Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
Tick tock … tick tock. The deadline for beginning work on the Fernandina Beach Municipal Golf Course greens is fast approaching if improvements are to be seen this year. But while city staff and Billy Casper Golf are in agreement on which trees need to be removed or trimmed to improve the greens, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) is not of one mind on the value of tree removal vs. golf course greens improvement. About 40 interested members of the public attended an hour-long FBCC Special Meeting called on March 4, 2015 to discuss tree removal and mitigation at the golf course. The FBCC deferred action until commissioners could weigh public comments. City Manager Joe Gerrity cautioned that permits for tree removal were “ready to go” and that work must begin no later than May 1, if greens improvements are to be seen this year. Mayor Ed Boner also recognized former members of the former Golf Course Advisory Committee (GCAB) at the FBCC regular meeting.
Gerrity began the discussion by recapping the city’s efforts to protect trees as far back as 2001, when the city adopted a tree protection ordinance. He reminded commissioners and the audience that this measure had been a contentious issue, opposed by many builders and property rights advocates and debated by two commissions before approval. It was the first tree ordinance in Nassau County, and it took the county another 12 years to pass a tree ordinance. He reminded the audience that it is the FBCC’s job to set policy and the staff’s responsibility to implement that policy. He said that the purpose of the meeting was to inform the public about city plans in an interest of full transparency.
Senior City Planner Kelly Gibson delivered a slide presentation to detail the tree problems currently hindering the improvement of the greens on the city golf course, concentrating on the southern half of the greens. The total estimated cost of the renovations to the south course greens is $60,000. Without work to prune tree roots and canopies or remove other trees that are either a hazard or obstruct play, a return on such an investment might be questionable.
Gibson cited a 2007 USGA Turf Advisory Service Report that identified tree shade as “a major problem situation” at the city course. The report revealed a lack of adequate sunlight to support healthy Bermuda grass growth as well as identifying restricted air circulation and tree feeder root encroachments on the greens. She reported that the “acceptable minimum” sunlight for healthy greens is 4 hours under ideal circumstances. Traffic, surface drainage and pinnability of the area reduce this time.
In 2013 the USGA followed up the 2007 report, which was not acted upon, with an onsite report that again identified the lack of sunlight and heavy tree shade as significant problems, the competition of tree feeder roots with the greens for nutrients and soil, and the continued deterioration of physical and performance characteristics of the putting greens, recommending:
- Tree removal and canopy thinning
- Tree root pruning program in primary play areas
- Tee and bunker renovation
- Reconstruction of putting greens
- Conversion to “Celebration” Bermuda grass cultivar for fairways
- Increased cart path coverage.
In consultation with Billy Casper Golf and local arborist Early McCall, the city decided to move forward with recommendations and remove 42 trees from the south, west and north courses. Of those, 4 trees are dead, dying or high risk threat to the course; 12 trees are hazardous to the greens; and 26 trees are in healthy condition but present shade and/or root intrusion problems. Gibson presented a series of slides with photos of specific tree problems.
Gibson explained that according to the city’s tree ordinance, the removal would require the city to plant 42 trees with a minimum size of 4” diameter as mitigation for the removal. Half may be paid into the Tree Fund for replacement throughout the city. The specific replacement plan has yet to be provided.
Both Gibson and Gerrity stressed that the problem is as big as it is today due to deferred maintenance.
Buddy Tate, Billy Casper Golf’s greens keeper, addressed questions and concerns raised by the commissioners. He said that root pruning was not a satisfactory means to save many of the trees because such action would weaken the trees and create additional hazards. He added that most of the trees identified for pruning and/or removal were live oaks, aged 20 to 120 years old. Gerrity reminded commissioners that originally 65-70 trees had been identified for removal, but that the city upon closer investigation had reduced the number to 42. Commissioner Charlie Corbett queried Tate on specific tree issues on the plan. Tate was familiar with each instance and said, “We don’t want to remove a tree if we don’t have to.”
Gerrity also reminded commissioners that for reasons of cost, the city is only proposing to address concerns on the south course at this time.
Mayor Ed Boner opened the meeting to public comment and 7 people, only 3 of whom lived in the city, spoke. Most of the speakers opposed tree removal or advocated a phased approach whereby pruning canopies and roots would be done as a first step to see if tree removal could be avoided. Mike Spicer, a member of the Tree Conservancy, suggested a different approach. He said that in the city’s efforts to turn the golf course around, it should try a new approach. Instead of cutting trees, the city should acknowledge that it will never be able to compete with the upscale courses on Amelia Island and instead market the city course as part of ecotourism. He suggested that the city plant native species as opposed to turf and market the course as “an eco-conscious golf course.” Such a change in approach, he believed, would both increase popularity and profitability of the course. The audience reacted warmly to his suggestion.
Phil Scanlan, an active local environmentalist, took a pragmatic approach to the city’s plan. He said that the goal in removing trees should be to have an overall net balance. In this case the city was proposing to replace 42 trees with 42 newly planted trees. He agreed that the city needs a healthy, viable golf course and that to do that the greens need to be improved. He concluded by saying he was leaving the meeting happy and commended the city on doing a good job of balancing tree concerns and golf course needs.
Vice Mayor Sarah Pelican reiterated Gerrity’s initial comments on the problems caused by deferred golf course maintenance and said that the city is now prepared to act. But Commissioner Pat Gass said that she appreciated Spicer’s idea that the city must think differently about the golf course. Commissioner Johnny Miller thanked the audience for input and said that the suggestion about marketing the course as eco-friendly should be considered. City Manager Gerrity said that the city would take another pass through the list of trees identified for removal but reminded commissioners that the May 1 deadline for action this year is fast approaching. He said that he would schedule another special meeting for a decision.
Gass suggested that the city should start by removing the dead or hazardous trees and proceed with trimming, all of which could be done before removals were tackled. Miller added that a tree that is 100 years old surely deserves a couple more months before a decision is made to take it down.
The special meeting adjourned at 6:00 p.m. However, during commissioner remarks at the regular meeting that followed, Vice Mayor Pelican harkened back to the golf course issue. “Phil Scanlan summed it up well,” she said. “We have a good plan with a net neutrality [on tree loss]. This problem was discussed in 2007, but nothing was done. It rests with us to take action. We can’t expect Billy Casper Golf to produce a good course if we don’t act. I don’t want to be one of those who sat here and didn’t do anything.” She urged the other commissioners to weigh all the considerations in approaching their decision at the next special meeting.
Mayor Ed Boner began the FBCC’s regular meeting following the special meeting by reading a proclamation of appreciation recognizing the volunteer efforts of members of the city’s Golf Course Advisory Board. The board was established 34 years ago but was sunset earlier this year when the FBCC determined that in light of recent changes to the city’s approach in course management, the board’s mission was no longer valid. There was no one in attendance to receive the proclamation but Mayor Boner read it into the record and asked that copies be sent to each named individual: Doug Bailey, chair; Gary Farnsworth, Carol Minogue, Bruce Smyk, Jane Paige, Michael Hentigan, and James Powers. Boner thanked the individuals for their time. He said, “Volunteer time means a lot to us.”
The Golf Course Advisory Board has been replaced by the Greens and Oversight Committee (Resolution 2014-10). Interested citizens may apply for membership on this committee by downloading an application from the city’s website or contacting the City Clerk’s office, (904) 310-3115. Commissioner Charlie Corbett is the commissioner-liaison to this committee.
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.
March 5, 2014 2:07 p.m.