Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
September 11, 2014 2:05 p.m.
In a packed chamber with standing room only for latecomers, Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) commissioners spent two and a half hours the evening of September 10, 2014, listening to members of the public vent their concerns over the proposed Port Master Plan and a recent permit application that would allow the Port to handle bulk coal. At their next meeting, Port commissioners will consider a resolution to ask Kinder Morgan, the Port’s operator, to withdraw its permit application to handle coal. Commissioners also agreed to hold a public workshop to revisit the Port Master Plan, to be followed by a Town Hall meeting in Fernandina Beach. Representatives of state Senator Aaron Bean and State Representative Janet Adkins announced plans for another Town Hall meeting for early next month.
Twenty people out of close to one hundred audience members spoke, some more than once, expressing their unhappiness with OHPA plans, distrust of port operators, what they perceived as a lack of transparency regarding port decision making and the port decision makers’ disregard for the environment, the people who live on the island, and the tourism industry. While some of the speakers lived near the port, the vast majority lived elsewhere on the island. Despite the high level of public concern regarding the recent port developments, only one Fernandina Beach City Commissioner – Johnny Miller—attended. Tim Poynter and Roy Smith, two candidates vying for the Group 2 City Commission seat currently held by Charlie Corbett, spoke. No Nassau County Commissioners attended.
Port commissioners, to the surprise of many in the audience, began discussion of the coal permit topic by expressing their concern that they did not find out about the request to expand Kinder Morgan’s air permit to handle bulk coal until the public did. District 2 Commissioner Danny Fullwood asked Kinder Morgan to pull the request. At OHPA direction, attorney Clyde Davis will draft a resolution to do so after determining whether the OHPA has authority to make such request under the board’s contract with Kinder Morgan.
District 3 Commissioner Brian Reaves explained that he was shocked and that it took a week to get answers on how the air permit expansion to handle coal came about without OHPA knowledge. He said that in moving forward on that permit, corporate Kinder Morgan had blindsided locals. He said that by doing so, Kinder Morgan demonstrated that they did not understand the community and the environment, and that they were “a poor community partner.” Reaves wanted a letter sent to corporate headquarters asking for more public involvement. He said, “It doesn’t feel like we were a partner when we didn’t know about [the permit request]. Kinder Morgan owes us, the city of Fernandina Beach, and the citizens an apology.”
Master plan consultant Brian Wheeler added that Kinder Morgan’s actions put the OHPA on the defensive, since no mention of seeking air quality permit changes to handle coal was included in the master plan, currently a hot topic in the community.
District 1 Commissioner Richard Bruce reported to OHPA commissioners on a series of meetings he attended on the proposed Master Plan held by the city of Fernandina Beach’s Planning Advisory Board. He expressed his desire to hold a workshop with no time limits so that port commissioners could consider the many public comments provided during those meetings and subsequently in writing. Reaves asked that such a workshop be held in the evening so that working people would be able to attend. After some discussion, the OHPA decided to hold a public workshop beginning at 1:00 p.m. on October 1 (Alternate date: October 3) to be coordinated with the city’s Planning Advisory Board to discuss the Master Plan, to be followed by a future Town Hall meeting that will be held on Amelia Island, possibly in the Fernandina Beach Middle School auditorium. Both meetings will be publicly noticed.
Commissioner Reaves surfaced a suggestion that the OHPA consider earmarking a specific percent of new revenue streams to be set aside for public amenities such as parks or preserves. The OHPA will consider this at a future meeting.
OHPA Chair and District 4 commissioner Carrol Franklin opened the meeting to public comment. Speakers overwhelmingly opposed any expansion of port business to include handling bulk coal, citing concerns for health, the environment, property values, tourism and general quality of life issues.
Several speakers raised concerns with respect to the process of developing a master plan and decision-making across the board. Amelia Island resident Phil Scanlan said, “The [proposed] master plan has missed the boat. It should be about supporting the community. The plan got away from its original focus and is more about Kinder Morgan than about the community.” City resident Michael Leary said, pointing his finger at the OHPA, “Your responsibility is to know what Kinder Morgan is doing. Your job is to represent us to the port, not the other way around.”
Anthony Miller expressed the uneasiness shared by many in the room when he said, “Thanks for making us aware of all the power you have. What can you do for us, not to us?”
