Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
While the Port of Fernandina may have been expecting a cursory review of their proposed 10-year master plan, a project that has been in the works for 18 months, that was not the case at the August 13, 2014 monthly meeting of the city of Fernandina Beach’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB). More than 50 people, including City Commissioners Charlie Corbett and Sarah Pelican, packed the City Hall Commission Chamber, eager to hear and understand the Port’s plans for its future. Following a lengthy presentation delivered by Brian Wheeler on behalf of the Port, several audience members expressed concerns about the effects of increased Port road traffic on city streets and neighborhoods. Port representatives also listened to many people, including PAB members express concerns as to why city residents had not been considered a stakeholder group in the broad consultations that led to the creation of the plan.
PAB Chair Len Kreger reported that the PAB had just received the 240-page document from the Port that afternoon. With the support of the other members, he formed a PAB subcommittee to study the Port plans and take public input. Kreger, Vice Chair Judith Lane and Member Mark Bennett will represent the PAB at a series of meetings that will be advertised to the public. Kreger’s goal is to deliver a subcommittee report at the November PAB meeting, but basically indicated that the PAB will take as long as needed to consider all plan elements and recommend a responsible course of action to the Fernandina Beach City Commission.
Five Port representatives attended the PAB meeting, including Port Commissioner Richard Bruce, who left before the meeting concluded. Brian Wheeler, a member of the Genesis Group consultant team who crafted the plan, led PAB members and the audience through a detailed slide presentation that lasted close to an hour. Wheeler explained the genesis of the plan, the methodology for calculating some of the metrics, the constraints imposed on the Port by land use regulations, wetlands and channel depth. Despite a record of continuing declines in port tonnage since at least 2011, Wheeler presented a plan that suggested a reversal of those trends. He talked about the potential use of barge traffic to expand the manner in which containers move in and out of the Port. He also cited possible changes to existing rail systems to make rail transport a more viable option.
The two biggest shares of port traffic are containers and craft paper. Craft paper shipping shows steady decline over the years. Due to the increasing size of container ships, the Port of Fernandina is looking to find a niche as a port serving smaller vessels. Because of the channel depth, the existing port would not be able to serve larger vessels without self-funding expensive dredging from the mouth of the Amelia River to the Port itself. Wheeler said that were the updated 10-year Master Plan to be approved and implemented, it would take at least 3 years to build the required wharves and complete minimal dredging to allow for increased Port business.
But it would be a goal of the Port to redirect more trucks to rail in the western part of the county (Crawford Industrial Triangle) and to institute barge transportation of freight along the inland waterway. Wheeler added that since Florida is not a manufacturing state, most of the container traffic destined for the state returns empty. He said it would be a goal to change that so that trucks carry loads both to and from the Port.
Statistics suggest that the number of truck trips to the Port would increase from 134 to 603 daily. Wheeler stressed that these numbers, used by the Department of Transportation (DOT), represent the ideal situation. They help DOT decide where it might be beneficial to invest money on Port improvements.
Wheeler concluded his 57-slide presentation by saying that the Port represents a positive economic return to the region because it creates jobs. He said that the Port is not looking for changes in future land use or zoning from the city. Rather he said the Port is looking for coordination and cooperation in the future through policies.
Chair Kreger said, “When we adopt a 10-year plan, it’s on the books.” He said that there was a lot of information to mull over and that the PAB had only that afternoon received the 240-page report. Senior Planner Kelly Gibson, who staffs the PAB, reminded Kreger that the PAB will have a month to review the plan and for the community to provide questions, comments or input. Kreger was not reassured and called for a subcommittee to study the plan publicly in greater depth.
PAB Vice Chair Judith Lane asked Port representatives for updated statistics to include 2013. She also expressed surprise that there was no risk assessment included in the plan. She said, “We have to look at the impact of this plan on the entire community, including impacts on tourism and residents.”
Chair Kreger opened the meeting to public input and seven audience members spoke. The audience followed each speaker with a round of applause.
Chip Ross, a neighbor of the Port, said that he had never much thought about the Port until he learned of the proposal to update the Master Plan. He reeled off a list of topics that were not addressed, including impact on the community and impact on wetlands. He said that according to statistics provided, there would be a truck arriving at the Port every 3 minutes, 365 days per year. He said that the plan as presented highlighted benefits to the Port, but failed to list benefits to the community.
Chuck Hall, another Port neighbor, spoke to the current problems of trucks destined for the Port queuing up along Dade Street. The plan did not address how this problem would be alleviated with increased traffic. He also harkened back to early days of the Port when spokespeople said that the Port of Fernandina “enjoyed being a postage stamp-sized port.” He questioned whether, with declining tonnage, spending money to implement the plan would not just be throwing good money after bad. He also called for public meetings, charrettes, to take public input.
Ann Thomas, who lives on Dade Street, the major route to the Port, reminded PAB members that existing rules place a limitation on the Port: the Port cannot use roadways within the municipality without the city’s consent. She asked the PAB to slow the process of advancing the revised Master Plan until more people can weigh in. “If you’re not ready to act, I hope you vote NO,” she said.
