Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter News Analyst
November 14, 2014 4:09 p.m.
This is a continuation of a news story published on November 13, 2014.
At its November 12, 2014, regular meeting the City of Fernandina Beach’s Planning Advisory Board’s (PAB) considered the draft Master Plan for the Port of Fernandina, which had been submitted to the city for incorporation into the city’s Comprehensive Plan by the Ocean Highway & Port Authority (OHPA), more commonly referred to as the Port Authority. After due deliberation, the PAB unanimously voted to recommend denial of the plan to the Fernandina Beach City Commission, which will consider the matter in January 2015.
The document under review incorporated changes made to the original document by the OHPA in response to city and public concerns. Port Consultant Brian Wheeler presented the plan and explained the OHPA’s changes. Because the meeting was scheduled at the same time as the OHPA regular meeting, no representative of that body could attend the meeting.
Ten of the 60-plus audience members addressed the PAB, citing continuing concerns with the plan as presented.
PAB Chair Len Kreger began the meeting by reminding the audience that the PAB is the local planning agency for the City of Fernandina Beach and that it is tasked to evaluate and recommend proposals and policies that are in compliance with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. “That’s what we are going to evaluate,” he said, adding, “and in my opinion the [port master plan] is not in compliance because of wetlands issues.” He then asked Senior Planner Kelly Gibson for her opening statement.
Gibson explained that Florida Statute dictated a change in how the city’s Comprehensive Plan addressed the port. Currently, there is a stand alone Port Element (Goal 9). Florida statute, however, required that the port element be incorporated in Goal 5: Conservation and Coastal Management, which directs the orderly development, maintenance and use of the city’s deepwater ports.
Proposed Goal 5P of the Comprehensive Plan provides language that incorporates by reference the Port Strategic Master Plan, which was adopted by the OHPA in February 2014 and revised in June and October. The OHPA has the responsibility to create a master plan for the port; the city has a responsibility to see that nothing in the port plan conflicts with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Gibson said that city staff had determined after extensive review that “the Strategic Master Plan generally fulfills state requirements” and noted where additional areas of analysis should be considered: a socioeconomic analysis, outside of general marketing conditions, had not been performed; absence of an analysis of the existing drainage system’s effect on estuarine water quality; language from the city’s Comprehensive Plan relative to public access and preservation of working waterfronts, coastal high-hazard areas and mitigation criteria, and principles to assure public facilities are in place. She recommended the addition of two additional appendices: the recorded conservation easement for property included within City limits and a document recapping the history of the Development of Regional Impact (DRI).
She concluded her remarks with the following:
“Tonight the PAB is requested to issue a recommendation to the City Commission on the incorporation of the OHPA Strategic Master Plan Update by reference in the Comprehensive Plan, which will be reflected under Goal 5P. Further, the PAB is requested to issue a recommendation on the remaining Objectives and Policies proposed as 5P of the Conservation and Coastal Management Element.”
OHPA Consultant Brian Wheeler presents revised Port Master Plan
PAB Chair Kreger invited Wheeler to present the OHPA’s revised plan. Wheeler recapped much of the same material that had been presented at earlier meetings, but included explanations and justifications for the inclusion of the materials. “At its heart,” Wheeler said, “the master plan is a transportation planning effort.” In response to many concerns expressed by members of the public and the PAB over failure to identify the public as a stakeholder in drafting the plan, Wheeler explained the OHPA’s outreach to regional governments and other groups seeking input. He stated that the publisher of the News Leader had been invited to participate and had done so, but that engagement had been sporadic. He said that because the port would be required to pay for the costs of dredging to allow larger vessels to dock, dredging was not economically feasible. He indicated that wetlands could not be filled due to a conservation easement in effect while stating that terms of a 10 year-old permit to build a new pier would allow the port to fill in a small portion of wetlands with mitigation. Wheeler continued to maintain that the numbers of anticipated truck trips to and from the port were very small compared to the truck trips to both mills. He said that the public had misunderstood the type of liquid natural gas that would be handled, and that additional coal handling had been ruled out. Four slides from Wheeler’s extensive presentation are presented below:
Following Wheeler’s presentation, PAB Chair Kreger once again asked Wheeler why the OHPA did not simply eliminate those parts of the plan that they had no intention of pursuing, instead of footnoting the original document or adding an appendix in explanation. He claimed inconsistencies throughout the report and said that the executive summary was not consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
PAB Vice Chair Judith Lane agreed that the plan as presented is confusing. She said that Wheeler’s presentation caused her to question whether he was talking about the same document that she had just reviewed. She asked, “Are you in line with what the community wants or what the Port Authority wants? This plan does not reflect what you have said tonight.”
Lane renewed her complaint that the document did not resemble a true master plan because it did not include a work plan. Wheeler responded that the OHPA did not choose to include a 10-year work plan because of the possibility of changing circumstances. Lane was not appeased. “We are setting a road map for the city right now,” she said.
PAB member Jon Lasserre narrowed his concerns to wetlands, truck traffic and plans to transport petroleum based products and coal. He asked why the plan did not call for an intermodal transport site at or near the port. Wheeler replied that RockTenn, whose legal permission was needed for such a site, opposed including such a site in the master plan. Lasserre then asked why the plan continued to include references to coal and liquid natural gas if it was not the intent to ramp up handling of such items. Wheeler replied that political considerations involving possible opposition from major coal producing states influenced the decision to retain such references.
PAB member Mark Bennett quoted city Resolution 801 from February 1986 that specifically forbade “the import or export of petroleum products or coal or hazardous material without submitting an amended ADA/DRI.” He saw no reason to keep the references in the plan. He also wanted all references to filling wetlands deleted.
