Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
April 22, 2019 9:11 p.m.
American Beach has Na-Na, the giant sand dune named by the late Beach Lady MaVynee Betsch. The North Side Historic District now has Mag-Mag, a magnificent magnolia tree named by North 6th Street homeowners Carol and Mike Hays. Mag-Mag lives and thrives on St. Michael’s property on North 5th Street in Fernandina Beach.
Planted in the 1960’s, Mag-Mag has grown to a diameter of 38 inches with a canopy spread of 55 feet, providing welcome shade to its North 6th Street neighbors.
But as plans for expanding the North 5th Street campus of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church and Parish have progressed, neighbors have expressed concerns that Mag-Mag might become a casualty in the church’s quest to provide needed parking for its worshippers.
Architect Jose Miranda updated the city’s Historic District Council (HDC) on April 18, 2019, on changes the church has made at the HDC’s request to address the size and massing of the proposed new parish office building. It has been reduced to 5100 square feet with a planned relocation of the garage and gift shop. Miranda noted that discussions continue with the city regarding the need to provide adequate parking.
Mike Hays, who lives on North 6th Street directly behind church property addressed the HDC following Miranda’s update and presented the HDC with a drawing of the property in question to include the four adjoining neighbors’ lots along the east side of the proposed development. Hays also drew in the canopy of the magnolia tree, which Hays asserted was wider than his 50 foot lot. He said that the canopy is so large that from mid afternoon to sunset it completely shades his yard. “It’s an awesome thing,” Hays said. “We call it ‘Mag-Mag’ for ‘Magnificent Magnolia.’”
Hays said that while he appreciated the intentions to preserve the tree that Miranda expressed on behalf of the church, he and his neighbors wanted to make sure that the HDC fully understood how important that particular tree is to their neighborhood.
He said that given the tree’s location at the very back corner of the proposed parking lot, any parking spaces that would be gained by removing the tree would rarely be used. “There are parking spaces closer to the front door of the sanctuary that would be used first,” he said. “I’ve learned over 62 years of experience that people will park as close to the front door as they can get. The spaces might be used 1-2 percent of the time; meanwhile the tree would be gone 100 percent of the time.”
“My wife Carol and I, along with our neighbors, live here 100 percent of the time; we pay taxes 100 percent of the time,” Hays said. He suggested that the HDC support a variance to reduce the number of parking spaces required. He also suggested that the city work with the church to develop a share agreement for the city parking lot at Broome & North 2nd Streets, which is underused.
HDC Chair Mike Spino asked Preservation Planned Sal Cumella to weigh in on Hays’ comments. Cumella said that it is in the interest of the church to work to save the tree, because it would reduce the number of parking spaces they would be required to provide.
HDC member Benjamin Morrison said that he concurred with Hays comments as well regarding the need to save the tree.
Jose Miranda returned to the podium to state that he also concurred. “There is more benefit for us to keep the tree and eliminate parking spaces,” he said. “We have studied at least 12 parking plans for this project, and we are about worn out. We’ve looked at valet, drive-thru, and even reducing the seating count in the church [which determines the number of parking spaces needed]. At every turn we’ve had difficulties.
“We re required to provide 60 parking spaces and we get credit for ten percent for on street parking. By saving the tree we can reduce our count by another 20 percent; now we are down to 44 spaces.” Miranda also discussed where handicapped spaces are located to further reduce this number. He said that the church is talking with the city about the North 2nd and Broome parking lot. However, the city is asking for certain concessions from the church to help relieve parking problems in the city.
Miranda told the HDC that the tree was planted as an elementary school project in the 1960’s. Given the life span of magnolias, that tree is currently about midway through its expected life and is in good condition.
“I agree,” Miranda said. “I think the concerns are legitimate, and we are working to find a solution. That’s why my presentation was provided as an update tonight, not a request for a final vote.”
Calhoun Street neighbor Suzanne Dickson also spoke. She said that the magnolia tree qualifies for Heritage Tree status, but it is on private property. She said that the neighbors had turned out for the meeting because they had been told earlier in the week that the tree was slated for removal. She thanked Miranda and the HDC for clarifying the current status.
Chair Spino thanked the speakers and said the HDC shared their concerns. But he reminded the audience that while the HDC can consider the design of a parking lot and landscape elements, the city’s Technical Review Committee (TRC) would be required to weigh in on the actual number of parking spaces required.
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.