Simmons Road Park – Another opinion

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By Chip Ross
City Commissioner
Group 3
November 15, 2019

Sometimes well-meaning people get caught up in the moment and find themselves on a path they really didn’t mean to go down. The path to the creation of the Simmons Road Park began with a $200,000 matching grant opportunity in search of a modest, ADA compliant, nature-friendly community park to serve City residents in the southern part of the City. The proposed concept was to include a small parking area, restrooms, a picnic pavilion, a small nature-oriented play area and a short walking path. Unfortunately, the grant funding never happened. Since impact fees would now completely fund the park, the playground quietly increased substantially in size and a large pavilion was added. In the end, the park (on environmentally sensitive land) quietly morphed into a project which will require the removal of over 90 trees and approximately an acre of wildlife habitat. Rather than attempt to keep a natural setting, an architect was enlisted to design the park’s “nature trail” rather than a naturalist. And since several significant issues were ignored in the development of the park’s design, a bitter, divisive social media “war” erupted pitting the ADA compliant playground advocates against advocates of preserving environmentally sensitive lands.

I originally voted to fund this park. However, because of information that has become available, I believe It is time to hit the pause button and consider the following issues:

Recently, by a unanimous vote, the City Commissioners voted to increase taxes to fund buying environmentally sensitive lands – conservation land. At the Commission’s 2019 January visioning session, the commissioners unanimously directed the City manager to prepare a comprehensive conservation plan that “protects all environmentally sensitive lands within the City”. In an email, the City Attorney confirmed that the 6.2 acres of the proposed parkland was environmentally sensitive land. Engineering drawings submitted to the City’s Technical Review Committee for construction approval, show the removal of more than 90 trees and at least an acre of wildlife habitat. No mitigation plan or tree planting plan was submitted. As in the cases of Amelia Bluff, the Lime Street Apartment complex, and the YMCA open space, the City Commission will again allow a significant amount of environmentally sensitive land to be developed. Once again our Commissioners will talk the conservation land talk, but not walk it. If Commissioners are going to request a tax increase to fund a bond debt to preserve land, then they should be committed to preserving land.

In conducting a search of how the City acquired the park’s property, it was discovered that it actually belonged to the Golf Course Enterprise Fund. The fund purchased this property for approximately $155,000 in 1996 and borrowed the money to make the purchase. The City golf course is frequently criticized for not being profitable and not being able to pay its debt and cover its expenses. Without paying the Golf Enterprise Fund for the use of this land in perpetuity, the City would be improperly using City Golf Course Fund assets and monies.

Within a half mile radius of the proposed park there are 657 houses. Only 18% of those houses are in the City, the other 82% are in the County. Yet the City is paying 100% of the cost of construction and the upkeep of the proposed facility. The County does not give the City any money to build, maintain, or replace our many recreational facilities. Often these facilities are used by County residents at no cost. If this project moves forward, shouldn’t the County contribute at least 80% to the project and to the ongoing upkeep?

The City’s Comprehensive Plan was weaponized by opposing sides. Those advocating preserving the land cite the sections limiting the uses and preserving environmentally sensitive land. Those advocating children’s playgrounds in the southern part of the City cite sections that neighborhood parks should be created in the “underserved” southern part of the City. As the City Attorney has opined; “the Comprehensive Plan is not a bright-line, strict interpretation document with no fluidity or room for interpretation.” The translation? With the same set of facts, if you pick and choose carefully, you can get the Comprehensive Plan to say anything.

There is NO truth in the statement that the land will someday be sold to developers for housing if the Commissioners and Parks and Recreation Committee members don’t vote for this project. The City CANNOT sell or lease Recreation land without putting the question up for a balloted referendum vote. In addition, I have asked the City attorney to give an opinion on how the City Commission can put a “no development easement” on all City owned recreation and conservation land in perpetuity.

To the best of my knowledge, the current final proposed park plan was submitted to the City’s Technical Committee for construction by a local architect and the Park Director BEFORE it was given to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee for review. No naturalist or other experts in nature trails were consulted, and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee received the final engineering drawings at one meeting without being given the plan to review prior to the meeting. The committee was given no opportunity to modify the plan. And possible alternative sites for both the playground and nature trail were dismissed without any investigation or discussion.

Access to recreational facilities by citizens with disabilities is both legally required and should be rightfully given. The current parks master plan states “public/private partnerships have already proven to be successful in Fernandina Beach. The Pirates Playground, created as a partnership between the City and 8 Flags Playscapes, Inc., has been extremely popular and is a great example of a partnership. 8 Flags Playscapes, Inc. is a community non-profit that started specifically to create a playground for children of all abilities. Their mission has expanded to enhancement of the community through the development of recreational environments that are universally accessible to all.” In a private meeting at his office, the architect who designed the currently proposed Simmons Road park assured me that 8 Flags Playscapes would work with the City no matter where any proposed parks were built. Unfortunately, the same architect then informed the Parks and Recreation Committee that 8 Flags Playscapes WOULD NOT consider another location.

