Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
October 20, 2016 4:15 p.m.
The Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) during its October 18, 2016 Regular Meeting, approved on First Reading and somewhat reluctantly four ordinances that open the way for a Planned Unit Development on 24 acres of land located on the southwest corner of 14th and Lime Streets. The Ordinances were approved on a 4-1 vote, with Mayor John Miller in opposition. Controversy has dogged the development for two years because of environmental concerns over filling wetlands and changing density requirements.
While some citizens strongly opposed development because it would require wetlands to be filled snd therefore run afoul of city policy opposing such action, others claimed that the wetlands were low-grade, currently giving rise to stagnant water and mosquito breeding grounds. The potential developer planned to build 260 units on the property, with monthly rents for the smaller units starting at $1,000, thereby meeting longstanding community demands for affordable, moderate income housing on the island.
As a result of commission action, initial approval has been given for the following actions:
- Annexing into the city the portion of the property (9.26 acres) located in Nassau County;
- Vacation of the S. 12th Street unopened public right-of-way totaling approximately 865 linear feet between Lime Street and Nectarine Street;
- Approving the Large Scale Future Land Use Map (FLUM) Amendments that would result in approximately 22.4 acres as High Density Residential (HDR) and 2.0 acres as General Commercial (GC);
- Approving zoning map changes that would result in approximately 22.2 acres as High Density Residential (R-3) and 2.0 acres as General Commercial (C-2) and a PUD Overlay for the entire 24.2 Acres.
The ordinances will require a Second Reading and public hearing before they can be given final approval.
The subject property is currently undeveloped. What has made the property unique is that it lay partially in the City of Fernandina Beach and partially in unincorporated Nassau County. Each jurisdiction has different policies on filling wetlands.
As required by state law when jurisdictions share a piece of property, the matter was referred to the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) for a ruling. They approved the proposed development, supporting an earlier ruling by a special magistrate regarding jurisdictional authority.
Subsequent to the SJRWMD ruling, the developer’s agent Spurgeon Richardson offered to reconfigure the project to minimize impact on wetlands, provided that he would still be allowed to build the same number of units on the property. In order for this to happen, the developer wanted to be able to transfer the total density allowed for the parcel to the uplands portion of the property.
During previous public meetings many citizens expressed outrage over what appeared to be the city’s willingness to violate its own policy on filling wetlands to appease a developer’s desire to maximize allowable density under current rules. They maintained that even if his request was denied, he could still develop the property.
The developer countered by saying that since the SJRWMD had already approved a plan allowing him to fill what they regarded as low-grade wetlands, he could just proceed with that plan. However, by offering his alternative plan, he was trying to be sympathetic to the desires of the community.
While many citizens held strong opinions that the city should be willing to risk a lawsuit and ignore the SJRWMD determination, not everyone agreed. The odds of the city’s prevailing in such a lawsuit were not high, given the two previous independent rulings.
Mayor John Miller expressed confusion over the proposed ordinances, asking if it was not the case that the city’s policy did not permit filling wetlands. Commissioners, the City Attorney and City staff recapped events for Miller’s benefit. Even after extensive discussion over the legal and other ramifications of the city’s failure to approve the items before them, Miller said he could not approve actions that violated the city’s policy against filling wetlands.
Commissioner Len Kreger also raised the possibility of the developer paying the city for the vacated portion of S. 12th Street between Lime and Nectarine Streets. Both City Attorney Tammi Bach and the developer’s legal counsel Clinch Kavanaugh cited both state law and local precedence for not imposing a cost for a vacated right-of-way. In such case, the right-of-way is usually treated like an easement and the land reverts to the adjoining property owner(s).
With Miller dissenting, the four ordinances passed on First Reading.
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.