Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
While the crowd that engulfed city hall chambers for the August 20, 2013 meeting appeared supportive of city funding for non-profit social service organizations, it became clear that they were there for one purpose: to convince the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) to back off the idea of a voter referendum on the question of selling unused city-owned golf course and recreation land. One of the properties (28 acres) was located off Simmons Road; the other (6.6 acres) on Canopy Drive.
The FBCC made no motion and engaged in no discussion prior to hearing from the public. In light of the number of people who had requested to speak on the issue on first reading of the ordinance, Mayor Sarah Pelican asked audience members to avoid applauding each speaker in order to speed the process of taking public comment. Fifteen speakers expressed their views and opinions, all in opposition to the voter referendum. No one spoke in favor of the referendum.
Pat Foster Turley, an ecologist with a PhD in zoology, told the FBCC that she moved here because of the wild life and natural environment. She spoke to importance of the mid-island wildlife corridor, which she claimed is necessary for migration patterns. “A sale of this property will generate one-time income and then we have nothing. No wild life in our backyards, nothing.” She said that the mid-island area contains a different habitat than other parts of the island. “Wildlife is free for everyone to enjoy,” she said. “We should call these lands conservation lands. [They provide] a different form of recreation than golf. … Let’s just let [these parcels] lie as fallow land.”
Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett asked her, “Why would you not want the people to decide this? It’s the land of all the people in the city. If you are so confident it will be voted down, why not let people vote on it?”
Turley responded, “There have been lots of previous commissions. No one has ever pushed this envelope before on this matter. The money is not going to help with your budget problems right now.” When Corbett disagreed, she said, “Then you must have a buyer lined up already. We hear about trailer parks and all sorts of things. Why do we have to bring this up now? It’s not considerate of the quality of residents’ lives.”
Commissioner Ed Boner called Turley’s attention to the city zoning map, which delineated conservation and recreation areas within the city. “As a percentage,” he said, “I think [the city] has a very high percentage of land zoned conservation or recreation. I understand where you are coming from. But I agree with Commissioner Corbett that it should go to the people for a vote.”
Turley seemed to become even more animated. “[A referendum] seems like a lot of aggravation for people to go through to start shutting it down. You are not taking into consideration existing residents who have been paying taxes to preserve this quality of life.”
She returned to her seat amid much applause. Mayor Pelican once again reminded the audience that their outbursts lengthen the meeting. Since the audience had disregarded Pelican’s cautions, City Attorney Bach later stepped in to advise the audience that the FBCC had adopted rules of procedure that banned audience outbursts and asked them to adhere to the rules. Her admonitions were also ignored.
Dick Callahan, Parkway North resident, expressed concern over the speed with which the FBCC seemed to be acting on this motion. He said the idea had just surfaced with the FBCC on July 30. “It is difficult to get committees [to formulate responses] together in less than three weeks,” he said. “We haven’t even had the opportunity to hire a lawyer yet, which I’m sure we will.” He raised concerns about what he saw as preparations for increasing airport traffic. He said, “We haven’t heard a word about safety today, not a word.”
City Manager Joe Gerrity addressed Callahan’s airport issues. He said that no runway has been lengthened since 1971. “I can tell you that we will not be able to accommodate any planes larger than we serve now, even if we extended the runway 500 feet. We can serve 4G aircraft, but that is only if they are not fully fueled. I can appreciate your concerns.” Commissioner Ed Boner added, “If there were a runway extension, it would only mean that the planes would be able to fly higher over neighboring houses, not that the planes would be larger.”
Mary Pikula spoke to the importance of the wildlife corridor. “The way I look at you all,” she said to the commissioners, “is that you are stewards for Fernandina Beach. … We elect you as stewards to preserve what is best about Amelia Island, what’s good about Fernandina Beach and what’s in the best interest of the citizens. In the center of the island there are no city parks.” She cited her husband’s work to get more public access to nature for bicyclists, walkers and families. “I think of this property as part of our legacy to protect in its present form for our children and grandchildren. We don’t need more houses. Don’t sell this land; buy more.”