Jim Adams, legislative assistant to Rep. Janet Adkins, and Meghan Tarsitano, legislative assistant to Sen. Aaron Bean, jointly addressed the OHPA and the audience. They commended the audience for their involvement in the issues and said that in addition to a local Delegation meeting that Bean and Adkins will hold on November 13 locally, they are working on a Town Hall meeting on the port issues tentatively set for October 7.
Roy Smith, the citizen who first publicly raised the issue of the Kinder Morgan request to expand its air permit to handle coal at a Fernandina Beach City Commission meeting, said that Kinder Morgan was being “disingenuous” in its request. He said that currently Kinder Morgan can bring in coal by rail and ship it. But that the open ended nature of the request pending before the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection (FDEP) is very open-ended. He said that if he had not read the legal notice and brought it to public attention the request would have been routinely approved today (September 10). He said, “I don’t think the Port should deal with people who try to sneak things through.”
Old Town resident Michael Harrison raised concerns regarding process and coordination with the city’s comprehensive plan. He said the plan did not make clear the division of responsibility between Kinder Morgan and the OHPA. He asked why the public was not hearing Kinder Morgan’s plan.
Tim Poynter objected to the OHPA including items in writing in the port’s Master Plan, but then saying, “it’s not going to happen.” He went on to say that while the port has claimed that any coal coming into the port would be transported less than half a mile to Rock Tenn, he found that hard to understand. Rock Tenn is the single biggest user of natural gas on the island, he said, adding that Rock Tenn’s desire for and commitment to natural gas was the deciding factor in bringing natural gas to the island. Since the port has admitted that Rock Tenn has not even agreed to be a customer for the new service under the proposed permit expansion, Poynter asked that coal handling be taken out of the port’s plan.
A couple of speakers expressed support for current port operations, hoping that the port could remain a profitable employer by targeting the smaller commercial ships. Speaker Orlando Avila harkened back to the early days of Fernandina and the importance of commercial shipping to the local economy. He said that during public comment he had heard lots of complaints, but not solutions. He said, “I can’t believe I heard ’20 jobs are not worth it’ [the number of new jobs that the Master Plan would add]. You’re retired,” he said addressing the audience, “you don’t care.”
City resident Ann Thomas characterized the port’s plans as overreaching. She criticized the OHPA for including statements that many of the suggested projects were “just preparation in case we need it,” while saying that there was no obligation under the plan for the port to take any of the suggested actions. She emphasized, “But it is there in black and white, and if you choose to do those things, we have no recourse.” She reminded the commissioners and the audience that the Port as presently constituted has only been in existence since 1985, and that the peak year for containers was 1989. She suggested that perhaps it was time to consider whether the port should exist at all.
While every speaker concluded remarks to audience applause, Medardo Monzon, a South Fletcher resident, sent the applause meter over the top. He told commissioners that he cares deeply about the island and about jobs. He said that the OHPA is in the midst of a public relations crisis. “You have lost the trust of the community,” he said, citing their lack of transparency and their unintentional message: “You can shove it down our throats whether we want it or not.” He argued that the entire master plan needs to be thrown out and the process started over. He claimed, “It is a figment of your imagination that the town will flourish under this plan.” Monzon said that any vision must be a shared vision and that the OHPA has a choice to face a fight or agree to work together with the community to fashion a true master plan. Citing his past experience with coal handling ports, he charged the OHPA: “Do not allow it! It is an environmental nightmare! No coal—period!” He concluded his remarks by asking, “Who’s minding the store?”
After public comment, Val Schwec, Kinder Morgan’s commercial director responsible for local port operations, asked and received permission to speak. He took full responsibility for not informing the OHPA about the FDEP permit, claiming that it was a timing issue, not an intentional omission. He added that Kinder Morgan had expressed concerns over the master plan, some of which were addressed in the final document. Minutes of past meetings were available to back up his statement, he said. Schwec said that he did not agree with many items in the plan but that “it is not our [Kinder Morgan’s] plan.” He added, “Kinder Morgan will do the right thing.”
Schwec said that those on the board and in the audience who know him, know that it is not in his character to deceive. He expressed confidence in the port’s future saying, “It’s a good facility and there are viable niche markets. The port is an integral part of the community, with or without coal.”
Before the meeting adjourned, attorney Clyde Davis reminded the audience of the legal authorities governing the OHPA and state requirements for a port master plan. He said that he would provide legal advice to the commissioners as to whether certain elements could be removed from the plan, admitting that the final decision rested with the commissioners.
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.