Why will over 90 trees be removed for this park? For every 1000 square feet of active park use [playground, pavilion, restroom, etc.] one parking space must be provided. The size of the parking lot is driven by the size of the playground and other amenities. When the threshold of 9,000 square feet of ground disturbance is reached, the St. Johns River Water Management agency requires stormwater management. The currently planned disturbance exceeds 28,000 square feet, which creates the need for large storm water dry retention ponds. An ADA accessible nature trail a half mile in length alone would trigger the requirements for storm water management.

The Parks and Recreation Master Plan states: “many of the City’s parks appear tired and dated and are need of capital improvements and facility upgrades.” There are presently NINE public playgrounds in the City. On Veterans day I toured them all. The three playgrounds on Nassau County School Board property were gated and inaccessible. All City playgrounds were open where I also checked the associated restrooms. One restroom was locked, and the rest were hygienically challenged. The park complaints that I have received most frequently concern our public restrooms. They are either locked or not clean. The question needs to be addressed as to why we are building more recreational facilities if the City is unwilling or unable to maintain its current playgrounds, parks and restrooms?

Finally, all five current City Commissioners have vociferously and repeatedly stated that one of their top two priorities is a waterfront park [the other being land conservation]. What the commission has been largely silent about is how the City is going to pay for the waterfront park. I have always assumed that a large portion of the funding would come from the Parks and Recreation Impact Fee Fund. In the next few years impact fees will likely drop off significantly due to the City reaching its build out limit. If we continue to deplete the fund with $400,000 projects that are not a priority, there will be no funds to build a waterfront park with impact fees.

If we all hit the pause button to reassess the situation, the City may find that there are other less costly paths to follow that provide MORE opportunities for ADA compliant recreational facilities than just a single park. And we may find that the loss of 90 trees and the destruction of environmentally sensitive land is unnecessary.

The matter will be discussed at the 19 November 2019 City Commission meeting where citizens may appear to give their voice to this discussion. In the meantime, I am available at [email protected] if you wish to voice your questions or concerns.

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23 Responses to Simmons Road Park – Another opinion

  1. Dave Lott says:

    The opposition to this park has always been about the site, not the universal accessibility aspects of the park. There are alternative sites nearby that will not require tree removal and therefore incur far less costs in construction. 8 Flags Playscapes is a terrific organization with valuable contributions to the two playgrounds they have assisted in building and I’m not sure why they seem to be so tied to the Simmons Road site to the point where there representative has indicated if not this location, they will take their ball and go home. That is not representative of the attitude of the leadership of 8 Flags Playscapes that I have come to know..
    One hopes that the commissioners that have requested this be placed back on the 11/19 commission agenda will realize the hypocrisy articulated by Comm. Ross when on one hand they impose a half-mil new tax on property owners to purchase conservation land and then on the other hand they look to negatively impact a pure tract of forested land.

    • Mark Stevens says:

      Good points Dave. If the sides would stop bickering back and forth on social media, I believe they could talk through a compromise path forward. In fairness to 8 Flags, the wheels have been in motion at this site for a while. Is it fair to them to pull the rug out from under them at the last hour? If the idea was to have a nature trail, I don’t see how moving it to already cleared land fulfills that purpose. Unless we’re saying we don’t an ADA nature path through the trees.

    • Aaron Morgan says:

      Dave – Please read my reply to Teri Springer below, it should answer your questions. I apologize if you do not believe the attitude of the leadership of 8 Flags Playscapes is where it “should” be. Maybe, we believe what we are doing is what is right, just as strongly as the beliefs of those who disagree with the location of Simmons Road Park. Not agreeing with the location is perfectly okay. I can assure you, if our team did not strongly believe in our mission before we built our first park, it would have never happened. It is okay to disagree. What is not okay are the stones that are thrown by those who disagree with you.

  2. Gerald Decker says:

    When did “environmentally sensitive” become a criterion for the Conservation Tax Initiative? What are the requirements that must be met to be deemed ES? Who makes this determination? More committees???

  3. Gerald Decker says:

    PS- since every inch of this island is ES (we are only a few feet above sea level), what defines land that must be “conserved”?

  4. TRUDIE Richards says:

    Thank you Chip, for so accurately and sensitively describing the current reality. I am concerned about which people got us to this place without following proper procedure, but I grant what matter now is to stop, think, and let this pristine area be.

  5. Diana Herman says:

    Let’s hope at the next city meeting on November 19th city residents will be heard. So sad that the animosity often seen in our community between city officials and city residents results in our island’s environment “paying” the price. Thank you Chip!

  6. Don Wisniewski says:

    If the purpose of the park is to increase ADA accessible parks, why aren’t we upgrading current parks to be more ADA friendly instead of building another park. Especially since we are struggling to maintain current parks. If you can’t afford your mortgage, you don’t by another house.
    As a city resident I am getting tired of county residents demanding equal access to facilities for which they have no financial commitment.

    • Teri D. Springer says:

      Bingo. If I have two horses and they are standing in stalls that are falling apart and are dirty, the answer is NOT to take my money go out and buy more horses. Nor is it to build another barn and maintain the same level of “care” as the existing barn.

