Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 27, 2014 3:31 p.m.
At 4:30 p.m. on August 26, 2014, Chair Len Kreger gaveled to a close the third and final meeting of the Fernandina Beach Planning Advisory Board (PAB) Subcommittee meeting. The PAB formed this subcommittee to consider public input on the draft Port Master Plan submitted by the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) for inclusion as an appendix to the Port Element of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Kreger informed Tuesday’s audience of about 30 people that the full PAB and the subcommittee combined had taken almost 8 hours of public input on the Port Master Plan and that over a thousand pages of documents and comments had been compiled. He said that at the end of this final meeting, the Subcommittee would have done its job. He explained that all comments collected will be turned over to the OHPA for consideration at their September 10 meeting. He expressed the hope that the OHPA would come back to the city with a revised Master Plan after considering the input received.
PAB and Subcommittee Vice Chair Judith Lane reminded the audience members that they may continue to make comments, adding, “It’s not over until it’s over.” District 1 OHPA commissioner Richard Bruce, who attended all PAB and subcommittee meetings on the Master Plan, encouraged the public to attend the OHPA meeting on September 10 at 6:00 p.m. at the county government building in Yulee. He said that his intention is to avoid cramming OHPA discussion of this item into a narrow window. Rather he will recommend what may be an all-day workshop to begin at 10:00 a.m. and continue as long as needed to address public and city concerns with the Master Plan. He invited the public to that workshop as well.
Brian Wheeler, the consultant who drafted the Port Master Plan, accompanied Bruce but did not comment during the meeting. Val Schwec, commercial director of Kinder Morgan, the parent company of Nassau Terminals LLC, (Port operator), also attended the meeting and responded to audience comments and questions.
Eighteen audience members spoke, some multiple times, with respect to their concerns about impact of the proposed Port Master Plan on historic structures, impact on wetlands and potential dredging impacts.
PAB Members Kreger, Lane and Mark Bennett listened patiently to audience concerns, some of which had been discussed at previous meetings. In addition to city residents, there were county residents from areas of Yulee and Amelia Island also in attendance.
Many people expressed concerns over what they believed to be Port plans to diversify cargo handled to include flammables such as liquid natural gas. The Port representatives said that they had no plans to do so at the Port, and that portions of the plan addressing natural gas applied to other parts of the intermodal transport system plan. PAB member Mark Bennett concurred.
Others addressed concerns about vibrations caused by truck traffic that weaken foundations and historic structures. The consensus was that resulting destruction of historic residences would adversely impact tourism.
Chair Kreger reminded the audience that the trucks that are perceived to be the root of the problem are owned and operated independently. Most of the truck traffic is destined for the mills, not the port. He added that the railroad has taken some of the traffic off the roads.
Val Schwec tried to address more fully the transportation cost differential for trucking vs. rail. He said that currently the Port is receiving boxcars from Rock Tenn. But transferring timber to rail in Callahan or Yulee is expensive, with costs borne by the individual truck operators, not the mills or the Port. He said that rail would be a cheaper alternative if the cargo were to be shipped over a distance of 200-300 miles, but not for transportation within the county. Schwec added that the Port would prefer to receive materials by rail, but that the Port has no control over the costs.
Vice Chair Lane commented that since the port had been such a strong advocate for the widening of A1A in Yulee, maybe it was time for them to advocate for a greater use of rail in the Master Plan. She urged the OHPA to consider including a “visionary rail system” in their plan.
Several audience members spoke to the importance of “community” in considering the Port Master Plan. Dan Pond said that the city’s Historic District is the core of the island community. He asked rhetorically, “Who wants Fernandina Beach to look like Dames Point?” He said he found it objectionable even to consider the proposed plan. He wondered how input had been sought and provided by the Tourist Development Council (TDC), adding, “No one visits Fernandina Beach to look at [shipping] containers.”
Chair Kreger expressed his opinion that a major flaw in developing the Port Master Plan was the failure to involve the community. Instead, the OHPA appeared to have adopted an “in your face” posture toward the citizenry. He said that the ball would be back in the OHPA’s court next month at which time they will consider whether to revise their plan or let it stand as is. He said that generally the most opposition has come from Port neighbors in the Historic District, but that more people from a wider community have been coming forward recently with concerns.
Vice Chair Lane said that the OHPA, by meeting off the island, has set a distance from the community. She suggested that perhaps the OHPA should occasionally schedule meetings in the city where more city residents would be likely to attend. Audience member Tim Poynter suggested that if meetings on issues like the Port Master Plan were held during the evening or on a Saturday, the working population would be able to attend.
Several speakers expressed confusion over the Port’s advancing a rezoning request for land they currently own outside the boundary of the working port at the same time the Master Plan has been undergoing city review. Such action has given rise to conspiracy theories regarding the Port’s intent to expand operations further into the Historic District.
Melba Whitaker, longtime resident and business owner, recapped history for those unfamiliar with the creation of the Port. She said that initially there was pushback against the Port, but that over time the Port, businesses and residents have worked together to resolve their problems. She expressed business and residents’ concerns about increased truck traffic and further encroachment into the Historic District resulting from the proposed plan. She cited a recent TDC survey of island visitors that found that 83% of visitors come to visit the historic downtown area. She called for continued cooperation to make sure that the positive balance among the Port, businesses and residents is maintained. The audience responded to her comments with a round of applause.
Audience members raised additional concerns with respect to the need to regulate truck weight on the island; the Port’s failure to provide landscaping and buffers as required in the existing plan; queuing of trucks along Dade Street during peak port traffic times.
The subcommittee briefly touched upon the topics of filling in wetlands and dredging raised in the Port Master Plan. Audience members raised concerns that restrictions on such operations included in the current Master Plan were not repeated in the new draft. The Port wetlands have been designated Conservation areas and cannot be filled in. Port representatives have given verbal assurances that wetlands will not be filled in and dredging will not disturb the aquatic preserve, but citizens wanted to see such assurances reduced to writing in the plan. Environmental activist Julie Ferreira raised concerns that dredging might release dioxins into river that would enter the food chain.
Discussion regarding the Comprehensive Plan update was deferred pending receipt of the revised Master Plan.
Many in the audience expressed confusion over the plan review process, asking what would happen following the Port’s resubmission of this plan or a revised plan. Kreger explained that it would return to the PAB, which would review and forward it to the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) with recommendations. If the FBCC approves the recommended changes to the City’s Comprehensive Plan, it would also approve the Port Master Plan, which is an appendix to that plan. If the FBCC does not approve the plan, by Florida statute, the parties will enter into mediation to resolve outstanding differences. If mediation cannot produce agreement, the matter would head to the courts. But both PAB and OHPA representatives expressed optimism that matters can be resolved earlier.
In closing the meeting, Kreger recommended that the OHPA look at all the recommendations that the review process has generated. He said he was personally pleased at the public turnout for the subcommittee meetings and expressed his hope that the audience would attend the OHPA meeting on September 10 to express concerns to that body. Lane added, “Let people know what you think.”
The audience members applauded the PAB subcommittee, thanking them for convening the meetings. People commented that as word of the Port Master Plan circulates around the various county and city neighborhoods, more people are becoming aware and concerned over the potential for changes that might have a profound impact on the city and the Historic District.
To review the documents and comments associated with the OHPA Port Master Plan, visit the city’s website fbfl.us and click on the first item under NEWS: Port Master Plan Update.
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.