Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 2, 2017 – 3:25 p.m.
After a series of starts, stops, sidesteps, and missteps, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) appears more or less on track to move forward with a waterfront redevelopment plan approved by several committees and two previous commissions going back in recent history as far as 2012. During a discussion at the end of their August 1, 2017 Regular Meeting, commissioners seemed of a mind to drop back and punt on a master plan for the downtown area to instead focus on two areas: the marina and the elusive plan for a waterfront park.
Commissioners will review the last formally adopted park plan during their September 19, 2017 Regular Meeting after city staff completes a review to determine what, if anything, has changed in the intervening years that might require adjustments or “tweaks.” The consensus among commissioners was that their review would not get into the weeds of approving specific design elements but would concentrate on the impact of new developments, such as the purchase of the Vuturo property and the pending application to move the navigation channel west of its current location.
Commissioner Roy Smith allowed that he has never even seen the most recently approved design.
Other factors that may impact the existing design are related to infrastructure, such as the subsidence of the underpinnings of Parking Lot B, sea level rise implications, the move of the marina to the north, the lingering question over the future of the boat ramp, and traffic impact from the opening of the Alachua rail crossing, which appears to be on the verge of approval by the railroad and FDOT.
The proposed waterfront redevelopment scope had been placed on the agenda for the August 1, 2017 FBCC meeting as a discussion item only, meaning no formal action could be taken. Following the FBCC’s decision not to employ a consultant to develop a downtown master plan, this discussion was intended to define a scope for another RFQ/RFP or to reach some consensus on a way forward.
In introducing the topic Mayor Robin Lentz spoke to the 25 years of plans and data that the city already has on the waterfront. She explained that her reluctance to pull together another citizens group to look at the waterfront comes from past unsuccessful efforts in this regard. She suggested that perhaps Main Street Fernandina could undertake a review of past plans and present their recommendations to the city. While she understood the benefits of a consultant’s recommendations, she asked, “What would happen if we engaged a consultant who would come back with recommendations that don’t differ from what we already have?”
Vice Mayor Kreger said that his first concern about the waterfront is the marina, and that within the last two weeks the city has applied for a permit to move the channel, which will facilitate moving the marina north to deep water. He cited the various suggestions for forming committees to move forward to consider existing plans and expressed concerns over what the termed the “Main Street Proposal,” which appeared to “reinvent the wheel” and called out various individuals to perform the task. Kreger said that he would prefer that some of the activities in that proposal be left to the city, especially grant writing.
[Note: The Main Street proposal had been developed and circulated a week ago without authorship and appeared to have been vetted by many of the same people involved in developing earlier plans. Commissioner Roy Smith, who had circulated the plan, apologized to plan author Eric Bartelt for its premature circulation. Bartelt subsequently circulated the plan to all commissioners but labeled it DRAFT.]
Commissioner Roy Smith suggested allowing the Main Street group of local citizens 90 days to review the plans as opposed to paying $250K to an outside consultant.
Commissioner Tim Poynter in referencing the Main Street Proposal, said, “This is exactly what we did for two years in 2009 and 2010. [We used local expertise] and we had an approved plan. We even started the engineering. We even borrowed money to start that project. What is different now? Do we get the same group of people together to talk about the same things again? We had engineers, architects, local business people—20 people who met for 2 years, and we approved their plan. If that’s the case, let’s just go to that plan that was approved by two previous commissions. We have $168K of engineering already done on Front Street. Alachua has been engineered to just open. This has already been done, guys. To get another ad hoc group of the same people to talk about the same stuff—that’s not the issue. Does the community want to move forward and spend the dollars?”
Poynter said that moving the marina north would change the dynamics of the waterfront. But moving ahead with another committee is just doing the same thing over again. “We’ve spent a lot of people’s time over the years working on this, and we actually have a plan, a really well vetted plan. And then we stopped it. I’m not sure what the answer is. But after two years here we sit talking about the same thing on the same piece of property with the same people who will come up with the same plan. It’s crazy.”
Commissioner John Miller agreed with Poynter. “I don’t see what’s actually changed, other than the purchase of the Vuturo property, the storm damage at the marina and the opportunity to get FEMA assistance,” he said. “Otherwise we’re right back where we started from. If we’re going to do the plan they have already come up with, let’s just do the plan. We said we were the Commission that was actually going to get this done, and then we got hit by Hurricane Matthew, so we needed a staging area to repair the marina. But as Commissioner Smith said, a lot of the equipment necessary will come in by barge. But if we are going to do that plan, there is no need to send it back to the same people to do it over again.”
Miller continued, “The danger of going to a consultant is that they come back with a plan we don’t want. And we already have a plan that multiple commissions have said they want.”
Commissioners agreed that some aspects of the plan could be tweaked, but that was considerably different than coming up with an entire new plan.
Lentz said she believed “we owe it to ourselves” to go back to the plans we have for the landside redevelopment to see if the FBCC is still comfortable with them or whether they see the need to go to an outside consultant.
Kreger said that the FBCC should just move forward with the approved plan and make adjustments as required by changing circumstances. “I think the big problem has been the inability of the Commission to move forward,” he said.
Miller said, “Hey, I’m ready to go with the existing plan. I thought there was not agreement on the scope, but if there is, let’s pull the trigger and go.”
