Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
March 9, 2015 1:00 a.m.

 

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Fernandina Beach City Hall Chambers were packed for the Special Meeting of the city’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB) the evening of March 4, 2015. Only one item of old business was on the agenda: PAB Case 2014-21, a citizen-initiated application to amend the city’s Land Development Code (LDC), specifically Section 1.07.00 (Definitions) and Section 2.03.02 (Table of Land Uses) regulating certain hazardous materials and cruise terminal limitation. Representatives of the city’s mills, the Port of Fernandina, the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA), the Chamber of Commerce and the Nassau County Economic Development Board as well as concerned island and city residents, some of whom are neighbors to areas of the city currently zoned industrial had come to hear presentations and provide input regarding the proposed changes. During the 4-hour meeting twenty people spoke for or against the application, citing concerns for public safety on the one hand and fears that proposed changes would hamper existing and future industrial operations on the other. Lawyers for the mills and the OHPA raised concerns over unintended consequences of the proposed changes that might hurt the local economy while not measurably increasing the safety of residents.

After listening to the staff report, the applicant’s presentation, the various speakers, and the opinion of City Attorney Tammi Bach (who also serves as PAB attorney), the PAB decided not to act on the proposal until they held additional workshops. The meeting ended with unanimous passage of a motion by member Billy Rogers, seconded by member Mark Bennett, to postpone a decision until June. Starting with the March regular meeting (March 11) the PAB has decided to hold a pre-meeting workshop for the next three months during which they will take input from concerned and affected parties on definitions and categories of uses. This decision addresses the calls from the mills for more opportunity to comment and refine terms and also gives the applicant an opportunity to continue revising the original application as more information comes forward.

The first workshop on PAB Case 2014-21 will be held on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 at 3:30 p.m. in City Commission Chambers. All stakeholders and interested members of the public are welcome to attend. For more background on the application and public reaction, consult earlier articles in the Fernandina Observer and visit the city’s website.

The Planning Advisory Board (PAB) is authorized by the City Commission as the Local Planning Agency (LPA) pursuant to Florida Statute Chapter 163.3174. This board makes recommendations to the City Commission on the adoption of Comprehensive Plan amendments and Future Land Use Map amendments and requests for rezoning, filed pursuant to Florida Statutes, Florida Administrative Code and City Ordinances. The PAB has three options in considering applications: recommend approval, approval with modifications, or rejection. Their recommendations are passed on to the Fernandina Beach City Commission for final action.

Background

In November 2014, two Historic District residents and Port of Fernandina neighbors—Chip Ross and Chuck Hall—made application to amend the city’s LDC in order to prohibit certain hazardous materials and heavy industrial activities, coal transfer, and passenger ships in excess of 500 passengers. The applicants’ concerns arose out of health and safety concerns in light of potential future operations set forth in a new Master Plan for the Port of Fernandina put forward by the Ocean Highway and Port Authority in summer 2014. The PAB has met as a full board and as Subcommittee of the Whole to consider the matter since then.

Chip Ross, who along with Chuck Hall, authored the proposals to change the LDC.
Chip Ross, who along with Chuck Hall, authored the proposals to change the LDC.

During this time, Chip Ross as the applicant has met with mill managers and OHPA members to continue discussing and refining the application. He has also conducted considerable research into the topic of hazardous materials and regulation by state and federal authorities. All of his revisions have been circulated by city staff, using a distribution list of citizens who requested to be informed of the progress of the application.

The Fernandina Beach City Commission appointed Ross to serve as a regular member of the PAB in January 2015. But he has not served as a voting member regarding the application that he initiated. All parties who have spoken on the issue before the PAB have acknowledged the work that Ross has invested in researching the matters in his application. However, business and industry representatives and their attorneys have expressed concerns that despite noble intentions, Ross’ recommendations will result in unintended, negative consequences for existing industrial operations, future expansion and the city’s ability to attract new business.

Applicant Chip Ross has stated at each meeting that through his application, he is representing himself only. He has stressed that all of his proposals except one address the future and are not intended to impact any current industrial operations. He has expressed his concern that under existing code, interpretation of the code is the responsibility of the city manager who may or may not “behind closed doors” allow a use not specifically listed in the code.

Chip Ross walks PAB and audience through his slide presentation at the March 4 meeting.
Chip Ross walks PAB and audience through his slide presentation at the March 4 meeting.

