Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 18, 2014 8:25 p.m.
Question to Port Authority from local citizens: When is a master plan not a master plan?
Answer from Richard Bruce, District 1 Port Commissioner:
When it’s a research document.
Close to 50 people attended the first meeting of the city Planning Advisory Board (PAB) Subcommittee on the Port Master Plan meeting at City Hall at 3:00 p.m. Monday, August 18, 2014. Attendees were prepared to ask questions and provide input on the 240-page Port Master Plan submitted in June to the City of Fernandina Beach by the Ocean, Highway and Port Authority as background to changing the Port Element of the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Presented publicly to the full Planning Advisory Board at their August meeting, this plan was fraught with problems and obstacles, according to members of the public who spoke at the PAB’s August 13 meeting. Under the leadership of PAB Chair Len Kreger, the PAB authorized formation of a subcommittee to examine both the Port Master Plan and the public concerns.
Richard Bruce, Ocean Highway and Port Authority Commissioner from District 1, which includes the City of Fernandina Beach, joined PAB members Len Kreger, Judith Lane and Mark Bennett to listen and respond to public concerns over elements of the Port Master Plan previously presented at the last PAB meeting in 57 slides by plan consultant Brian Wheeler of the Genesis Group on behalf of the Port Authority.
As a result of the 2-hour subcommittee meeting, Chair Kreger agreed to set a second subcommittee meeting for Thurday, August 21 at 3:00 p.m. in Commission Chambers to continue discussion with the public over traffic concerns resulting from the new plan, as well as impacts on the neighboring residential areas and local business. Other topics to be addressed at future meetings include impact on wetlands, dredging, and existing port facilities.
The City is attempting to schedule a subcommittee meeting on August 26 that will include all available Port Commissioners to address public concerns.Miscommunication/poor communication
Port Commissioner Richard Bruce explained to PAB members and the public that the 240-page document labeled a “Port Master Plan,” was in fact a research document, not a plan to which the Port Authority had committed. He said that the Port’s consultant had included every possible scenario, no matter how unrealistic, that the Port might consider pursuing over the next 10 years. He and Kinder Morgan commercial director Val Schwec agreed that certain items in that document – like filling in wetlands and extensive dredging to bring in larger ships – were unrealistic and impractical.
Kinder Morgan operates Nassau Terminals LLC, the port operation itself. Schwec emphasized that the Port has been in an economic slump since the Great Recession and the loss of the Port’s major shipper. He said that the absolute maximum that the Port could handle was 720T, slightly above the high of 647T the Port had recorded in 2011.
Bruce and Schwec also made a point to say that the maximum number of trucks that could be handled daily was about 168. That number included everything from food service vans to container trucks. The numbers being cited of 700 or 4,000 trucks daily were “just plain wrong.” Schwec added that the Port accounts for about 2% of truck traffic on the island. Both Schwec and Bruce indicated problems with the document that has caused so much consternation in the community, reinforcing the fact that nothing in the document can be done without proper permitting and approval of all necessary local governments and regulatory agencies.
Schwec said that his goal is to return the port’s traffic and business level to 2011 levels, or a bit higher. He said that the existing port facility could not accommodate the shipping traffic/tonnage called for in the Master Plan document.
PAB Chair Len Kreger reminded the audience that as a duly elected public body, only the Port Authority could change the plan. The PAB subcommittee will make recommendations to the full PAB, which will then make recommendations to the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) with respect to adopting, rejecting or modifying the plan as presented.
The port Master Plan is incorporated by reference into the city’s Comprehensive Plan, but the port element of the Comprehensive Plan must be reviewed with respect to how it meshes with the Economic Development Element of the Comp Plan as well. PAB Member Mark Bennett, who remained silent for most of the discussion, reminded the audience that the Port Master Plan does not automatically approve actions contained therein. Should the Port want to proceed with any action from that document, it must go through all the public hearings, permitting and public scrutiny before the action can be implemented. City staff added that if the city were to reject the Port Master Plan outright, the city and the port would be required to enter into mediation to reach an agreement.
Crux of the issue
Many members of the public spoke to their unhappiness with items listed in the master plan, such as dramatically increased traffic and tonnage levels, the possibility of the Port building a refinery or constructing a bridge to St. Marys, and other issues.
Despite numerous and emphatic denials that the Port had any intentions of taking on such projects, audience members kept drawing attention to the fact that these matters and numbers appeared in the document which has been labeled the Port’s Master Plan. The question to the Port became: If the Port Authority does not wish to pursue these projects, why didn’t it remove them from the document before forwarding such to the city as their proposed Master Plan?
Port Commissioner Richard Bruce reminded the audience that the master plan has been under discussion for a year and that despite numerous, advertised meetings, no one from the audience ever attended a Port Authority meeting to raise a question or a concern. He invited the audience members to attend the September 10, 2014 meeting at 6:00 p.m. at the James S. Page Governmental Center in Yulee to express their concerns to the entire Port Authority Board.
Taking advantage of a relatively informal setting, members of the public raised a variety of concerns about impacts of the proposed Port Master Plan.
Chair Kreger captured the major concerns as topics for future subcommittee meetings: traffic, wetlands, dredging, impact on residential neighborhoods and buildings, adequacy of existing port facilities, possible structural damage to buildings from truck traffic, and whether the plan was a plus or minus for local businesses. Future subcommittee meetings will focus on these concerns.
PAB to Port
PAB Vice Chair Judith Lane suggested to Commissioner Bruce that the Port Authority might want to distill the “research document” currently labeled as a Master Plan into a true master plan to reflect what the body really wants to do. She said that as it exists, the document is unreadable and unmanageable.
In response to an audience question, Chair Kreger said that the subcommittee would not be reviewing the 240-page Master Plan with an eye toward redlining what it does not like. He advised that public comment, in any form, be sent to Kelly Gibson email@example.com so that all comments can be compiled for consideration by the entire subcommittee. Kreger stressed that this is the Port Authority’s plan, not the city’s. He said that the PAB is reviewing the plan for consistency and compliance with the city’s Comprehensive Plan. Changing the plan is up to the Port Authority.
The next meeting of the PAB subcommittee is set for 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 21 at City Hall Commission Chambers. The primary topic to be addressed will be traffic impacts on the city, residents, buildings and businesses caused by increased truck traffic to the port. The public is invited to participate.
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.