Lentz continued to express concerns over the viability of the existing plan in light of intervening events and actions over the past few years. She wanted assurances that it can still be implemented following storm damage, move of the marina and acquisition of additional property.
Miller also raised concerns over problems relating to high tides and sea level rise. Kreger agreed that the current plan did not deal with any of that. “I don’t want to get ahead of where we’re at,” Kreger said. “There’s all sort of opportunities available with $250K of grant money that is about to open in two weeks to deal with things like sea level rise, need for a bulkhead, etc.”
At the request of Commissioner Smith, Eric Bartelt addressed the FBCC and reaffirmed the need to tweak the approved plan to incorporate the Vuturo property, among other things. “You need someone to do the tweak,” he said. “That was part of the reason for the Main Street Proposal.”
Smith moved to proceed with action on Parking Lot B, but lost on a 4-1 vote. The motion was not in order, since the item on the agenda was listed for discussion only.
City Commission candidate Medardo Monzon addressed the FBCC and informed him that in all the meetings he has held with citizens, the number one concern expressed to him is waterfront redevelopment. He also asked why, if the city had an approved plan, there had been any discussion about bringing in a consultant to develop a plan.
Lentz said that she has personally grappled with the same question over the past two years. She cited all the work that had been done locally that had never resulted in action. She explained that she had hoped that a consultant could advance the project, but the cost of a consultant was outside the city’s comfort zone. She said that she has concluded that the city has invested so much money in engineering, that she is in favor of moving forward provided that the FBCC and the city dust off the existing plans and verify them one more time.
After a half hour of discussion commissioners directed the city manager to have staff review the current plan and bring it forward for discussion. Vice Mayor Kreger asked that all the information on the existing plan be provided to the commissioners and the public well in advance of the meeting. City Manager Martin replied that as with the recent parking study, the city would pull together the material in one place on the city’s web site so that it will be easily and readily accessible.
Commissioners agreed to hear city staff present their findings at the September 19, 2017 Regular Meeting with intent to take action. Commissioners encouraged the public to contact them with their input and concerns.
The Waterfront Advisory Group (WAG) presented a conceptual plan for the waterfront in 2012. Waterfronts Advisory Group (WAG) was a committee formed, at the request of the City Commission, to make recommendations on necessary changes to the existing waterfront park conceptual plan developed in 2008.
The group consisted of one interested citizen (Eric Bartelt); two local architects (John Cotner and Jose Miranda); and one local civil engineer (Nick Gillette). After eight public meetings held between November 2011 and March 2012, the WAG presented its recommendations and revisions to the FBCC.
During a Special Meeting on March 22, 2012, by a vote of 3-2, the City Commission approved the WAG revisions to the 2008 conceptual plan and further instructed the City Manager to return with cost estimates of the various plan elements within 45 days. Commissioner Tim Poynter made the motion, which was seconded by Commissioner Charlie Corbett. Voting in favor: Corbett, Poynter and Mayor Arlene Filkoff. Voting against: Vice Mayor Jeffrey Bunch and Commissioner Sarah Pelican.
The city borrowed $1.884M at an interest rate of 2.43 percent to begin work on the project.
But in the November 2012 election, two new commissioners were elected. Ed Boner replaced Tim Poynter and Pat Gass took over Jeffrey Bunch’s seat. The majority of the new commission, chaired by Mayor Sarah Pelican, opposed public borrowing for what one commissioner deemed “wants” as opposed to “needs.” Despite pleas from Filkoff and Boner, Commissioners Corbett, Gass and Pelican voted to approve resolution 2013-23, repaying $1,476,023.86 of the unspent loan. This vote halted any progress on implementing the waterfront plan.
Parking concerns had played a role in the reluctance of some commissioners to support the 2012 plan. In order to address those concerns and reignite interest in moving forward, WAG member Eric Bartelt in 2014 proposed a revision to the plan that would preserve more waterfront parking. Although the plan was well received by commissioners, there was no action to move forward.
With yet another election cycle, the political will of the FBCC to tackle waterfront issues appeared to return. During a Special Meeting held on March 25, 2015, Commissioner Tim Poynter moved and Commissioner Robin Lentz seconded a motion to move forward with Parking Lot B as part of the waterfront master plan. This motion passed unanimously. Other commissioners supporting this motion included Johnny Miller, Pat Gass and Mayor Ed Boner.
But once again the efforts bogged down for a variety of reasons: uncertainty over the opening of the Alachua crossing; potential move of the marina to the north on property purchased by the city; public parking concerns; Hurricane Matthew impacts on the marina.
Another set of commissioners—Lentz, Poynter and Miller had been joined by Len Kreger and Roy Smith—looked at the obstacles and decided that the waterfront issues were part of the larger need for a plan for the entire downtown, to include traffic flow and parking between 8th Street and the waterfront. There were also concerns expressed that perhaps a fresh look at existing plans by outside professionals, who had no pride of authorship in the existing plans, might be warranted.
Following direction from the FBCC, City Manager Dale Martin—the third city manager to confront this project—advertised for professional consultants to help the city formulate a Master Plan for Downtown Fernandina Beach. This effort ultimately failed, when commissioners realized the cost of such an exercise.