Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 19, 2015 7:38 p.m.

City of Fernandina Beach Comprehensive Plan language supported by FBCC
City of Fernandina Beach Comprehensive Plan language supported by FBCC at March 17, 2015 workshop.

The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) held a workshop on March 18, 2015 to discuss current wetlands policy and possible changes going forward. Denise Bevan, City Administration Coordinator for the City of Palm Coast spoke at the invitation of Fernandina Beach administrators on wetland basics and provided an overview of wetlands policy alternatives. Fernandina Beach Community Development Director Adrienne Burke followed Bevan with a status report on pending updates to local wetlands policy.

Bevan 1After almost 90 minutes of presentations, commission discussion and public input, it was the consensus of the FBCC to maintain a policy prohibiting development on wetlands.  In presenting the staff’s position, Burke indicated a willingness to pursue whatever course the FBCC might choose, but asked for guidance in order to avoid spending both city funds and staff time on policy changes that the FBCC might not be willing to support at the end of the process.

Initially, three commissioners—Mayor Ed Boner, Robin Lentz and Tim Poynter—supported the intent included in the latest Comprehensive Plan revision, to develop a table listing categories of wetlands, each of which would have different degrees of mitigation required for development. Such a system appears to be the path that most Florida coastal cities are following with respect to mitigation. However, after considerable discussion and public input, the three commissioners agreed to back off that position and support the current policy with the two changes: to remove conflicting language from the city’s Comprehensive Plan and requiring any applicant for a variance from that policy to submit an expert opinion based upon Florida’s Uniform Mitigation Assessment Method (UMAM), a standardized procedure for assessing the ecological functions provided by wetlands and other surface waters, the amount that those functions are reduced by a proposed impact, and the amount of mitigation necessary to offset that loss.

While city meetings dealing with wetlands development are generally packed with people who oppose such development, only eight members of the public attended the workshop.

Wetlands basics

Denise Bevan addresses FBCC on wetlands basics
Denise Bevan addresses FBCC on wetlands basics

The City of Fernandina Beach had invited Denise Bevan, a Certified Flood Plain manager who works for the City of Palm Coast, to brief commissioners on the complexity of wetlands as well as efforts undertaken by Palm Coast to move to a 3-tiered evaluation system for wetlands. Bevan said that in developing their regulations, Palm Coast strove for a balance among concerns relating to the economy, the environment and quality of life. She said that Palm Coast regulations are stricter than those imposed by the state. She also cautioned, in response to a question from the FBCC, that what works in Palm Coast, a community that has no oceanfront but borders the inland waterway, would not necessarily transplant well to Fernandina Beach.

Fernandina Beach land use issues

Fernandina Beach Community Development Director Adrienne Burke
Fernandina Beach Community Development Director Adrienne Burke

Adrienne Burke explained that according to a survey taken several years ago, only 6 percent of private property in the city of Fernandina Beach remains undeveloped. A sub portion of that would include some degree of wetlands. Commissioner Pat Gass said that part of the uniqueness of Amelia Island is that the high land has already been developed, meaning that the likelihood of wetlands in the remaining undeveloped land is high.

Both Mayor Boner and Commissioner Poynter expressed concerns that a total ban on wetland development might deprive property owners of the use of their land, resulting in legal challenges. Commissioner Lentz agreed, adding that granting or not granting development requests would seem less subjective if done according to a scientifically adopted grading system for wetlands.

City Attorney Tammi Bach advised that regardless of the city rules, a legal challenge could be mounted. She also advised that even if a variance application is approved under current rules, the Saint Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) must still permit the project.

bevan4Burke told commissioners that as part of a development application a land survey is submitted to identify the presence of wetlands and the need for buffering. She also said that while intense development is prohibited currently in wetlands, passive development for recreation is allowed.

Burke and City Manager Joe Gerrity told the commission that moving toward a more graduated approach to handling permits to develop wetlands would involve bringing in outside expertise to address the science needed to establish such a system. City staff does not currently possess such expertise.

Both Vice Mayor Johnny Miller and Commissioner Pat Gass said that they were satisfied with the current policy of disallowing wetlands development, regardless of category.

Public input

Julie Ferreira, Diana Herman, and Len Kreger addressed commissioners. Ferreira expressed disappointment that more citizens had not turned out for the workshop. She also expressed disappointment in positions taken by the Army Corps of Engineers and the SJRWMD with respect to filling wetlands and mitigation. Herman urged commissioners to “do the right thing” and protect wetlands. Failure to do so would be costly in many ways. Kreger, who chairs the Planning Advisory Board, advised commissioners to drop Section 5.08.02 from the Comprehensive Plan to remove the conflict cited during a hearing over a proposed development at 14th and Lime Streets.

Final discussion

Vice Mayor Miller said that he had still not heard that the current system is broken. Commissioners also voiced concerns that no matter how much investment the city would make in developing more definitive definitions of wetlands, the weight of public opinion would have a major impact on any development decision. This argument seemed strong enough to convince the Boner-Lentz-Poynter to drop support for a graduated ranking of wetlands and retain the current rule. As a result, city staff will take two actions:

  • Remove the conflicting language from the Comprehensive Plan (5.08.02) that calls for the development of a classification plan for wetlands, and
  • Require variance applications for development in wetlands to include expert opinion on the impact and mitigation required.
Language to be stricken from current city Comprehensive Plan
Language to be stricken from current city Comprehensive Plan

The City’s Comprehensive Plan is available in its entirety on the city website

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’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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Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_30830)
7 years ago

Commissioners, Please keep up the good fight. This piece of wet land, at 14th street, is extremely important. Not as much in the physical, which is important. But to set a precedent, that any bank or industry by” lawyering up” can ride into our town and tell the citizens of this community what they are going to do within the boundaries of our city. That’s why we elect city commissioners, that’s why we have ordinances and covenants, rules and regulations that the citizens of our community must follow if they want to dwell in our town. After all “corporations are people”, too. The same rules and regulations apply. We need to control what happens in our town and on this Island.

Adrienne Burke
Adrienne Burke(@aburkefbfl-org)
7 years ago

The direct link to our Comprehensive Plan is

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_31017)
7 years ago

The link from Adrienne Burke, above, provides an immediate and excellent resource for all. Thanks.

John Carr
John Carr(@jmcarr63bellsouth-net)
7 years ago

the system of mitigation is mostly misunderstood in the case of Amelia Island. Any mitigation needed would be provided by mitigation banks on the far western boundary of Nassau County at the closest. Basically mitigation could and maybe would allow the destruction of all wetlands on Amelia with the “mitigating effect” of lands elsewhere being bought and placed in trust to accommodate these efforts. The county has given the final say to the SJRWMD on other sites. This is a certain kiss of death on the island because the rules of SJRWMD do allow mitigation in the western land banks near Baker County. We cannot give in to this type of “ducking the issue”. I am sorry I missed the workshop, but this hopefully will help clear the air for this issue. I am a graduate forester with over 50 years of experience in Nassau County, a Greenway Volunteer for the last several years, and an environmental professional. Thanks for your kind attention. john

John Carr
John Carr(@jmcarr63bellsouth-net)
7 years ago

my fields are complete

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