gillette. Tony Herndon, the initial CRAAB chair, has resigned from the CRAAB. Curtin strongly urged the FBCC to appoint a downtown business owner as his replacement.
The CRAAB has established priorities for considering actions within the assigned area in the following rank order: safety, blight, cost of project, ability to complete project, and type of project (preferring infrastructure support projects).
Curtin reported that the CRAAB has met with an unspecified number of unnamed realtors who voiced concerns about the cost of both residential and commercial property downtown. While Curtin acknowledged progress on the part of the city in streamlining processes relating to development, he said that many realtors still view existing city processes as impediments to moving forward on projects in the CRA. Realtors identified the need to improve downtown streetscapes, lighting and pedestrian amenities to attract buyers to the area.
In keeping with the CRAAB’s highest priority – safety – their first recommendation related to improving safety conditions at the Ash and Centre Street rail crossings. Commissioner Charlie Corbett asked whether the city or the railroad is responsible for making the needed repairs and improvements. City Attorney Tammi Bach replied that the railroad, in addition to owning the tracks, has an easement of 2 feet on either side of the tracks. However, she added, any potential liability claim would probably be filed against both the city and the railroad.
During discussion the consensus of the commission appeared to be to contact the railroad and try to work jointly to solve this problem. Drawing from information contained in waterfront planning documents City Manager Joe Gerrity estimated that it would cost about $250K to repair both crossings. During the repair, additional improvements would be installed to make these silent crossings, meaning that trains would not need to sound horns when gates are down.
Commissioner Corbett asked several questions regarding the railroad’s share of the cost. Curtin said that it was his understanding that the city would need to pay for the improvements, but the railroad – Either CSX or their subsidiary, First Coast – would do the actual work. Corbett cited the deteriorated rail ties as an example of a repair cost that should be borne by the railroad. Curtin reminded the FBCC that the Port of Fernandina had undertaken the necessary repairs to improve the crossing at Dade Street.
City Manager Gerrity reminded commissioners that there is no money in the current city budget to cover such an expense. However, the city could use the money borrowed under the Forward Fernandina strategic plan for this purpose. Vice Mayor Jeffrey Bunch said that he has no problem suing the money for that purpose, since the city already has the money. Commissioner Corbett said, “We can look at that and talk to the railroad.” Mayor Filkoff also appeared to support using the borrowed money for this purpose as a means to improve Front Street infrastructure.
Both Gerrity and Bach agreed to contact CSX by letter reminding CSX of liability issues because of the existing situation. Gerrity emphasized that the city will try to “get off the starting block” in developing a partnership with the railroad to solve this problem.
The CRAAB also recommended that the Alachua Street crossing and any related infrastructure improvements be completed in consideration of future development at the time those development plans become known.
The final two recommendations were related to enhancing revenue potential for the CRA. The CRAAB recommended that the CRA base year be reset to 2012 or 2013; and that the life of the CRA be extended from 20 to 40 years.
Mayor Filkoff asked City Manager Gerrity to take the lead in resetting the base year. He responded that the idea has already been floated to county commissioners, who have raised no objections to doing so.
Curtin apprised the FBCC of upcoming CRAAB actions, to include:
- Evaluating the expansion of the CRA area
- Meeting with the Ocean Highway and Port Authority
- Meeting with developers
- Updating the CRA Plan Matrix
- Creating a property owner and business owner database
Also, in speaking on behalf of the entire CRAAB, Curtin requested that the FBCC select a new member who is a downtown business owner. At the same time, he asked that the FBCC consider appointing a city commissioner to attend monthly meetings as a non-voting member. City Attorney Bach agreed to approach the Historic Downtown Merchants Association to seek a representative; Commissioner Corbett suggested that the question of appointing a commissioner to serve be considered at the city commission reorganization meeting on December 18, when committee assignments are generally discussed.
The CRA Advisory Board meets twice monthly on the 1st and 3rd Monday at 3:15 p.m. at City Hall. Meetings are open to the public and noticed on the city’s website. Current CRAAB members include: Vice Chair Andy Curtin, Secretary Asa Gillette; Deb Stephenson, Lou Goldman, Marla McDaniel and Mike Zaffaroni.
December 6, 2012 6:40 p.m.