The mills have pointed to their strong safety records over 77 years of operations as evidence that they are community-minded corporations that not only provide good jobs, but also meet stringent safety requirements imposed by federal and state agencies. They oppose some of the proposed changes because they claim they are inconsistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, which is due for a complete review in 2016.

Pursuant to Section 163.3191, Florida Statutes, every seven years a local government must undertake an evaluation of its comprehensive plan to determine deficiencies and necessary updates. The result of this process is the Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR), which addresses the various elements in the plan (i.e., Future Land Use, Conservation, Transportation, etc.) and how well they have performed during the preceding planning period. Following completion of the EAR, the local government will submit EAR-related amendments to the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) reflecting the necessary changes. As with other large-scale amendments, DEP, as a commenting agency to DEO, formally reviews EAR amendments to determine their consistency with the Department’s statutes, rules, objectives and strategies.

The Port Master Plan

The genesis of the heightened concern over hazardous material handling and expanded industrial uses in the city appears to be the promulgation of the OHPA’s Draft Master Plan, submitted to the PAB for review and recommendation in June 2014. City and county residents took exception to having been left out of the identified “stakeholders” interviewed in crafting the plan as well as what seemed to be enumerated future port expansion and activities that would result in increased traffic to the city, additional safety risks from handling of more hazardous materials and a significant increase in volume and mass of heavy industrial activity in the future.

The OHPA and its attorney, through several meetings, attempted to more clearly define what the Master Plan was and was not. Port Authority chair Richard Bruce has consistently maintained that it is best viewed as a research document, not an operational plan.

Public trust in the OHPA has been undermined over the last six months by the discovery that Kinder-Morgan, the OHPA’s agent hired to run the Port of Fernandina, had applied for a permit to handle coal. This application was subsequently withdrawn. It was also discovered in the Fall of 2014 that the OHPA has not been conducting its elections in accordance with its charter.

The opinion expressed by many during public input on the Ross-Hall application, is that its main objective is to reign in the operations of the port, but that the changes proposed have unintended consequences for mill operations as well.

March 4, 2015 PAB Workshop

Senior Planner Kelly Gibson delivers her staff report as PAB members Chris Ochuizzo (l) and Jamie Morrill look on.
Senior Planner Kelly Gibson delivers her staff report as PAB members Chris Occhuizzo (l) and Jamie Morrill look on.

Following Senior Planner Kelly Gibson’s staff report, applicant Chip Ross delivered a slide presentation that lasted almost ninety minutes going over each proposed change to the code. He provided photos to illustrate the problems identified, as well as providing some insight into whether the proposed change would have any impact on jobs or result in legal action against the city. He harkened back to community vision statements and the mission statement for Waterfronts Florida to highlight community concerns for protecting the city’s natural, cultural and historical assets. He explained how he had modified or removed certain parts of the original application following discussions with mill and OHPA representatives.

DSCN4352PAB Chair Len Kreger asked City Attorney Tammi Bach to weigh in following Ross’ presentation. Bach, who had expanded upon her position in a legal memorandum to the PAB, advised, “It is my opinion that most of the proposed amendments are arguably inconsistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and are preempted by state and federal laws.” She outlined specific areas of concern. She said that the applicants’ proposal to distinguish between light and heavy manufacturing uses “by assigning them to appropriate zoning categories is legally defensible and appropriate.” But, she opined, other proposed amendments could expose the city to legal challenges.

Public comment during previous meetings primarily centered around private citizens’ concerns over current and future health and safety problems associated with allowing storage and use of hazardous materials in industrial-zoned areas that abut residential areas.

Public comment

Rayonier mill manager C.A. McDonald
Rayonier mill manager C.A. McDonald suggests that proposed changes are better addressed during EAR process.

When the PAB opened the public hearing at the March 4 meeting, three individuals representing Rayonier were the first to speak. Attorney Wyman Duggan said that while it was good to begin the discussion, he believed that a text amendment was not the appropriate way to address the issues at hand. Rather, he suggested that the topics be considered as part of the EAR process, which is slated for 2016. In addition to citing inconsistencies of proposed amendments with the Comprehensive Plan, Duggan said that all stakeholders should be involved in making the decisions. While respectful of the applicant’s research, he maintained that the amendments were seeking to regulate day-to-day mill operations that are already regulated by other agencies. He also said that the amendments were too detailed for city staff to be able to enforce.