PAB Chair Len Kreger opened the meeting to public comment, reminding the audience that their comments should relate to the Comprehensive Plan. Ten speakers raised wide-ranging concerns touching upon public safety, protection of wetlands and the river, traffic, economic viability of the port and the expiration of the current DRI covering the port in 4 years. All speakers urged the PAB to reject the plan as presented.
Chip Ross, a neighbor of the port, made a presentation showing official maps of the flood plain as it affects the port and surrounding areas. He also contradicted Wheeler’s claim that the port had a valid permit to fill in wetlands to construct a pier. The permit, which had been issued over 10 years ago, has expired. He cited city imposed restrictions on the port in Resolutions 801, 962, 91-4 and city ordinance 97-9, which he believed were being ignored in the plan as presented. He asked the PAB to recommend rejection of the plan unless the OHPA removed everything that they claimed they had no intention to do. He also reminded the PAB and the audience that the DRI—Development of Regional Impact—that provided for the establishment of the port will sunset in 4 years, meaning that the port will not be bound to provide the annual payment of $50K in lieu of taxes, in addition to abiding by the other restrictions.
Ann Thomas, another port neighbor said that she found the presentation “extremely disingenuous.” She cited numerous references to Class C vessels, wetlands, dredging, liquid natural gas throughout the plan. She also noted the inclusion of a new activity: banana fumigation. She said that in considering quality of service (QOS), the OHPA had not considered the public’s reaction to increased traffic levels or the effects of truck acceleration and deceleration on traffic flow. Philip Pierce asked about the possibility of rerouting port traffic and relocating the guard shack further from residential areas.
Christine Corso addressed her comments to the financial viability of the port. She said that the port has experienced a 37% decline in revenue, all of which cannot be attributed to the national economic state. She said that Kinder Morgan, the port operator, is currently keeping the port out of bankruptcy by holding its debt. Should Kinder Morgan foreclose on that debt, the port property would pass from public to private ownership. She said that the sole purpose of Kinder Morgan, based in Texas, is to distribute fossil fuel. She encouraged the PAB to develop a plan to deal with the eventual privatization of the port.
Lynn Williams and Julie Ferreira spoke to the need to include in the plan a section devoted to water quality. They cited potential problems with the discharge of dirty ballast water and wastewater.
Several speakers concluded that the city does not benefit from anything in the plan. Michael Leary said that it was difficult to obtain information on the size of the port’s workforce. He agreed with Corso’s comments about Kinder Morgan and said that the plans are not a fit for this community. Michael Huffman said that there was no safety plan, a requirement of both Homeland Security and the State Fire Marshall. He talked about the need for evacuation zones in the event of toxic spills or accidents. Faith Ross also spoke to the need to guarantee safety to the citizens. Chuck Hall said, “This plan does not serve our community. It asks us to mold to their plans. Let them mold to us.”
PAB Chair Len Kreger closed the public hearing at 7:26 p.m. after everyone had been given an opportunity to express concerns. He stepped down from the chair to make the motion, seconded by Board member BillyRogers, to recommend denial of the proposed port plan to the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC), which has the final say. The motion passed unanimously. The item will now be taken up by the FBCC in January, unless the OHPA decides to withdraw the existing plan for further review and resubmission.
The story up to now
City staff began reviewing the master plan upon receipt in June. Gibson expressed concerns publicly and directly to the Port Consultants responsible for drafting the plan. An overview of the plan was presented to the PAB before a packed house on August 13, 2014. PAB Chair Len Kreger, expressing concern that the PAB had just received the 240-page document that afternoon, stepped down to move the creation of a PAB subcommittee to examine the plan more closely and take additional public input. That subcommittee, consisting of Kreger, PAB Vice Chair Judith Lane and PAB member Mark Bennett, met three times in August 2014. OHPA representatives attended the workshop meetings, along with a representative of Kinder-Morgan, the operator of the Port of Fernandina.
Significant public input was provided during the meetings and in written form. Additionally, state agencies provided a courtesy review of the draft master plan. All materials were forwarded to the OHPA for consideration in revising the plan.
The OHPA met on September 10, 2014, at the Page Complex in Yulee. Commissioners took additional comments from a standing-room-only audience on the master plan as well as a permit requested by Kinder Morgan to barge in coal to the Port of Fernandina. After considerable discussion, heated at times, Port Commissioners agreed to hold a public workshop on the master plan to be followed by a town hall meeting in Fernandina Beach. Port Commissioner Brian Reaves stressed the importance of holding meetings at a time during which working citizens could attend; Port Commissioner Richard Bruce expressed his desire that the workshop not be time limited to allow for full discussion.
The Port Authority held its 3-hour workshop the afternoon of October 2, 2014 in the conference room of the Nassau County Tax Collector in Yulee. About 20 residents attended, as well as Senior City Planner Kelly Gibson and City Attorney Tammi Bach. The workshop initially included the City of Fernandina Beach Planning and Advisory Board. Fernandina Beach City Manager Joe Gerrity had asked PAB members not to attend because the meeting was held outside of the city and the meeting room provided limited seating. Although the city offered to make the City commission chambers available, the Port Authority declined, fearing that it might conflict with another scheduled meeting if the meeting ran past 5:00 p.m. There has been no Town Hall meeting scheduled in Fernandina Beach to discuss this topic, as of this writing.
For more information on past meetings, search the Fernandina Observer website or the city of Fernandina Beach website. All presentations, documents, the Comprehensive Plan and comments are available on the city website at: www.fbfl.us/CompPlan.
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.