Phil Scanlan, a non-city resident, criticized the plan for including no analysis of the downward trend for Port traffic/tonnage, or suggestions for reversing that trend. He questioned the impact on 8th Street and cited planned improvements for A1A/State Road 200 that will reduce what in places will be a 6-lane road in the county to 2 lanes on the island and 8th Street. He asked how that would be feasible if truck traffic is to increase dramatically.
Faith Ross, another Port neighbor, said that although $100K of public money has been spent to create the updated Port Master Plan, the list of stakeholders included in the report never cited the citizens. She asked about other ideas that might have been considered but not included in the Master Plan.
Jim Carpenter, representing St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, said that the church, located at 8th and Centre Streets, spends about $100K every 10 years on maintenance. The biggest problem the church encounters relates to the structural integrity of the west side of the building, which apparently is weakened by the truck traffic rumbling past.
Kate Kitts, an 8th Street resident, also spoke to damage caused to historic homes along 8th Street from the truck traffic to and from the Port.
Chair Kreger stepped down to make a motion to create a PAB subcommittee to more closely examine the plan document and public input. After brief discussion the motion passed unanimously as amended, naming Kreger, Lane and Mark Bennett as the PAB members of the subcommittee. In responding to concerns that the plan was already behind schedule, Kreger said, “If it’s late already, then what’s the big deal?”
Consensus of the PAB seemed to reflect a desire to be as inclusive as possible in hearing public input and concerns. To that end, Kreger said that there would be at least 3 meetings, perhaps more if needed, during September and October. Instead of naming citizens to the subcommittee, the PAB preferred inviting all interested citizens to participate during the meetings, which will be publicly noticed.
Vice Chair Judith Lane said, “This issue is only going to get more heated. It goes to the vision for the city.” She emphasized that the PAB looked for involvement from the wider community, that concerns about Port expansion impacted, more than just neighbors of the Port.
Senior Planner Kelly Gibson asked interested parties to email her at [email protected] to receive updates on the issue. She also advised that people can sign up on the city’s website home page to get notified of future meetings. She advised that the city’s comprehensive plan and the Port’s presentation may be obtained via the city’s website.
To download the Port Master Plan please visit https://www.dropbox.com/s/fibmfluh6c9dm5x/OHPA%20Master%20Plan%20Update_June%202014%20all.pdf or for more information you may contact Kelly N. Gibson, Senior Planner at (904)310-3141.
In a press release dated August 13, 2014, Kelly Gibson, the Senior City Planner who staffs the PAB reported:
The City is working with the Nassau County Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) to comply Florida law requirements for updating the Port of Fernandina Master Plan and associated Comprehensive Plan policies. The Nassau County OHPA has been working with a consultant company to comply with statutory requirements. The OHPA provided the City with a draft copy of the Port Master Plan and its associated Comprehensive Plan policy amendments in February and a 2nd version was provided to staff in late June.
Since June, City staff has circulated the document for a courtesy level review among state reviewing agencies, obtained feedback, and provided the information back to OHPA via their consultants. The Port Master Plan Update and associate amendments are being presented to the Planning Advisory Board at its regular meeting on Wednesday, August 13, 2014. The PAB will not issue any recommendations to the City Commission on the Port Master Plan at this meeting, which is simply a presentation.
Following PAB consideration the City Commission will review the Port Master Plan at 1st reading of an ordinance, which will then transmit the Master Plan to be formally reviewed by State Agencies. Reviewing agencies include the Northeast Florida Regional Council, Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Department of State Division of Historical Resources, St. Johns River Water Management District, Department of Education, and Nassau County.
City Staff will analyze the documents provided for consistency with statutory requirements and provide a formal staff report prior to the PAB meeting. State law requires that all Deep-water ports, including the Port of Fernandina, to comply with the following four Statute Sections.
1. Section 163.3177(6)(b), Florida Statutes, identifies different levels of transportation analysis that must be included in the local government’s comprehensive plan, based on the size and location of the local government.
2. Section 163.3177(6)(g)8, Florida Statutes, requires that the comprehensive plan’s coastal management element must “direct the orderly development, maintenance, and use of ports identified in Section 4.03.021(9) to facilitate Deep-water commercial navigation and other related activities.” This requirement can be addressed in the port master plan.
3. Section 163.3178(2)(k), Florida Statutes, requires port master plans to be included in the local government’s coastal management element. It notes that port master plans must identify existing port facilities and any proposed expansions. To the extent that they are applicable, port master plans must also address the following requirements:
- Provide a land use and inventory map of existing coastal uses;
- Analyze the environmental, socioeconomic, and fiscal impact of development;
- Analyze effects of existing drainage systems on estuarine water quality;
- Outline principles for hazard mitigation and protection of human life;
- Outline principles for protecting existing beach and dune systems;
- Outline principles to eliminate inappropriate and unsafe development;
- Identify public access to shoreline areas and preservation of working waterfronts;
- Designate coastal high-hazard areas and mitigation criteria;
- Outline principles to assure that public facilities will be in place; and,
- Mitigate the threat to human life and protect the coastal environment.
4. Section 163.3178(3), Florida Statutes, identifies eligible port projects both on the port and within three (3) miles of the port that are not considered to be Developments of Regional Impact if they are consistent with the port master plan that is in compliance with Section 163.3178(2)(k), Florida Statutes.