Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
At 4:30 p.m. on March 5, 2013, more than 60 people, most of them unhappy, angry or both, filled the Fernandina Beach City Hall Commission Chamber for a workshop featuring a presentation by local developer Bob Allison on his proposal to build a luxury Class A RV resort to accommodate a maximum of 150 RVs on approximately 30 acres of city property between the City Golf Course and neighboring residential property. Allison did not indicate whether this is a substitute or back up plan for an earlier proposal to place the RV resort on airport land currently leased to the Amelia River Golf Course. The earlier plan cannot proceed until the Federal Aviation Authority completes its review. The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) listened to Allison’s hour long, 120-slide presentation, during which he was assisted by Mark Sobolewski and Kate Harris. A 20-minute question and answer session followed. While commissioners commended Allison’s efforts, they made no commitment to support his proposal.
Mayor Sarah Pelican opened the workshop by addressing public concerns that the meeting had not been properly noticed. She, Acting City Clerk Kim Briley and City Manager Joe Gerrity explained how the city had followed all appropriate laws and that since this was a workshop, the FBCC would take no vote at the meeting. Their explanations did not satisfy skeptical audience members, who continued to grumble.
Before Bob Allison launched into his presentation, he made an opening statement regarding the upscale nature of Class A RVs, which can often cost more than a million dollars. He said that currently there are only 4 campsites able to accommodate such vehicles on Amelia Island. Those sites are in Fort Clinch and are usually booked a year in advance. Because of the absence of an upscale RV park, 300 Class A RVs pass the Amelia Island exit on I-95 daily, thus depriving the local island economy of significant tourism dollars. Many of the people who travel in these vehicles are in search of golfing opportunities during their stopovers. Allison asked the FBCC to help him “open the gates” to the Amelia Island-Fernandina Beach experience for these travelers by supporting his proposal.
The first part of Allison’s presentation centered on the existing City Golf Course, its physical problems resulting from delayed maintenance and the resulting financial problems. Allison presented a series of slides detailing declines in the city course’s revenues, memberships and rounds played. He claimed, “The combined financial losses at the Golf Club now amount to nearly $600,000, which is nearly $100 for each and every individual Fernandina Beach taxpayer, and this number is growing every month. Put yourself in the shoes of the taxpayer who doesn’t play golf. This is a lot of money to pay for the recreational pleasure of others.” Mark Sobolewski, Allison’s son-in-law, went on at considerable length comparing the state of the city’s greens and tee boxes with those at the North Hampton course.
Island resident Kate Harris presented several slides to show the size and comfort level of Class A RVs, contrasting them with what many people think of when they hear the word “camper” or “travel trailer.” She and Allison also covered marketing plans.
As the presentation wore on, the audience became increasingly fidgety and grumpy. Some said they did not come to hear about the golf course; they wanted to hear about the proposed RV park. Others were upset at what they saw as unjust criticisms of both the city course and Billy Casper’s recent improvements.
By the time Allison got around to making the connection between the city golf course and his proposed RV resort, the patience of most audience members had worn thin. People were not interested in learning what his project would do to improve the financial status of the city golf course or enhance tourism. They wanted to know how this project would impact their neighborhood and their lifestyle.
When Allison finally got to the slides showing the proposed location of the resort on city-owned acres bordering the golf course between the Amelia Island Parkway and Buccaneer Trail, the audience grumbling reached a higher pitch. Allison proposed a park entrance off the Amelia Island Parkway that would take over part of the existing Canopy Drive. The remaining portion, accessible only from Buccaneer Trail, would end in a cul-de-sac. He would place a 25-foot heavy vegetation buffer between the park and residential properties that abut the park.
In touting the economic benefits to the city, Allison projected that at 60% occupancy, or 90 of the proposed 150 campsites, the park would bring $77,043 annually into city coffers (lease fees, sales tax, property tax). The total of direct and indirect cash to the city would be $109,893 annually. He also cited RV industry consultants who claim that 25% of Class A RV patrons play golf daily. Using his same 60% occupancy figures, he stated that locating this resort adjacent to the city golf course would bring 54 new daily golfers, or an increased annual income to the golf course of $886,950.
