Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 22, 2014 12:46 p.m.
Members of the public continued to vent concerns and ask questions regarding the updated Master Plan for the Port of Fernandina during the second meeting of the Planning Advisory Board’s (PAB) subcommittee meeting on this topic held on August 21, 2014 at Fernandina Beach City Hall. About 20 people, some of whom live off the island, listened to OHPA Commissioner Richard Bruce, Kinder Morgan commercial director Val Schwec and Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) Growth Management and Modeling Coordinator Ameera Sayeed respond to questions raised by the Master Plan document. PAB members Len Kreger, Judith Lane and Mark Bennett allowed members of the public considerable latitude in raising their concerns, but the primary focus of the meeting was on traffic impacts arising from the draft Master Plan.
This 240-page plan was commissioned by the Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) for the Port of Fernandina and approved in May 2014. The document serves as the basis for a revised element in the City of Fernandina Beach’s Comprehensive Plan (Comp plan). Because the Master Plan is incorporated by reference in the Comp plan, the document has come under PAB scrutiny, along with the actual language changes proposed for the Comp plan itself. The PAB formed a subcommittee to look at the Port Master Plan in light of their concerns and public objections to elements of the plan.
PAB and subcommittee chair Len Kreger informed the audience that there are about a thousand pages on file in connection with this item, including the proposed Master Plan, the slide presentation prepared by the OHPA consultant, the old plan, the Comp plan, FDOT comments and public comments. He reminded the public that the Master Plan was officially adopted by the OHPA, and only that elected body can change it. He encouraged concerned individuals to attend the OHPA meeting on September 10 at 6:00 p.m. at the James S. Page Building in Yulee. Glancing at OHPA Commissioner Richard Bruce in the audience, he said, “The Port has heard you. We’ll see if they listened to you.”
Judith Lane, PAB and subcommittee vice chair, echoed her refrain from previous meetings about the city’s need to see “a Master Plan that is really a Master Plan.” She asked that the OHPA present a document that reduces to writing the points they have made during public meetings, i.e. what they really want to accomplish in 3-5 years, 5-10 years. She said that the current document labeled a Master Plan is “unusable because it doesn’t tell the citizens what you are really going to do.”
PAB and subcommittee member Mark Bennett said that because of changes that will come about as a result of widening the Panama Canal, it is probably difficult for the OHPA to look into the future. OHPA Commissioner Bruce agreed, saying that much is currently in flux. Lane said that regardless, the plan does not indicate any environment constraints on port activities. Kreger added that the OHPA does not have taxing authority to pay for any of the actions laid out in the plan.
FDOT weighs in
At the invitation of the PAB chair, Ameera Sayeed spoke to FDOT’s courtesy review of the OHPA plan dated July 23, 2014. She said that overall the Draft Master Plan addressed the requirements set forth for port strategic plans under F.S. 311.14(2). She said that FDOT comments were largely of a technical nature and called for revisions of tables and calculations.
On the issue of trucks, she said that daily truck trips should be estimated at 1,508, not 905. She clarified that this figure includes all truck trips, not just those destined to the port. She recommended that the plan be revised to address discrepancies in the transportation analyses contained therein.
She said that statistical issues could be addressed relatively quickly, but that the last study on truck traffic had been done in 1997. According to that study 9% of island traffic was composed of trucks. Of that, she did not know what percentage accounted for port traffic.
In response to audience questions she stated that FDOT’s role was not to rule in favor of or against the plan, but to look at the many facets of the plan in an attempt to find solutions to problems raised.
PAB member Bennett reminded the audience that the state eliminated concurrency requirements with respect to new development two years ago. It is now up to local authorities to determine if new development has an impact on the adequacy of existing road systems. Sayeed added that FDOT could say no if the new development provides a significant safety risk.
Kreger reminded the audience that the OHPA was not insensitive to traffic issues. In their master plan the OHPA has addressed intermodal transportation as a means to reduce truck traffic. “We are not just here to shoot [the OHPA planning effort] down,” he said. He also reminded audience members that the Fernandina Beach City Commission has tabled until December a rezoning request from the OHPA for their lots neighboring existing facilities until the Master Plan issue can be resolved.
Kinder Morgan’s role
There seemed to be some confusion among audience members regarding the role of the OHPA and that of Kinder Morgan in developing the port Master Plan. Val Schwec, Kinder Morgan’s representative, reminded the audience that while Kinder Morgan provided comments on the plan, the plan itself is a document of the OHPA. He explained that Kinder Morgan operates the port via Nassau Terminals as the OHPA’s agent in marketing port facilities, loading and unloading vessels, etc.
Schwec said that today approximately 30-50 trucks visit the port each week. Over the years, truck traffic to the port has diminished for several reasons, including the Great Recession. Ninety percent of the break bulk cargo, mostly forest products, arrives at the port via rail. RockTenn now uses boxcars, as opposed to trucks, to move their materials from the mill to the port. Many of the trucks that do visit the port pull double trailers, also cutting down on the number of truck visits.
In response to audience questions he said that exploration into transferring truck traffic to rail in Yulee has been explored, but that it was not economically feasible to do so. He also said that the community as far back as 1997 had recommended service roads along A1A/SR200 but that FDOT had rejected the request.
Schwec also spoke to the physical limitations of the port, which prevent significant expansion of port activity or volume of cargo handled. He said that the 2002 Master Plan stated that truck traffic to the port could be about 168 trucks per day. He said that the port operation has never exceeded that number, even in years of peak port operation. Schwec said that he would like to return as quickly as possible to 2011 activity levels, or about 647,000 tons, but that if activity could increase even more, 750,000 tons would maximize capacity.
Chair Kreger said that the Nassau County Economic Development Board is supporting the current Master Plan. He asked for input from the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council (TDC). TDC Executive Director Gil Langley said that the plan had not been forwarded to his board for comments. He said that if they were asked to consider it, they would. However, he said that he understood that most of the plan related to industrial and commercial development unrelated to tourism. Chair Kreger asked Langley to consider the Master Plan and to provide any comments on possible impact to island tourism. Langley said he would be happy to do so at the TDC meeting on August 27.
Chair Kreger said that the port is trying to develop to its potential, but that the revised Master Plan appears to be a consultant’s plan, not the port’s plan, according to comments from both OHPA Commissioner Bruce and Kinder Morgan manager Schwec. He reminded the audience that the OHPA has been holding public meetings to receive public input over the past year and that no one in the current audience has attended. He urged those concerned over the proposed plan to attend the September 10 OHPA meeting to voice their concerns to the plan’s owners.
Kreger said that the next and final meeting of the PAB subcommittee would address concerns relating to wetlands, dredging, impact on historical structures and quality of life issues. That meeting will be held on August 27 at 3:00 p.m. at City Hall.
He reminded the public that copies of all documents are available on the city website www.fbfl.us.
For earlier discussions before both the PAB and the subcommittee, see Fernandina Observer articles:
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.