Elizabeth Wilson, a Canopy Drive resident, read from a prepared statement: “The question of whether to sell goes far beyond the homeowners, city and county. We all have a responsibility to preserve the undeveloped land. It is our responsibility and especially that of our elected officials to say ‘no more development.’ We are at a crossroads. Do the present commissioners wish to be remembered for their shortsightedness? I urge you not to put this issue on the ballot and find other sources for funds to cover your deficits.”
Pat Leary said, “The question has come up, justifiably so, as to why this issue shouldn’t be put before the voters as a form of referendum. The answer is surprisingly simple: the decision has already been made, the city commission has already made a decision, the city staff has made a decision, and so has the Chamber of Commerce.” He referred commissioners to the recently completed study Nassau County Vision 2032 in which all the referenced bodies had participated. He read from the plan and informed commissioners that when citizens were polled to assign vision priorities, Amelia Island residents cited as their top three: growth management, infrastructure and the environment. People voiced concerns about protecting rivers, streams, and marshes. “There’s nothing about increasing congestion, increasing development, noise levels runoff demand for services. I think we should put our trust in the people, the former commissioners, the Chamber of Commerce who participated in this process and follow their vision. You may have momentarily lost your vision, but I urge you to go back and read this. Please maintain the vision and avoid the development that clearly the people do not want.”
Michael Spicer spoke about his concerns regarding potential sale of these lands, which he would regard as a failure of commissions and citizens. Such a sale should be a final consideration before bankruptcy, “ just as a farmer might be being forced to pack up his family and eat his seed corn before abandoning his family farm.” He went on saying, “This proposal is not a panacea for any short term budget needs; nor does it make sense for long term planning. If this plan succeeds, then what next year? Putting Main Beach up for sale or Central Park on Atlantic Avenue? Or maybe high rises on the beach?” He questioned the city’s diligence in examining other potential for revenues. He also asked whether the city had conducted any study about the costs and benefits of such a move. He said that according to his preliminary tax statement, next year his city taxes would be going down over $100. He said that the daily cost to his household for living in Fernandina Beach and enjoying all its amenities is less than $4 per day in city taxes.
Nancy Waldron questioned the terms of the city’s acquisition of land. She understood that it was dedicated to golf course use as a term of gift. City Manager Joe Gerrity responded that the property was purchased by the golf course enterprise fund for $377K years ago for future golf course expansion. He reassured her that the land was not a gift to the city. Waldron said how fortunate the city was to have Gerrity back as city manager, representing continuity amid commission changes.
Michael Herkenhoff echoed concerns of previous speakers with respect to the beauty of the wildlife and pristine forest. He suggested that the FBCC is trying to go the cheap route and sell off land. “There is a reason why this island is rated to high,” he said. “Our island is going to look like Jax Beach if we sell off land to build tract homes. Selling that property would be devastating. Don’t we have enough properties for sale on this island?
Larry Krents expressed opposition to rezoning the land from recreation to residential. He said, “The natural beauty is part and parcel of the community. To cut the trees for residential homes will irrevocably change Parkway North. We were told 17 years ago that these trees would remain per FAA regulation. Such action is setting a pattern for destruction of the island. We would like more time to look at this.”
Chris DeVito asked, “Why don’t we get an expert who travels all over the world to decide how biodiversity fits into this island? I think we have one right here and we should listen to her [a reference to an earlier speaker, Pat Foster Turley].”
Susan McEwen supported previous speakers. She recalled the public outpouring of unhappiness over the removal of trees in the middle island area. “Once these canopies are gone,” she said, “they cannot be replaced. It would be a big mistake to put this on the ballot. Nip it in the bud and don’t let it happen.”
Ken Wilson spoke to the finances of the decision. He advised commissioners not to be shortsighted. He suggested that preserving the natural environment adds to property values and increased tax revenues for the city. He advised, “Keep property values high, protect your greenways. Values are starting to rebound. Don’t jeopardize that. Developing the lands in question will cause more problems with respect to noise and traffic and lower property values and reduce beauty of the island. You do not sell your assets to cover a losing enterprise that goes on year to year. Fix that problem.”
