Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 18, 2015 7:00 p.m.
You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist. Yet that appears exactly to characterize today’s relationship between the Ocean Highway and Port Authority and the residents of Fernandina Beach and Amelia Island. Can we restore a productive, or at least a neutral relationship, between the Port and the City? Or will it take yet another costly lawsuit to determine which, if any party, benefits from the current adversarial relationship?
For as long as I’ve resided in the city, the Port has been a sleeping giant. Those of us familiar with the charter that established the Port Authority have always known that the elected body possessed tremendous powers that for the most part, were kept at bay by port commissioners who understood that the postage stamp-sized Port of Fernandina had been plunked into an established small city where a historic residential district and wetlands limited expansion.
The relationship between the city and the port has not been all flowers and light by any means. Port neighbors have groused about noise and truck traffic, sometimes more loudly than others. Conspiracy theories have surfaced over the years regarding plans to expand the port into the historic district and/or to transform residential areas into port parking lots. These complaints have sometimes risen to the level of action, and sometimes not. But for the most part, those of us who live in the North Side Historic District have learned to live with the port, even though our neighbor often tries our patience.
If not peace, there was at least a truce in place until summer of 2014, when a hot conflict erupted over what was termed a Draft Master Plan for the future of the Port of Fernandina. This document and the ensuing controversies over its contents have been well covered in the Fernandina Observer over the last six plus months. The problems with the plan, from the point of view of local citizens, have been aired during multiple meetings of the City’s Planning Advisory Board and its subcommittee, the City Commission, the Port Authority, and a joint City-Port Authority meeting. The upshot of all the meetings has apparently been a Port Authority decision to reassert its powers and rights under its charter and send a clear message to local residents, “If you don’t like it, lump it.”
How did things reach this point? And more importantly, why did they need to do so? Can the testosterone-laden atmosphere be cleansed so that reasonable people can meet and discuss solutions to problems in a business-like setting? Or are we doomed to view the Port-City conflict as yet another Super Bowl clash of titans, where one side must lose for the other side to win, while the lawyers race one another to the bank to deposit their hefty fees?
Although I am not happy with the manner in which the Port Authority has handled this issue so far, I will not engage in the personal attacks and trash talking that has allegedly dominated social media regarding individual commissioners. Port Commissioners are elected to do a job, and like other elected officials, face daily problems involving conflicting interests, budgets and changing to meet future needs. Several years ago the Port Authority was condemned for tearing down two derelict houses in the historic district with intent to transform the land into parking lots. As the person charged to investigate this matter, I learned that the port purchased the lots in question above board and sought demolition permits from the city. The city, without determining whether or not the properties were in the historic district, granted the permits and the houses were demolished. This was not the fault of the Port Authority, but that of the city. To show good faith and demonstrate that they had not tried to pull a fast one, the port contributed $5,000 to a new city fund: the Historic District Trust Fund. Robert Mearns, city manager at the time, matched the contribution. The Port’s actions, in this case, were not meant to show hostility toward the city or its historic district residents.
But fast-forward to 2014 and a set of different port commissioners facing difficult business challenges for survival of the port in a new era. Conciliation and co-existence seem to have been replaced by confrontation and conflict. Is it any wonder that local residents are up in arms over language in a so-called master plan that allows for potential intensification of industrialization in that pocket port, increased handling of hazardous materials, more truck traffic and even possibly a bridge to Georgia?
While many port commissioners would express outrage at what they term as a lack of respect from our island community that has been directed at them personally and professionally over this plan, I wish they would try for a moment to see the situation from the people’s perspective. Respect is a two-way street, and the Port Authority’s failure to identify residents as a stakeholder in the new plan was the first sign of disrespect for those of us who live here.
Once problems surfaced, the Port Authority could have apologized and reopened the plan for public discussion. But their answer was this: All our meetings were open to the public and no one came. Never mind that the plan was prepared by a consultant who seemed to be able to meet with other stakeholders outside the framework of a Port Authority meeting. Or that the Port Authority meetings are held in Yulee and that the Port’s website is not exactly a treasure trove of information to help citizens understand what is transpiring.
Then followed discussions on the plan itself, which citizens were told, was not really a plan, but a research document. Both Port Commissioners and the consultant who compiled the non-plan readily acknowledged that certain activities enumerated in the document would not, could not be conducted at our port. But for unfathomable reasons, even when the port commissioners agreed with the people, they refused to remove the elements from the non-plan, although they did footnote some graphics.
During the course of these tense, frustrating meetings other concerns arose about erroneously calculated traffic levels, shipping of coal and petroleum products into a port that had been squeezed into a residential area, and the potential for creating a port for a cruise ship under the authority of the Port of Fernandina. Two local citizens, exercising their right to propose amendments to the city’s land development code, made application to limit shipping storage and handling of certain hazardous materials, citing danger to the surrounding neighborhood. They also requested that the city restrict cruise ship traffic to ships handling no more than 250 passengers.
This appeared to be the final straw for the Port Authority. Withdrawing any real or perceived olive branches previously dangled to invite compromise, the Port Authority apparently decided that the best defense is a robust offense. No more nice guy. Take the velvet glove off the iron fist and let the people of Fernandina Beach understand whom they are dealing with.
So the Commissioners sent in Clyde Davis, their board attorney, to let the island boys and girls know that you don’t mess around with a government authority that has the power to take your homes by eminent domain and turn your neighborhood into a coal yard, if it so chooses. The message, which came across loud and clear, was of a patronizing nature: “Not that we plan to do this of course, but we have every power and right to do so.” I think it is safe to say that Dale Carnegie would not have endorsed this course of action.
Now the Port Authority has seriously aggravated an already upset community. The conspiracy buffs are having a heyday, the recently discovered election irregularities are being cited as further examples of the Port Authority’s duplicity, and some politicians, who just delight in poking hornets’ nests, are even suggesting that opponents to the port’s non-plan are wealthy elitists who want to shut down the port and throw working stiffs out on the streets. Really? Really? Can we all just take a breath and return to a world of rational thought?
While it seemed that the parties had independently decided to do just that, word has now surfaced that other than the legal poker game underway between the port’s and the city’s attorneys, at least one Port Commissioner is meeting with many key players to promote the building of a cruise ship terminal that would serve ships that carry not 250 but 2500 passengers at the site of the old pogey plant.
You may recall that several years ago there was a major uproar over plans to build a marine dry-dock at that site. The land in question is not located in the city, but remains in Nassau County, meaning that other than roads, the city would have little say over the building of such a facility. Ships would dock in an aquatic preserve, from which passengers would presumably be bused back and forth to the facility from more remote parking areas. Any of you who have ever visited those quaint little Caribbean Islands know how large cruise ships affect the quality of island life.
The question remains for all of us: do we, the citizens and taxpayers, have any say in rejecting or modifying port plans? It would seem from the Port’s perspective we do not. And in the final analysis, it boils down to which argument prevails: quality of life and property values for the residents or business growth for the port.
It remains my hope that we can reason with the Port Authority on its non-plan and work together to promote common, or at least, non-conflict laden goals. Each side needs to understand the concerns of the other to develop a productive working relationship. Elected officials who strut like Mick Jagger or threaten like the Godfather do incredible damage not only to their own standing among the electorate but to the very institutions they represent.
Let’s send someone down to Staples to buy one of those RESET buttons and begin anew. If all of us can check our egos at the door, dial down the testosterone, and stop demonizing people with differing points of view, maybe we can make progress.
And if not, at least we can say we tried before we turn it over to the lawyers.
A bend in the road is not the end of the road… unless you fail to make the turn.
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.