FBCC votes 5-0 to allow lot combination variance requests for Job Opportunity Area property owners; FBCC to hear those variance requests

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
September 22, 2017 5:10 pm.


On second and final reading, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) at their Regular Meeting on September 19, 2017 amended the city’s Land Development Code specific to the limitations for granting a variance for combining lots in the commercially zoned Job Opportunity Areas along Fletcher and Ocean Avenues. But commissioners stressed that all their approval did was permit property owners to request a variance, in the same manner as any other property owner in the city. Specific conditions must be met for a variance to be approved.

Commissioner Tim Poynter

Because it appeared that at least two commissioners were uneasy with approving such a change, Commissioner Tim Poynter fashioned a compromise/companion action: require that any variances for lot combinations in Job Opportunity Areas along the beach be heard by the FBCC, not the Board of Adjustment (BOA). Poynter argued that many opponents of the change objected to such decisions being made by non-elected bodies. By requiring requests for such variances to be decided by the FBCC, commissioners would be held responsible for the appropriateness of any proposed development project.

With the understanding that further legislative action would follow to implement Poynter’s suggestion, the measure passed on a unanimous vote.

The area where lot combinations could be considered is extremely limited.   It does not apply to residentially zoned properties along the beach. All other requirements with respect to setbacks, height, etc. would remain in force.

This issue has been discussed extensively in previous Fernandina Observer articles going back to 2014: https://fernandinaobserver.com/2014/10/12/city-considers-move-toward-business-friendly-code-change/,

https://fernandinaobserver.com/2014/11/19/fbcc-reverses-course-on-commercial-lot-combinations-in-3-job-opportunity-areas/, https://fernandinaobserver.com/2017/08/17/considering-variance-requests-for-commercial-lot-combinations-on-fletcher-in-job-opportunity-areas/.

During commission discussion, Poynter said that he had always been in favor of the ordinance to allow property owners in the Job Opportunity Areas to request a variance. He believed that to not allow them to even make the request seemed like a taking of private property owners’ rights, since in other areas of the city, property owners can request such variances. However, he said he understood concerns expressed by Vice Mayor Len Kreger and Commissioner John Miller regarding the community’s fear of inappropriate development.

City Attorney Tammi Bach

He asked City Attorney Tammi Bach whether the FBCC, not the BOA, could decide variance requests for lot combinations specific to the Job Opportunity Areas along the beach.

Bach said that such action was a possibility but that it should be done as a separate action from the Ordinance currently under consideration.

Commissioner John Miller said that he could support Poynter’s idea. Commissioner Roy Smith agreed with Poynter, but expressed his desire to review the scope of work of the Board of Adjustment to see if the city commission should also hear other variance requests. Kreger said that he could support Poynter’s idea and was open to consider other types of variances to go before the FBCC.

Bach suggested that in order to give city staff and the Planning Advisory Board time to consider the change that would remove variances for lot combinations in the Job Opportunity Areas from the BOA and move them to the FBCC for consideration, the commissioners could change the effective date of the current ordinance to a date further in the future. She said that the time required to bring forth another ordinance is normally 60 days, but that it could be fast tracked to 45 days.

Harrison Poole

Attorney Harrison Poole, who represented a property owner in the Job Opportunity Area, said that his client had no objection to either the BOA or the FBCC hearing the variance request. Rather, the problem lay with additional delays when a potential buyer for the property is currently considering a project for his client’s property.

Poynter said that while he did not want to kick any project down the road, he was sensitive to the concerns raised by his fellow commissioners. Upon advice of the City Attorney, he said, “We could approve the current ordinance tonight with the notes to reflect that we expect city staff to move quickly to bring the ordinance allowing the FBCC to hear these variances.” Bach agreed.

After some discussion with Senior Planner Kelly Gibson, Bach said that the first reading of that second ordinance could be pre-scheduled for the October 17, 2017 FBCC meeting. That time frame would be sufficient to allow for both advertising and consideration by the Planning Advisory Board meeting on October 11.

Lynn Williams

Audience member Lynn Williams, a member of the Board of Adjustment, argued the benefits of allowing the variance decisions to be made by a non-elected board. He said that the board members act deliberately and conscientiously. He explained that variance requests must be reviewed against a list of criteria set out in city code. He expressed concerns that by allowing commissioners to make the decisions on these variances, there was a possibility that political considerations could influence outcomes.

Addressing his remarks to Williams, Poynter said, “I don’t think the BOA does a bad job in any regard. I think you are responsible in what you do. But hearing the concerns of my fellow commissioners and the community on matters like this – areas already zoned C-1 (commercial) in the Job Opportunity Areas – they are saying they would rather have elected people who represent them make these decisions.”

Lentz echoed Poynter’s praise for the BOA and agreed with Williams that the BOA is less subject to political pressure. But she said that she would support the desires of the other commissioners.

The vote to approve was unanimous. The new ordinance to designate the FBCC as the decision-making body to hear variances to combine lots in Job Opportunity Areas along the beach will come before the FBCC on October 17, 2017 for First Reading.

It should be noted that under the existing provisions of the Land Development Code, a variance must receive 4 affirmative votes to be approved by the Board of Adjustment or the Historic District Council.


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.

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John Goshco
John Goshco (@guest_49355)
6 years ago

If a criteria checklist actually exists and if it is reasonably detailed, then the BOA should continue to evaluate each variance request and submit its evidence, analysis and conclusions to the Commissioners for final consideration.

Otherwise, I’m afraid, the Commissioners may shortcut the process by only hearing oral arguments from the applicant and make their decision based upon insufficient research and analysis.