Allison, who is prepared to underwrite $2M of needed improvements himself, wants to begin as soon as possible to have the resort up and running to catch the fall migration of RV travelers. He presented the FBCC with a list of city actions needed to allow the proposal to be implemented, including:
- Authorizing the City Attorney to draft a basic lease agreement for 33 years with two renewal options, rent at 3% of resort revenues, and $120,000 paid in advance;
- Establishing a separate account at the Golf Club to receive and track lease payments with 100% of the deposited funds earmarked for golf course improvements and maintenance;
- Abandoning the portion of Canopy Drive east of the Parkway North subdivision;
- Agreeing that the property’s existing zoning classification of “Recreation” is appropriate for an RV resort;
- Agreeing the project is not subject to impact fees;
- Agreeing the existing lake that is currently receiving the storm water runoff for Canopy Drive can further be used to retain any additional storm water runoff from the RV resort.
Simultaneously, Amelia Island RV Resorts, Allison’s company, would deliver to the City Attorney the property’s legal description and produce engineering plans for the city’s Technical Review Committee for the new cul-de-sac to be built for Parkway North subdivision. Allison would deliver $40,000 to the new account within 5 days of execution of the lease agreement and a second $40,000 within 5 days of the RV resort’s plan approval. He would build the new cul-de-sac and deliver a check for $15,000 to the Homeowners Association of Parkway North subdivision to pay for landscape, irrigation, lighting and signage on Canopy Road at the intersection of Canopy Drive and the Parkway. He would deliver a third $40,000 within 5 days of the issuance of the RV resort’s Certificate of Occupancy.
Allison’s final slides were devoted to his many accomplishments in residential development on the island and his determination to create the city marina. He stressed that his project would put currently untaxed land on the tax rolls, help tourism and provide the money to greatly improve the city golf course.
He suggested that opposition to this project might be “selfish and self-serving.” His final slide stated, “All of the citizens of the City of Fernandina Beach own this land and it should rightfully be used for their collective benefit and not for the exclusive benefit of a few of its neighbors.”After an hour, there were 20 minutes left for questions. Commissioner Arlene Filkoff asked Allison to confirm that his first infusion of $120,000 in fact represented his first two years’ rent. He agreed.
Joe Carter, a resident of the area impacted, said that Allison had made no mention of any detriment to the residents of Parkway North. He said that no children live in the subdivision and that it is a very quiet residential area. He asked for information regarding what kind of buffer Allison would provide. Allison said that he would provide a 25-foot buffer of dense native vegetation. Carter also expressed his concerns over increased noise levels (“RV generators run all night”) and a decrease in property values.
Gary Farnsworth, a member of the City Golf Course Advisory Committee, opined that Billy Casper was “doing a good job” on the city course. Speaking also as a representative of the Parkway North Community Association, he opposed the plan to close Canopy Drive and raised questions regarding the FAA’s position on the impact to the airport flight path. He asserted, “100% of the Parkway North residents oppose this proposal.” The audience erupted in applause.
Commissioner Pat Gass said that she had consulted with a property appraiser’s office in another part of the state and determined that such a project would have a negative effect on property values. She said that the project would be too detrimental to neighboring homeowners. Both Gass and Filkoff praised Allison’s efforts and hoped that he would be successful in finding the right location for this project. Filkoff also asked about the first site proposed, on airport property between the airport and the river. City Manager Gerrity said that the city had not received a response yet from the FAA on that request.
Many other audience members wanted to speak, but a somewhat exasperated Mayor Sarah Pelican, who had informed the audience initially that the FBCC needed a break between the workshop and their regular meeting, gaveled the meeting to a close at 5:50 p.m. and said firmly, “This meeting is adjourned.”
Audience members milled about commissioners, Bob Allison and his team, making sure that their concerns were heard, before leaving City Hall.
The presentation may be viewed and downloaded from the following site:
March 6, 2013 1:44 p.m.