Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
May 8, 2015 8:25 a.m.
Toward the end of the Regular Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) held on May 5, 2015, City Attorney Tammi Bach reported on the status of city talks with CSX railroad regarding the so-called sidewalk to nowhere. City Manager Joe Gerrity also updated commissioners on improvement projects that he would like to pursue in the Front Street/CRA area. Also, the city and the county have reached agreement on a complaint regarding what a city resident has termed a “sinkhole” endangering her property.
CSX and the “sidewalk to nowhere”
Bach reported that she had just completed a letter to CSX affirming that the city and CSX do not agree as to who holds title to Front Street, but that they agree to proceed with the city’s building a sidewalk on the east side of the tracks between Centre and Alachua Streets (aka, “sidewalk to nowhere”).
Mayor Ed Boner asked if the city had heard back from the state and the railroads with respect to opening the Alachua Street rail crossing. City Manager Joe Gerrity replied that the city is waiting for the anticipated Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) formal approval of the 5-year permit extension to begin work. He said that the city has received price estimates from First Coast Railroad for constructing some improvements at the crossing, along with installing proper signalization. Gerrity indicated that he also wanted to extend some improvements, such as lighting and sidewalks to the new city parking lot at 2nd and Broome Streets. The new parking lot has not been completed, but was available for Shrimp Fest parking. Gerrity also wants to provide for sidewalks and lighting along Alachua Street. “We are pulling it together,” he said, “and it is coming together.”
Boner asked if the city was also pursuing sidewalks along Front Street. Gerrity replied that the City Attorney is trying to put together a field trip to CSX to be able to present all the city’s plans for that area that require some degree of support from the railroad.
Vice Mayor Johnny Miller said that he had understood that the city was waiting for word from CSX, but now it sounded as though CSX had been awaiting information from the city. Bach said that at the last meeting, Commissioner Tim Poynter had said that either the City Attorney or the City Manager needed to show up at the CSX door to get some resolution on the sidewalk to nowhere. The next day the city called, and Mark Holder of CSX indicated that the matter was in the legal department because of title concerns. Bach said that was news to the city, but once the matter was defined, the city moved to provide the necessary information.
Gerrity reported that Bach has had more luck with the legal department than he has had in dealing with CSX. “I think we’re real close,” Gerrity said, “and it’s just a matter of pushing forward and keeping the pressure on.” Gerrity added that not everything the city wants to do in the Front Street area meets CSX standards, but that they realize that the proposed improvements are better than the situation that currently exists with respect to safety standards. In response to a question from Miller, Gerrity explained that First Coast Railroad is the CSX lessee for the portion of the track along Front Street. Both CSX and its lessee have had to sign off on the agreement.
Bach reminded commissioners that although the matter has gone on for several years, nothing could be done until the court issued its ruling last December. It’s been 5 months of working with CSX to try to build the sidewalk that the court authorized. Miller expressed his confusion and frustration following First Coast Railroad’s agreement with the city’s plan, but no movement from CSX. Gerrity replied that he has had to send CSX two revisions of the city’s plans that First Coast Railroad approved. “I don’t know what to tell you, except it’s a very difficult process to move through,” Gerrity said.
Miller added, “It’s a very difficult thing for people to move through that area, too, without a sidewalk.” Gerrity agreed. Miller said, “Just to reiterate, we are doing everything possible. You’ve turned the screws, and I know that we have to have a good relationship with CSX because of other things that are happening, but are we dropping the hammer as hard as we can?”
Attorney Bach replied, “Yes. We have called Washington, D.C. We want it out of our hands as soon as possible.”
Manager Gerrity said that the city had received a visit from Calvin Gibson from the Department of Justice a year ago because of the ADA suit in connection with access. He asked Gibson to intervene with CSX. Other than taking legal action, where outcome is not guaranteed, Gerrity believed that the city has done all it can.
Miller said that he and Gerrity had had a conversation over the fact that there is a group of local citizens ready to visit CSX and hold a press conference to make the case for urgency. Gerrity replied, “Let’s not do that, because I’ve had to spend a lot of time [with CSX] on damage control between one citizen’s telephone calls and some Facebook posts that managed to get them concerned about a protest meeting.”
Miller said that there was a group of people who were willing to put faces to this complaint, and that he felt that would have an effect in moving the issue, which has dragged on for two years. Both Gerrity and Boner expressed concerns that such a tactic might backfire.
Pheasant Lane “sinkhole” decision
Bach also reported back to the FBCC on the issue of the privately owned Pheasant Lane property that has been discussed at city and county meetings. She reported that both the city and the county public works staff have agreed that there is no sinkhole on the property in question, “and it is not going to open up and swallow dogs and kids.” There is a drainage structure failure on a neighboring piece of private property on the other side of a fence. Bach said that she couldn’t legally justify advising the FBCC to spend public money to fix a problem on private property. Miller asked what the property owner should do next. Bach said that the neighboring property owner is aware of the problem, and he can do something if he wishes. She said the line in question goes through private property all along Egans Creek. With the agreement of the FBCC, Bach will draft a letter to inform Janet Miller, the complaining property owner, of the city’s decision. She said that she anticipated that County Attorney Mike Mullin would be providing similar advice to the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners.
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.