Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
December 6, 2017 1:51 p.m.
On Second Reading at their December 5, 2017 Regular Meeting, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) unanimously approved Ordinance 2017-25, a zoning change for 5.13 acres of undeveloped land located on S. 13th Street between Hickory Street and Fir Street. The development will be known as Hickory Ridge.
Simmons 9, LLC requested the zoning change from Medium Density Residential (R-2) to Planned Unit Development Overlay to provide flexibility from minimum site design standards and allow for increased open space areas and multiple housing types (three duplex units and thirty-five single family detached homes) within a subdivision totaling forty-one residential dwelling units in a “garden type” design. The PUD will reduce setbacks, reduce minimum lot width, and increase lot coverage on individual housing sites in order to provide additional open space, maximize preservation of trees and to increase buffering between the subdivision and the adjoining developed homes sites fronting on S. 14th Street.
Both city staff and the Planning Advisory Board (PAB) recommended approval of this change, which the FBCC also approved on First Reading on November 8 [See: https://fernandinaobserver.com/2017/11/10/hickory-ridge-pud-to-address-affordable-housing-needs/].
During the Public Hearing prior to the FBCC’s vote, commissioners heard from Margaret Kirkland of the Amelia Tree Conservancy, Robert Weintraub, Julie Ferreira, and Diana Herman. All speakers voiced concerns about tree removal and/or development.
Kirkland, who had provided commissioners with a letter addressing concerns, said that she appreciated the developer’s efforts to integrate concerns of the neighborhood in his plans. She expressed concerns for the preservation of not only the existing tree canopy, but the under canopy trees which in some cases are live oak, citing the benefits of trees in cleansing the air of pollutants and mitigating stormwater.
Nick Gillette, an engineer representing the project, addressed many of Kirkland’s concerns. He said that the plans call for an 1100-square foot footprint for a single-family house. The developer is setting aside 2 acres of land for preservation and tree retention. In dealing with stormwater issues, Gillette said that the development would also address problems of the neighbors, outside the project. “It’s rare that you see 40 percent of a site set aside for preservation,” Gillette said. “We’re pretty proud of that. [What is before you] is not Plan 1; it is Plan 17B. We lost a pint of blood to get to this point, and we appreciate your consideration.”
Weintraub claimed that this proposed action was “an out of scale development in the wrong place that compromises the character of our neighborhoods.” He expressed his opinion that there is a lack of planning for siting affordable housing, which he assumes, is needed. “That’s just a guess,” he said, citing the lack of city housing survey. He suggested that the city take the lead in identifying other areas for such development, “not these beautiful, pristine areas.” He claimed that the proposal would “take away a valuable community asset and give it to a wealthy developer.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger directed remarks to Weintraub. “We certainly know we need affordable housing.” He went on to explain HUD standards for determining what is “affordable housing” for a community. “I think this project is making an effort to move forward to do what they can. It’s only 41 units. We can’t get a lot there, but it’s a start.”
In response to a question from Commissioner John Miller, Planning Manager Kelly Gibson described the surrounding neighborhood as consisting of single family and duplex housing. She said that the neighborhood was undergoing a variety of changes from renovation to demolition, and that prices of properties varied accordingly. Miller reminded commissioners that many members of the surrounding community had attended the PAB meeting. “Everyone who came to the podium was excited about the project. There was no negative feedback about this project going in.”
Julie Ferreira expressed fears that the development would not live up to expectations for affordable housing, citing Shell Cove as an example of what she believed were unfulfilled expectations, since some houses in that development are now selling for over $400K, when the FBCC had been told that houses would be sold for under $300K. She expressed concerns that the environment was being sacrificed for unfulfilled promises regarding a trade off for affordable housing.
Kreger provided a detailed discussion on the HUD categories for affordable housing. For a detailed discussion of this topic see https://fernandinaobserver.com/2017/04/17/the-many-facets-of-affordable-housing/.
Mayor Robin Lentz shared some of Ferreira’s concerns, but indicated that the market will dictate home prices. While there were houses sold for lower prices in the Shell Cove development, she said that when buyers choose to add enhancements, prices rise. Nick Gillette agreed. He said, “You can still buy a house in Shell Cove for under $300K.” The Hickory Ridge PUD has a smaller footprint, he said, which should limit the price of the unit. “But you can’t tell someone that they can’t put the stove they want in their house,” he added. “There are certain upgrades they can do.”
Diana Herman also raised concerns over the Shell Cove development.
Commissioner Tim Poynter said that the only way for the city to address concerns that prices be firmly fixed in perpetuity would be for the city to own and manage the development. “You are not going to get a private developer to agree to be held to the city’s demands. It’s not going to happen. The reason HUD housing is successful is that they buy the property, build it and manage it. That is subsidized housing, not affordable housing.”
Miller questioned Gillette about the number of trees removed in developing Shell Cove. Gillette said that about twice than required number had been saved, and that every single lot complied with the city’s Tree Ordinance.
With respect to concerns that the 2 acres of conservation land proposed for the Hickory Ridge development could be developed in the future, Gillette reminded commissioners and the audience that any move in that direction would need approval of the homeowners association in addition to that of the city.
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.