Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
November 19, 2014 6:17 p.m.
At its November 18, 2014 Regular Meeting, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) reversed itself on second reading of Ordinance 2014-30, denying on a 4-1 vote a city staff request to modify the Land Development Code to allow lot combinations in commercially zoned areas that might result in lot width greater than 100 feet in three specific areas located in the City’s Job Opportunity Areas. The requested amendment was limited to properties within the Comprehensive Plan’s designated Job Opportunity Areas as described in the Economic Development Element and located on North and South Fletcher Avenue only. The text amendment had been approved by the city’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB) at its September 10, 2014 meeting and on First Reading by the FBCC at its October 7, 2014 meeting.
Eight people spoke during the public hearing, four in favor and four opposed. Architect John Zona suggested that the amendment was only correcting an oversight, because when the original prohibition had been established, its goal was to prevent combination of residential lots along the oceanfront and the building of “McMansions” that would block view corridors. Zona emphasized that by removing the restrictions for combining commercial properties only in three areas; all other restrictions with respect to parking, building heights and setbacks would remain in effect.
Ross Patel, representing developers desiring to combine three vacant commercial lots immediately north of Sliders, said that before her clients can design a building, they need to know if they can combine those lots. She said that a specific use has not been determined yet, but it would be somehow related to tourism, possibly a hotel.
David Caples, former owner of Elizabeth Pointe Lodge and member of the Tourism Development Council (TDC), reminded commissioners that one in every four jobs on Amelia Island is related to lodging or tourism. He spoke to the development of the Job Opportunity Area identified at South Fletcher and Atlantic Avenues. He said that nothing has happened at that location for at least 30 years. He suggested the design and building of a complex that would look like a small village with a park, retail shops and lodging. He said, “I don’t see anything that would affect the view of the ocean from the west side of Fletcher.”
AB Chair Len Kreger reminded commissioners that the Comprehensive Plan is the basic guide for city development and that the PAB interprets that plan as the local planning agency in accordance with law. He said, “If you are not going to comply or go along with their recommendations, then the City Commission needs to become the local planning agency—you have that authority. It bothers me that you go through all this talk about changing the Comprehensive Plan. If you don’t like the current arrangement, then change it.” The PAB had approved the requested change over two months ago.
Opposing the change were four people expressing fear that approval would open the door to transforming Fernandina Beach into a Daytona Beach or Hilton Head. Julie Ferreira asked, “If you tweak in one place, you’ll have to do so in other places. Is this what we are all about?” Lynn Suddath told commissioners how development had changed Tybee Island, destroying its nature and character.
Mac Morriss reminded commissioners that they are “stewards of something unique” on the island. He rejected the idea that a $5M hotel should be permitted but not a $5M mansion, because in his opinion both blocked views of the ocean. He took issue with Zona’s remark that the change was to correct a mistake, claiming that such restriction had been planned. Lynn Williams claimed that any significant building constructed as a result of combining lots “doesn’t fit in very well.” He said to approve the requested amendment would be letting the camel’s nose under the tent.
Commissioners, some of whom had been heavily lobbied to deny this proposed change, seemed conflicted. Commissioner Johnny Miller said, “We the Commission believe in leaving the city in a better place than we found it. Am I doing that by creating job and building places for people to stay? I will base my vote on when I’m driving down the street and see those hotels, do I want to claim that I was a part of that [decision].”
Commissioner Charlie Corbett asked staff questions regarding the possibility of exceptions or variances. Senior Planner Kelly Gibson replied that variance requests are not an option for these properties. She informed him that one particular property could not be separated out for consideration under the ordinance as proposed. In response to comments from Mayor Boner she reported that the restrictions only applied to commercial properties in the particular Job Opportunity Areas identified. She said that there are not very many vacant properties in those three areas. Gibson added that existing commercial properties in the defined areas exceed the 100-foot restrictions, citing Amelia Inn and Suites (400 feet), Sliders, Elizabeth Pointe Lodge, Watson Realty and the gas station on S. Fletcher.
Commissioner Pat Gass said, “The Lord works in mysterious ways. He has saved us from large hotels up to this point and I think there is a reason for that.” She expressed her belief that the restriction on combining lots is good. She said that if some of the properties Gibson cited had come before the city today, the development would probably not have been permitted. “This whole idea of ‘Job Opportunity Areas’,” she said, “sounds like a fuzzy feel good, because the jobs to be created would be minimum wage and you can’t raise a family on it. That’s [the work] you do when you are trying to get through college, or just to kill time, or in your retirement. A ‘job opportunity’ is something you’re doing as a career or to raise a family, or to make money. Not changing sheets or tending bar or serving drinks… We need to work on our Comprehensive Plan for that definition. I will not vote for this amendment.”
Vice Mayor Pelican also directed questions to staff. Gibson replied that if the change were approved, buildings could be constructed across today’s lot lines, and commercial uses would be limited by code definitions for C-1, General Commercial. “Typically you would see hotels and restaurants,” she said. “These things contribute to the tourism industry. … Parking would be required on site.”
There is a 36-foot height requirement along the ocean, also other restrictions imposed by the Department of Environmental Protection and city code. Gibson said that surrounding residential areas are not eligible for lot combination because under the city’s Comprehensive Plan they are not identified as Job Opportunity Areas.
Mayor Boner talked about the problem of trying to determine what is fair for the property owner, if area zoned commercial cannot be turned into a feasible commercial activity.
Commissioner Pat Gass moved to deny the Ordinance and was seconded by Commissioner Miller. All commissioners, except Mayor Boner, voted to deny the ordinance. Boner said that the lots in these areas are not viable for commercial development unless the ordinance is passed. Commissioners Corbett, Miller and Pelican had all supported the measure but reversed themselves on Second Reading.
According to Land Development Code 11.01.01.b, the same application from the same party cannot be heard again for a year.
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.