Fernandina Plant Manager C. A. McDonald said that Rayonier has operated in the city since 1937 and that the proposed changes would not affect the port while having unintended consequences for the mills. He supported addressing the issues through the EAR process. Rogers Towers attorney Emily Pierce also represented Rayonier. She suggested, among other things, that if the city would proceed with these amendments that it add “pulp & paper mills” to the Industrial 1 zoning category.

RockTenn plant general manager reminds PAB that the mill has been a port of the community for 77 years and employs 600 workers.
RockTenn plant general manager reminds PAB that the mill has been a port of the community for 77 years and employs 600 workers.

Tom Sweetser, General Manager of RockTenn’s Fernandina Mill, followed Rayonier. He spoke to the mill’s 77-year history in the community, the 600-member workforce, and the evolution of the mill into one of the most productive mills in the RockTenn system. He said, “We continue to make improvements and are currently working on a program of capital investment that will involve over $10 million in further improvements to our Kraft pulping process over the next three years.   We also recently invested in the construction of a natural gas pipeline that is used to deliver natural gas not only to our mill but to the entire Island. “

He went on to say, “Although the proposed amendments most certainly will erode high-wage job opportunities and business growth, they will not measurably impact safety. At RockTenn, safety and environmental compliance are core values that we live by every minute of every day.   RockTenn has robust chemical management processes in place, and the use of chemicals at our mill is safer and more secure today than ever before. Our mill is already subject to extensive, detailed federal, state and local management rules and regulations, and we take these obligations one step farther by voluntarily performing internal environmental and safety audits to ensure compliance. Because our operations are already subject to intensive chemical regulation, this effort to impose additional requirements through changes to the land development code will result in duplicative, legally questionable regulations. More importantly, the proposed amendments would not provide any meaningful improvement in community safety.”

OHPA Chair Richard Bruce expresses regret that public  has misinterpreted Port Master Plan.
OHPA Chair Richard Bruce expresses regret that public has misunderstood Port Master Plan.

OHPA attorney Clyde Davis and Chair Richard Bruce also addressed the PAB. Davis reminded the PAB that the island firm Petroferm would not be allowed to return to local operations under the terms of the proposed amendments. He also advised that the Port does not control cargo. The shipper deals with the U.S. Coast Guard and Homeland Security. Bruce reminded the PAB that the OHPA is a public legal entity separated by design from local government with a 30-year history of coexistence with the city. He said that the Port is an economic developer by its charter and has been underutilized. He returned to what he believes is a misunderstanding of the Master Plan proposal, which he likened more to “a gardening book such as you might find at Lowe’s or Home Depot,” which provides many ideas which gardeners never implement. He stressed that the OHPA has not adopted one suggestion in the Master Plan as a project, assuring the PAB and the audience that if it did so, it would need to go through all the notice requirements and adhere to all applicable city rules.

Laura DiBella:
Laura DiBella: City not considered “vibrant enough” in decision for a new business to pass on Fernandina Beach location.

Laura DiBella, Executive Director of the Nassau County Economic Development Board, said that the current process for reviewing the amendments has become divisive, when it shouldn’t be. She talked about the changing nature of manufacturing and industry and that such activities are huge multipliers of jobs. She said that just talking about threats of legal actions in connection with code changes is enough to scare new business away. She said that the city was just passed up by a company that would have brought 75 jobs to the airport because in the company’s estimation, “the city wasn’t vibrant enough.” She said, “I need this city to flourish and reflect pro-business activity like Yulee.” She said that the impact of passing the amendments would be “nothing less than catastrophic on business.”

Mike Zaffaroni, speaking as President of the Amelia Island Fernandina Beach Yulee Chamber of Commerce, read a statement from his board supporting the business positions articulated by other speakers and urging the PAB to work with all stakeholders on the issues at hand.

Mary Ann Scherer
Mary Anne Sharer: “We need to decide this together.  I’d like this not to devolve into a we-they issue.”

Public comments reflected unhappiness with the manner in which the OHPA developed its Master Plan, and uneasiness with allowing the city manager—whoever that person might be—to make decisions on use and zoning for new processes and projects outside the public eye. Some speakers expressed concerns with bogging down progress even more via excessive regulation. There were calls for dropping confrontational postures and moving toward a broad approach, involving residents, business and industry in addressing the proposed code amendments and future progress for the city. It was clear that many residents were still smarting over what they considered to be the OHPA’s arrogance in dealing with residents and the city over its proposed master plan. Residents expressed their desire to have a say in that plan, as opposed to being told, in the words of one resident, “We can do whatever we damn well please.” Another speaker pleaded, “Let’s have a plan that reflects this community.”

