Fernandina Beach CRA Advisory Board and Port representatives meet

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm

Joint meeting of CRA advisory board and Port officials

Reporter News-Analyst

In response to an invitation form the CRA Advisory Board (CRAAB), representatives of the Port of Fernandina headlined the CRAAB’s regular meeting to discuss mutual concerns and plans for the future.  Port Commissioner Danny Fullwood, who chairs the Ocean Highway Port Authority, and Val Schwec, Commercial Director for the Southeast Region of Kinder Morgan, the independent terminal operator that runs Fernandina port operations, addressed a wide range of issues, including port expansion, access and safety issues.  City Commissioner Ed Boner attended the meeting as an audience member, as did Nassau County Economic Development Director Steve Rieck.

CRAAB Chair Mike Zaffaroni welcomed the port representatives and expressed the CRAAB’s “sincere interest in finding ways to improve the [CRA] area.”  He said, “We are interested in identifying common goals.”  Port Chair Fullwood echoed that sentiment, saying that the port is in the process of reaching out more to the community.  He also invited the CRAAB to request to be placed on the agenda of Port Authority meetings, should the CRAAB desire to address the entire body.  Fullwood said, “When dialog increases, barriers come down.”

CRAAB member Lou Goldman cited a recent report in the Jacksonville Times Union that indicated the port needed $6.1M to enlarge facilities.  He asked what that meant for the Community Redevelopment Area (CRA).  Val Schwec responded that in the last update to the port’s master plan, approved by the city ten years ago, the port expressed its plan to expand northward toward what is today Rock Tenn.   Permits for this expansion expire in 2015.  Schwec said that such expansion would alleviate berth congestion, add tonnage opportunities and make the port more efficient.

By city ordinance, the Port is prohibited from moving further south into the Historic District.  Both Fullwood and Schwec reaffirmed that they continue to abide by that ordinance.

DIGITAL CAMERAZaffaroni asked for clarification on various reports that the port wanted to close city streets.  Schwec said that he believed that both the port and the city have a common interest in safety and security.  He recapped decisions that the port made in 1986 to improve Dade Street at port expense of more than $300K to accommodate port traffic and bring a water main into the area that could be tapped into by city residents and businesses.  At the time, consideration was given to making Escambia Street the port access, but that idea was rejected.  Today it would be extremely expensive to change access from Dade to Escambia Street.

Citing increased concerns over safety and security today, Schwec suggested that a more limited access to areas containing port warehouses and operations could be of mutual benefit.    He said that more access restrictions in the area bounded by N. Third and Calhoun Streets north to the port and west to Front Street would be ideal.  This could involve restricting access on parts of Dade and Front Streets.  At the same time he emphasized that he did not want to impede access for residents or businesses in those areas.  He said that he believes there is a solution to be found, but there needs to be more development of a plan and discussion with the city.

Schwec said that if the port were allowed to restrict access, the “stacking” of trucks on Dade would be alleviated, thereby addressing residential concerns about truck noise in that area.

Port Chair Fullwood said that the port would prefer to make total use of rail to move cargo, but that is not feasible.  Truck traffic has been reduced, with fewer than 100 trucks per week on average moving in and out of the port today.  A recent study revealed that only 8% of the island’s truck traffic related to port operations.

Without getting into specifics, Schwec said that he believed the port operations (Kinder Morgan) would be willing to “do something” to obtain more restrictive access to the areas of concern.  Neither he nor Fullwood could speak to the position of the Port Authority, because that body has not yet discussed the issue.

CRAAB member Goldman asked the port to consider converting a piece of vacant Front Street land that it currently uses for parking to a park with a fishing pier.  Commissioner Fullwood expressed grave safety concerns with such an idea in light of the dangers inherent in navigating and docking large cargo ships in close proximity.  Schwec added that the lot is also used for cargo handling.

In response to a question from CRAAB Chair Zaffaroni to identify other actions that the board might take that would be helpful to the port, Schwec emphasized that the port has always supported development of the CRA as a working waterfront, not just residential development.  He reiterated concerns that he expressed previously on the Working Waterfronts Committee with respect to the problems that arise when residential areas abut industrial areas.  Having a commercial buffer between industrial and residential would help alleviate concerns about noise and truck traffic. Water-related commercial development – restaurants, scuba shops, etc. – would draw people downtown and meet the needs of Centre Street businesses.  He drew the analogy of people who move too close to a pre-existing airport, and then concentrate their efforts in closing the airport.  He fears that the same situation could develop if people move too close to the port.

Arlene Filkoff, the Fernandina Beach City Commissioner (FBCC) liaison to the CRAAB, offered to report back to the FBCC on this discussion.  She stressed that any discussions in regard to the port’s request for restricted access “would need to be carefully communicated.”

Following the discussion with port representatives, the CRAAB spent some time discussing the state of the railroad tracks and crossings along Front Street.  CRAAB members expressed a need to investigate ways to get repairs made before more people fall on the tracks.  Commissioner Filkoff reminded the board that the city attorney has already been in discussion with railroad representatives.  In response to a question asking what it would take to get the city to move on this, Filkoff said that it must be the will of the FBCC to make it happen.  She said, “Their question will be:  where do we get the money to do it?”

Generalized discussion followed regarding the recent return of a $1M loan that could have been used for this purpose.  Members who supported the return of the loan seemed to feel that safety trumped all other concerns at this point.  CRA Member Debra Stephenson said, “This is a totally unique situation.  Don’t bundle it [railroad track and crossing repair] into a pork barrel.”  The consensus of the CRAAB was to invite City Attorney Tammi Bach to the next meeting to discuss railroad concerns.

The final item of discussion related to the FBCC’s tabling once again consideration of the CRAAB’s recommendation to reset the CRA base year and extend its life 40 years.  Members expressed frustration over the FBCC’s inaction, questioning the need for the CRAAB to continue functioning.  The item has been tabled to the FBCC’s June 4, 2013 regular meeting.  Various members expressed personal frustration in trying to educate various commissioners on the issues.  Despite the publicly expressed needs for more information voiced by Commissioner Pat Gass and Mayor Sarah Pelican, CRAAB members reported that no request had come to them for assistance.  Members expressed a willingness to try to meet all needs to educate commissioners.

But CRAAB Chair Mike Zaffaroni asked, “Does the Fernandina Beach City Commission want us?”  An important question, indeed.

March 19, 2013 12:20 p.m.