      Unless and until every EXISTING park in the city limits is 1) ADA compliant and 2) kept up in an impeccable condition including no trash and bathrooms that are cleaned DAILY, there is no reason to build yet another ADA compliant park only to walk away after the last nail is hammered and say “our work here is done.”

      And no one had better dare say I’m giving short shrift to the handicapped until/unless you know my history.

      I am all for full ADA compliance for all playgrounds. I am not for wasting money building a park that will not be maintained. I am sorry if one or two households with special needs children don’t have an accessible park within ½ mile of their home. But it’s not like the city is THAT large. You can load your child into your vehicle to take them along with you to grocery shop I’m pretty sure you can load them up to take them to the park a couple times a week.

      As for 8Flags…..I commend their PAST efforts. I have to wonder though why they are now dictating where their efforts will be made. That’s not how a nonprofit, community service group behaves. I have been involved with an organization that has provided services to the special needs community (of all ages) we don’t dictate where we will help or how we will help. We ASK “what do you need and how do you want us to help?”

      THAT is community service.

      • Aaron Morgan says:

        Thank you Trudie for commending our past efforts. Efforts that have contributed two parks valued at approx. $750,000, requiring thousands of volunteers hours (Our team is not paid nor are our volunteers). The city asked our team a number of months ago to participate in the Simmons Road project only. We agreed so that we could further our mission of promoting accessibility and “in our opinion” believe the location is an excellent location for a universally accessible park, playground, and nature trail. I couldn’t disagree with you more regarding how you think we “should behave”. YES, we can choose where we want to participate. Our efforts are more complex than most efforts as they require a lot of time from individuals who have families, full time jobs, and other volunteer duties. Each project requires thousands of dollars and we are not in a position to continuously fundraise in a small community. Since our involvement in the Simmons Road project, we have not been approached to participate in the build of a playground at a golf course, airport, or soccer field. If asked by an employee of the city, we would respectfully decline as an airport is not a conducive environment for a universally accessible park and playground (includes soccer fields) and the golf course presents a number of other issues including but not limited to the proposed retention pond location next to the busy parking lot. We are ok If the city decides not to move forward with the Simmons Road Project. Until we are told no, we are partners with the COFB and Project Chance for the Simmons Road Park project.

    • Pam Green says:

      County residents aren’t “demanding” anything…seems three city commissioners are pushing this project forward.

  7. Mary Anne Sharer says:

    Bravo, Chip, for laying out the facts in this case. They were sorely needed and explain how we got to this current place regarding the park. I, too, have wondered why we don’t maintain or upgrade the existing parks rather than remove even MORE trees to create another one.
    Thank you for doing all the research that you do!

  8. Scott Sernaker says:

    There was a lot of talk about simply moving the site to an area that is unused at the public golf course. It’s time we take a hard look at the public golf course. Golfing has lost some of it’s popularity in recent years and golf courses have been overbuilt. I believe the COFB has been subsidizing the public course quite a bit, and having too many courses makes them all unprofitable. It is also my recollection that they have already cut the number of holes being used in the public course. Finally, golf courses are notorious for fertilizer/pesticide run off.

    So maybe we could repurpose some of that land, toss in a revenue generating music venue, and a playground.

    • scott sernaker says:

      One other thought, with the high number of children with autism these days and their tendency to run away, putting our handicapped accessible parks in the middle of heavily wooded areas creates a significant danger to these children.

  9. Clinch Kavanaugh says:

    Well said Chip – well said.

  10. Phyllis Wertz says:

    Until we have one governing body on the Island we will continue to have funding arguments between city and county! Unless the Simmons rd Park acreage can forever be legally preserved as conservation only and NO future development, our best use is as a play/nature park.
    The city vs county battle is out of control.
    There are several neighborhood communities surrounding this proposed park. Families with children,
    can walk or bike to the park. Many are already enjoying the long awaited bike/walking path on Simmons rd to the beach. I use it everyday!
    So you are recommending NO future amenities for the city that county residents can use because they don’t pay city taxes?
    That seems to be the big argument on the island.
    City residents also pay county taxes.
    County residents don’t pay city taxes.
    The best solution is to work together as one cohesive
    unit with one governing and taxing authority. We would reduce government beauracracy and spending dramatically!
    Until that happens, the constant argument of who gets to use what and who’s tax $$ pay for what will continue.
    Until then, taxes will increase, land development will spread until there is none left and the overhead noise from private and commercial jets will make this the island no one wants to visit, let alone live.
    I don’t want to see that happen.

  11. George Murphy says:

    Well researched and reasoned

  12. Kat Brown says:

    Why cut trees down. Just make sure it is good all the way around. But think you should update the parks. Atlantic Park could use help. Make it more kid friendly.

  13. Frank Aquino says:

    We need to hire a mental health professional to sort out the approach-avoidance issues in mostly everything we consider doing. To Be or not To Be…

  14. Sheila Cocchi says:

    Thank you Dr. Ross!

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