Julie Ferreira:
Julie Ferreira: “It’s sad that this has become a question of jobs over health and safety.”

With regard to specifics addressed in the proposed amendments, there was little discussion. Sierra Club President Julie Ferreira said, “It’s sad that this has become a question of jobs over health and safety.” She went on to talk about her opposition to allowing a fumigation facility in the city. City resident Guy Petty urged the PAB to move on with the business at hand but said that the idea of allowing big cruise ships to dock on the island scared him. “We are all using the same roads,” he said, “and we are beating them to death.” Faith Ross told the PAB, “A coal transfer facility does not provide jobs, because it is highly automated. That does not affect the mills.

Rick Langford
Rick Langford: “We need to make sure we don’t do things stupid in the future.”

Rick Langford, a 40-year Rayonier employee, spent some time explaining what the mills have done for the community over the years, and how regulations have changed over the years to make the mill operations safer for both employees and the community. “We need to make sure we don’t do things stupid in the future,” he said. “We will shut down before we violate safety [rules]. I care about the safety of my family, too.” He urged the PAB, “Don’t act rashly. Sit down and hammer it out.”

Public comment throughout the hearing reflected a respect for the applicant, his diligence and advocacy, as well as a respect for the role of the mills in the fabric of the community.

PAB deliberations

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DSCN4357At 8:30 p.m., the PAB closed the public hearing. Member Mark Bennett was prepared to begin moving through the application, item by item. He expressed some concern over claims that there has been a lack of opportunity for input, reminding the audience and the PAB that the application has been under consideration since November. He believed that moving forward to clarify definitions and uses would help, not hinder businesses. He also believed that many of the suggested changes would have no effect on current industrial operations.

DSCN4359Chair Kreger told Bennett that industry’s message to the PAB is that they don’t like the process that is being used to consider the changes. He reminded the PAB that there have never been major industrial accidents in the city.

Member Chris Occhuizzo said that the present discussion is a way to bring the community together. “The mills are very valuable members of the community,” he said. “We want to strike a balance with quality of life concerns.” He added that problems with the Port Master Plan emanated from the OHPA’s continued assertion that “we [have the right to] chop down the whole forest, but we only want one tree.”

Member Jon Lasserre said he was receptive to concerns that the Comprehensive Plan should not be addressed piecemeal. He suggested that the city advance its schedule for the required EAR process to begin at the next PAB meeting.

Member David Beal said, “What the applicant has presented is worthy of consideration. But more discussion is needed.”

DSCN4344The PAB continued to debate the merits of taking a vote that evening, which would result in the application moving to the Fernandina Beach City Commission for final decision, or trying to address audience concerns about the need for a different process or more input. Finally, Member Billy Rogers moved to postpone PAB final action until June, in order to allow time for more input and deliberation. Member Bennett seconded his motion, which passed unanimously.

While the PAB decided to hold a workshop on this application beginning at 3:30 p.m. immediately preceding their monthly business meeting, it was not clear by the end of the meeting or from the workshop notice how the meetings would be structured. At this time it appears that all stakeholders and interested parties should plan to attend all workshops.

All documents associated with PAB Case 2014-21 are available via the city’s website. Questions or additional requests to be placed on the city’s mailing list for updates should be directed to Senior Planner Kelly Gibson kgibson@fbfl.org.

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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Eric Bartelt
Eric Bartelt(@ericbarteltgmail-com)
7 years ago

Great report, Suanne!

Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_30103)
7 years ago

Chip, Chuck Thank you so much for the time and effort put into this project. This is exactly the type of public discussion that was needed prior to the issuance of Nassau County Ocean, Highway and Port Authority Master Plan. This town, our Island and County are Stake holders in what transpires at the Port. Every one of us. The discussion of Hazardous Materials needs to hammered out. The document needs to be a living document, one that reflects the needs of the Stack holders as the needs change in our community. We need to pen this document carefully. It was interesting that Ms. Dibella made the Statement that a company passed up the opportunity to build at the airport because “our city wasn’t vibrant enough.”? Does that mean they wanted to stockpile hazardous materials at the Airport? Chip and Chuck, Thanks again.

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