Commissioner Pat Gass seemed eager to respond to many of the comments. “First of all, this [consideration of a voter referendum] did not happen fast. We don’t all agree on what’s best for Amelia Island. Regarding the absence of parks in the middle of the island, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that every single one of you have lived here too long. You don’t want trees cut; you don’t want more houses built; you don’t want more people coming over the bridge. The good news is you are singing to the choir, and I agree with you. Try to remember where most of your houses are now there used to be trees and wildlife. We don’t need to cut down any more trees; we don’t need to build any more houses. Welcome! But now maybe we can get a handle on it.”
Commissioner Arlene Filkoff indicated that when the FBCC started talking about this referendum, it seemed to have some merit. She said she had been criticized in the previous commission for not seeking a voter referendum to adopt the Forward Fernandina strategic plan, on which the city expended $144K with no return since the current commission repealed it. She said that now the city has an opportunity to handle a big issue differently, but not necessarily this way. She said, “I think we need to look at our city golf course with the idea of making it unique and better able to compete for business.“ In mulling over the question of taking land sale to the people on a referendum, she said she consulted both the City Charter and the Comprehensive Plan, a document derived with significant public input. That document (Section 6.03.04) charged the city with protecting its open space. “Enough people have been involved in the development of the comprehensive plan over the years to let me know that the decision has been made. So I can’t support taking the issue to referendum.”
Vice Mayor Charlie Corbett responded to the audience by saying, “It sounds as though you all [referendum opponents] don’t have confidence that people won’t support it. If the land were zoned residential we could just sell it. You realize this is only the first reading. I haven’t heard anything from you all regarding solutions [to the city’s budget issues.]”
Commissioner Ed Boner suggested that the two parcels in question should be on separate referenda. He addressed concerns about the potential development of tract homes on the land by suggesting that the price range would be higher than Egans Bluff II, if the people voted in favor of selling the land.
Other members of the public rose to speak. Peggy Krents asked the FBCC to contact the airport regarding noise study that was never done and to see about the FAA regulations governing the use of the land. City Manager Gerrity replied that he had spoken with the city’s airport consultant who expressed no concerns on the matter.
City Attorney Tammi Bach said that the referendum would determine if the people were interested in selling city owned recreation land. “If not, we won’t go any further,” she said. “No decisions on sale or rezoning have been made.”
John Gann expressed amazement that the airport issue hasn’t been addressed already. Based upon his experience in other communities, he recognized that FAA authority is supreme. “Why have a referendum until you have resolved this issue?” he asked.
Robert Wells responded to Vice Mayor Corbett on why the issue should not go to referendum. He said that 6-8 years ago commissioners looked at the same issue and decided it was a bad idea. “We look to you to show leadership and stewardship and not hide behind the people. Just say it ain’t for sale.”
Corbett reaffirmed that the land is not currently for sale, and his statement caused commotion in the audience. Mayor Pelican said, “ Let me get a grip on this please.”
Finally, she indicated that whereas she had been respectful to audience members, they had not always been respectful to the FBCC during the discussion. She said, “You have made comments making the assumption that the decision has already been made, and that is not the truth.” She reported having received many emails in which people stated that they would not mind spending more tax money to preserve these lands. She quoted an email from local environmental activist Mike Pikula looking for middle ground by turning to organizations that might be willing to add the land to conservation lands. Or to adjacent property owners, who might be interested in purchasing the land. He suggested moderating factors that have not yet been explored. Pelican seemed to chastise the audience, saying, “You have made assumptions that this is a done deal. Realistically we have to play devil’s advocate, because not everyone may be in favor of preserving these lands and paying more taxes. As far as I’m concerned, we should have the vote and go forward from there before those assumptions continue.”
Commissioners Corbett and Boner, assisted by the city attorney, moved and seconded a motion to pass an amended version of the proposed referendum that would remove the causation statement (“to raise revenue”) and require separate votes on two properties. When the vote was called, Pelican joined Filkoff and Gass in voting against the referendum. The motion failed 3-2, with only Corbett and Boner in support. Pelican made a final statement to the audience. “Again I’d like to stress that you came in with misinformation and an assumption that [passage] was a done deal. In the future please address any and all of us if you have questions or need information on a particular item.”
The Mayor declared a five-minute recess to clear chambers before resuming the meeting.
August 22, 2013 6:12 p.m.