By Chip Ross
November 15, 2019
Sometimes well-meaning people get caught up in the moment and find themselves on a path they really didn’t mean to go down. The path to the creation of the Simmons Road Park began with a $200,000 matching grant opportunity in search of a modest, ADA compliant, nature-friendly community park to serve City residents in the southern part of the City. The proposed concept was to include a small parking area, restrooms, a picnic pavilion, a small nature-oriented play area and a short walking path. Unfortunately, the grant funding never happened. Since impact fees would now completely fund the park, the playground quietly increased substantially in size and a large pavilion was added. In the end, the park (on environmentally sensitive land) quietly morphed into a project which will require the removal of over 90 trees and approximately an acre of wildlife habitat. Rather than attempt to keep a natural setting, an architect was enlisted to design the park’s “nature trail” rather than a naturalist. And since several significant issues were ignored in the development of the park’s design, a bitter, divisive social media “war” erupted pitting the ADA compliant playground advocates against advocates of preserving environmentally sensitive lands.
I originally voted to fund this park. However, because of information that has become available, I believe It is time to hit the pause button and consider the following issues:
Recently, by a unanimous vote, the City Commissioners voted to increase taxes to fund buying environmentally sensitive lands – conservation land. At the Commission’s 2019 January visioning session, the commissioners unanimously directed the City manager to prepare a comprehensive conservation plan that “protects all environmentally sensitive lands within the City”. In an email, the City Attorney confirmed that the 6.2 acres of the proposed parkland was environmentally sensitive land. Engineering drawings submitted to the City’s Technical Review Committee for construction approval, show the removal of more than 90 trees and at least an acre of wildlife habitat. No mitigation plan or tree planting plan was submitted. As in the cases of Amelia Bluff, the Lime Street Apartment complex, and the YMCA open space, the City Commission will again allow a significant amount of environmentally sensitive land to be developed. Once again our Commissioners will talk the conservation land talk, but not walk it. If Commissioners are going to request a tax increase to fund a bond debt to preserve land, then they should be committed to preserving land.
In conducting a search of how the City acquired the park’s property, it was discovered that it actually belonged to the Golf Course Enterprise Fund. The fund purchased this property for approximately $155,000 in 1996 and borrowed the money to make the purchase. The City golf course is frequently criticized for not being profitable and not being able to pay its debt and cover its expenses. Without paying the Golf Enterprise Fund for the use of this land in perpetuity, the City would be improperly using City Golf Course Fund assets and monies.
Within a half mile radius of the proposed park there are 657 houses. Only 18% of those houses are in the City, the other 82% are in the County. Yet the City is paying 100% of the cost of construction and the upkeep of the proposed facility. The County does not give the City any money to build, maintain, or replace our many recreational facilities. Often these facilities are used by County residents at no cost. If this project moves forward, shouldn’t the County contribute at least 80% to the project and to the ongoing upkeep?
The City’s Comprehensive Plan was weaponized by opposing sides. Those advocating preserving the land cite the sections limiting the uses and preserving environmentally sensitive land. Those advocating children’s playgrounds in the southern part of the City cite sections that neighborhood parks should be created in the “underserved” southern part of the City. As the City Attorney has opined; “the Comprehensive Plan is not a bright-line, strict interpretation document with no fluidity or room for interpretation.” The translation? With the same set of facts, if you pick and choose carefully, you can get the Comprehensive Plan to say anything.
There is NO truth in the statement that the land will someday be sold to developers for housing if the Commissioners and Parks and Recreation Committee members don’t vote for this project. The City CANNOT sell or lease Recreation land without putting the question up for a balloted referendum vote. In addition, I have asked the City attorney to give an opinion on how the City Commission can put a “no development easement” on all City owned recreation and conservation land in perpetuity.
To the best of my knowledge, the current final proposed park plan was submitted to the City’s Technical Committee for construction by a local architect and the Park Director BEFORE it was given to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee for review. No naturalist or other experts in nature trails were consulted, and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee received the final engineering drawings at one meeting without being given the plan to review prior to the meeting. The committee was given no opportunity to modify the plan. And possible alternative sites for both the playground and nature trail were dismissed without any investigation or discussion.
Access to recreational facilities by citizens with disabilities is both legally required and should be rightfully given. The current parks master plan states “public/private partnerships have already proven to be successful in Fernandina Beach. The Pirates Playground, created as a partnership between the City and 8 Flags Playscapes, Inc., has been extremely popular and is a great example of a partnership. 8 Flags Playscapes, Inc. is a community non-profit that started specifically to create a playground for children of all abilities. Their mission has expanded to enhancement of the community through the development of recreational environments that are universally accessible to all.” In a private meeting at his office, the architect who designed the currently proposed Simmons Road park assured me that 8 Flags Playscapes would work with the City no matter where any proposed parks were built. Unfortunately, the same architect then informed the Parks and Recreation Committee that 8 Flags Playscapes WOULD NOT consider another location.
Why will over 90 trees be removed for this park? For every 1000 square feet of active park use [playground, pavilion, restroom, etc.] one parking space must be provided. The size of the parking lot is driven by the size of the playground and other amenities. When the threshold of 9,000 square feet of ground disturbance is reached, the St. Johns River Water Management agency requires stormwater management. The currently planned disturbance exceeds 28,000 square feet, which creates the need for large storm water dry retention ponds. An ADA accessible nature trail a half mile in length alone would trigger the requirements for storm water management.
The Parks and Recreation Master Plan states: “many of the City’s parks appear tired and dated and are need of capital improvements and facility upgrades.” There are presently NINE public playgrounds in the City. On Veterans day I toured them all. The three playgrounds on Nassau County School Board property were gated and inaccessible. All City playgrounds were open where I also checked the associated restrooms. One restroom was locked, and the rest were hygienically challenged. The park complaints that I have received most frequently concern our public restrooms. They are either locked or not clean. The question needs to be addressed as to why we are building more recreational facilities if the City is unwilling or unable to maintain its current playgrounds, parks and restrooms?
Finally, all five current City Commissioners have vociferously and repeatedly stated that one of their top two priorities is a waterfront park [the other being land conservation]. What the commission has been largely silent about is how the City is going to pay for the waterfront park. I have always assumed that a large portion of the funding would come from the Parks and Recreation Impact Fee Fund. In the next few years impact fees will likely drop off significantly due to the City reaching its build out limit. If we continue to deplete the fund with $400,000 projects that are not a priority, there will be no funds to build a waterfront park with impact fees.
If we all hit the pause button to reassess the situation, the City may find that there are other less costly paths to follow that provide MORE opportunities for ADA compliant recreational facilities than just a single park. And we may find that the loss of 90 trees and the destruction of environmentally sensitive land is unnecessary.
The matter will be discussed at the 19 November 2019 City Commission meeting where citizens may appear to give their voice to this discussion. In the meantime, I am available at [email protected] if you wish to voice your questions or concerns.