Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
September 2, 2015 3:04 p.m.
Many citizens and members of the Amelia Island Tree Conservancy attended the September 1, 2015 Regular Meeting of the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) to express concerns over the planned unit development (PUD) proposed for a 7.41 acre tract of land on Citrona Drive between unimproved Hickory and Indigo Streets. Discussion lasted an hour and a half and covered a wide range of topics including tree removal, the PUD’s impact on Egans Creek, soil testing for possible contamination from earlier uses, impact on traffic load on Citrona Drive, lot coverage by impervious surfaces, and type of housing to be built.
The applicant, Robinson Creek 34, LLC, sought a small-scale future land use map change and zoning map change in order to develop a single-family detached subdivision to be known as Shell Cove. The project will provide approximately 48 single-family homes while incorporating open space. The PUD overlay will allow the applicant to accommodate smaller building sizes and have flexible setbacks in order to preserve more trees.
Following a detailed presentation by the applicant, staff and commission comments and considerable public input, the FBCC on first reading unanimously supported changing the Future Land Use assignment of Medium Density Residential to the parcel (Ordinance 2015-22) and changing the Zoning Map with the PUD Overlay (Ordinance 2015-23) for the parcel.
These actions were previously reviewed and recommended by the city’s Planning Advisory Board during its August 12, 2015 meeting on a 5-2 vote.
Community Development Director Adrienne Burke began the presentation by summarizing her staff report. She said that the property is currently zoned R-1, low density residential. The applicant was requesting that the uplands portion of the property be rezoned to medium density residential (R-2) and the remainder of the land be rezoned from R-1 to Conservation. The change would mean that the total number of homes that could be built on the parcel would increase from 36 to 48.
Nick Gillette, the engineer representing the developer explained in some detail what types of testing had been completed to assure the buildability of the parcel. He said that 45 subsurface test sites had been bored to determine if there was subsoil contamination. Because of persistent reports of a previous dumpsite on the property near the marsh, more of the bores had been concentrated on the pond side. The tests revealed that the water quality around the site was equal to or better than drinking water standards.
Gillette said that in using FDOT standards, the developer had determined that even if the entire site were built out and occupied, traffic capacity (concurrency) on Citrona Drive would be at less than 50 percent.
He explained that the proposed development pattern stays out of the wetlands and that 33 percent of the parcel would remain open space.
While not required, the developer conducted a tree survey of the entire parcel. Building smaller houses in smaller footprints will save more than 2,000 inches of trees. The developer’s intent in requesting a PUD overlay was to be able to site houses in such a way to be able to save the most trees.
Jay Mock, developer of the proposed project, said that as a native Fernandinian, he looked upon this parcel as an opportunity to do something different than standard tract housing. He emphasized that the presence of trees is a plus in selling homes, because people want to live in shaded areas. He explained that he saw this project as filling a void in the $250-325K range of housing, making the properties more affordable to first time buyers, young families, and empty nesters. He said that currently there are only 12 properties for sale in this range in the city.
In response to comments from local Greenway advocate John Carr regarding the previous use of the property as a dump, Gillette said that he believed that the dump’s location was near, but not on the specific property in question. The rumors of a Rayonier paint shop said to have been located on the parcel could not be substantiated or borne out by soil tests.
Jennifer Schriver, candidate for City Commission Group 5, expressed concerns about impervious surfaces created by use of concrete for roads and sidewalks. She also did not like the fact that the street into the subdivision would only be one way. She dismissed the attraction of such development to young families (schools are just across Citrona) by citing the school bus network used throughout the city. She also objected to what she termed as the suburban look of the housing proposed. She said, “The beauty of Fernandina is what we don’t have. Just because you can [build it], doesn’t mean you should.”
Environmental activist Julie Ferreira said, “I think we all know that the land will be developed. But how?” She asked for an exact tree survey, showing the size of every tree. She expressed fears about “handshake deals” that “go down the tubes” after development starts. She asked that the action be put on hold until “verifiable information” could be provided. Ferreira cited recent actions of the Amelia Tree Conservancy to form an island wide Tree Commission with a paid arborist. She suggested that such a committee could work with developers, local government and concerned citizens to work on code changes to manage the urban forest tree canopy before it disappears.
Roy Smith, candidate for City Commission Group 5, said that he believes the city has good tree policies. He said that such policies must be balanced with the rights of property owners. He acknowledged that tree preservation is a big topic in the city and that it will probably continue to be such. But he added that there is a deficit of housing for young professionals. “They should be able to live on the island, too,” he said. He reminded the commissioners that without more people to share the city’s expenses, taxes would go up more for people living here today.
Chris Occhuizzo, a member of the city’s Planning Advisory Board who voted to oppose the project, cited what he called a “Wild West atmosphere of over development.” He asked the city to impose a building moratorium. “When is enough enough?” he asked. “You folks are going to have to draw the line somewhere.”
Robert Prager, an engineering consultant by profession, stressed that he was not speaking in a paid capacity for the Amelia Tree Conservancy. He said that he would like to see more low impact development, suggesting that more value be attached to natural resources. He advocated “conservation design projects.”
Jay Mock asked Prager which scenario would preserve more trees: developing the parcel in question as R-1 where larger houses would have a bigger footprint or developing as the R-2 PUD where houses are significantly smaller. Prager did not appear comfortable answering the question with limited information.
Nick Gillette went on to say that normally there would be 2.63 acres cleared for building single story R-1 on such a parcel, but in this case only 1.65 acres will be cleared for building 2-story R-2 dwellings. In response to other questions and concerns, he replied that the subdivision street is only one way to cut down on the hard surface needed for the street. The street will be wide enough to accommodate emergency vehicles and allow for on-street parking. He said that the development would meet all applicable ADA requirements.
Commissioners praised the developer’s work to conserve trees and wetlands while trying to provide entry-level housing. Vice Mayor Miller called the plan a good example of good development. He asked Gillette and Mock to work with an arborist as their work progressed.
Commissioner Robin Lentz said that she was excited about the project, which was literally in her backyard. She said she looked forward to having more children in the neighborhood as playmates for her children. She also appreciated that the project would produce a better sidewalk for Citrona Drive.
Commissioner Tim Poynter thanked Mock and Gillette, and turned his attention to the audience. “If you want to save particular pieces of property,” he said, “you have to buy it.” He continued, “The city had an opportunity to buy this, but they didn’t. The county had an opportunity to buy the MacArthur property, and they didn’t. They didn’t have the money, and even if they did, they said they did not have the resources to maintain it. Our problem here in the city is that no one wants to spend any money. And we have to start looking at ourselves, too, as being some of the problem. … You can’t just tell property owners, ‘We like your property just like it is. You don’t get to sell it, and you maintain it for us.’ In all the meetings moving forward, I hope that is part of the conversation: how can we purchase property to preserve it.”
Both Gillette and Mock credited city staff with significant work to help bring the project along in such a way that it met their goals and preserved wetlands and green space for the city.
Both ordinances were approved by unanimous vote on first reading. Most of the audience left the meeting after the votes were taken. Although many speakers were not happy with the final outcome, they acknowledged the work that the developer had done to address many concerns.
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.