Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
October 10, 2018 5:17 p.m.
While familiar to many as the most famous line from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, it seems particularly apt in describing the current state of affairs between the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) and Raydient Places + Properties, Rayonier, Inc.’s development subsidiary. Both sides have engaged in unproductive rhetoric to date, with accusations and counter accusations regarding intent and agreements regarding the creation and development of the East Nassau Stewardship District (ENCPA), a 24,000 acre site officially created in 2011 with a goal of bringing a higher level of development to Nassau County. The ENCPA includes more than 12,000 donated acres for perpetual conservation in the Conservation Habitat Network, an area almost 3/4ths the size of Amelia Island.
The ENCPA also includes more than 700 acres of land to be donated for public parks and recreation facilities. And herein lies the disagreement: Nassau County claims that Raydient committed to pay for all ENCPA public parks and recreation facilities. Raydient claims that its agreement was to provide the land. While it has not ruled out contributing other improvements, it maintains that it never committed to paying the entire cost of building and maintaining public parks.
You say potayto, I say potahto …
The dispute escalated earlier this year when the County claimed that Raydient appealed for legislative assistance to support its side “in the dead of night.” Raydient cites this position as a myth that the County continues to perpetuate. The legislation in question clarified that growth should pay its proportionate fair share based upon its impacts. Raydient maintains that the legislation, which applies to sector plans like the ENCPA across all 67 Florida counties, was supported by the Associated Industries of Florida, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Association of Florida Community Developers, the Florida Land Council, the Florida Home Builders Association and others to curb abuses by local governments. Notably, the Florida Association of Counties – the group that represents the interests of Florida counties in the legislature – did not oppose the legislation. Nassau County was the only local government to protest.
In the intervening period following the Tallahassee skirmish, there has been little or no attempt by the parties to resolve their differences and get back on track toward achieving the goals that the parties initially set to achieve model development practices and products in Nassau County. Instead, Raydient has remained basically on the sidelines as Nassau County Commissioners lob accusations of bad faith at them. Neither party has agreed to the other’s terms to sit down and work things out, resorting to threats of legal action to protect their interests.
Raydient steps up to counter BOCC public statements on the dispute
Prior to the October BOCC meeting, Raydient was a no show at BOCC public discussions of the ENCPA’s role in paying for recreation and parks facilities. They had offered to meet in public at a neutral site with a neutral facilitator, and the county rejected this offer, demanding that all discussions take place publicly in BOCC chambers with no outside facilitators.
The stalemate, while not broken, changed slightly at the October 8, 2018 BOCC meeting, when Rayonier spokesman Mike Bell delivered a statement during a board consideration of creating special taxing district (MSTU) to cover the ENCPA. Bell expressed Raydient’s opposition to this move on legal grounds, which he said would be fully explained in a forthcoming letter.
Bell said, “As the owner of the vast majority of the ENCPA land, Raydient has repeatedly stated that, as a condition to residential development, it is obligated to donate land for recreation purposes and in turn builders in the project will pay the required impact fees. Raydient has never previously agreed to fund the entire costs to construct and maintain the recreation facilities or the entire costs associated with any public facilities within the ENCPA. The county’s statements to the contrary are simply untrue and unsupported.”
Bell went on to elaborate on Raydient’s belief that “the County’s true intention was to impose a burden upon Raydient far in excess of its proportionate fair share impacts.” Currently, the vast majority of the ENCPA land is privately owned and there are only two residents in the ENCPA.
In addressing the MSTU currently under consideration, Bell said, “It is inconceivable how TWO residents could justify the implementation of the proposed MSTU. The hard truth remains that for decades, the County has poorly planned and underfunded public facilities countywide. The BOCC now seeks to have Raydient and its two residents act as a bailout for the County’s fiscal mismanagement, and to have Raydient serve as a cure-all for the County’s budgetary woes relating to recreation facilities.”
In response to the County’s claims that Raydient refuses to meet, Bell said that as recently as September 24, Chris Corr, the President of Raydient, with the assistance of State Senator Aaron Bean, offered to sit down one-on-one with BOCC Chair Pat Edwards to try to see if the sides could find some common ground to forge a path forward together. Bell said, “The public should know that despite Raydient extending the olive branch, Commissioner Edwards refused to even meet with Mr. Corr.”
In his closing remarks Bell restated Raydient’s objection to the proposed MSTU Ordinance and restated Raydient’s “commitment to expend all resources necessary to protect our substantial interest and collective vision for the success of the ENCPA.”
BOCC Chair Edwards expressed appreciation to Bell for attending the BOCC meeting and “bringing forth your narrative.” There were no other public speakers.
Edwards addressed Bell’s statement. “I do think you are out of bounds, but I am not going to create an issue in this room, because I think we have handled ourselves in a very smart way and we have tried to address it in a way that was not behind anyone’s back and out in the open. I was unable to meet with Mr. Corr because the BOCC voted 5-0 that any conversation we had with the Raydient people would be in this room, as it was when we discussed creating the ENCPA, where they were voted upon by the people elected by Nassau County residents to make those decisions. I think for you to come in here tonight and unable to make decisions is just another play on words by your company. I regret that. But I do appreciate your coming.”
County Budget Director Justin Stankiewicz said that many of Bell’s comments did not address the issue at hand, the creation of the MSTU, which deals with the county’s ability to generate funds. He said that it has been reviewed for legality and is no different than the MSTU created to collect the sand tax for Amelia Island. It covers a defined area that reaps the benefit. “It’s not levying a tax; you are not collecting any dollar revenue by adopting this ordinance,” he said. “It just provides a mechanism going forward.”
District 2 Commissioner Steve Kelley asked if the county would need to justify any millage set in the future, to which County Attorney/Acting County Manager Mike Mullin replied, “Yes.” Stankiewicz explained various factors that would come into play in setting a millage. Kelley said, “So we couldn’t just set any millage to be mean.”
District 1 Commissioner Danny Leeper moved approval of the MSTU ordinance. He was seconded by District 5 Commissioner Justin Taylor and the ordinance passed on a 5-0 vote.
Following passage of the ordinance, Edwards addressed his fellow commissioners on his meeting with Senator Bean during which Bean tried to broker a one-on-one meeting between Edwards and Corr. Edwards said, “I’ve been done once and it would be hard for me to go back and get another dose. It’s hard for me to say that I could ever approve anything or partner with [Raydient] in any way. From my standpoint my partnership with Raydient is over with. What the BOCC does is what the BOCC does. What Mr. Bell just said was patently a lie. … They need to pick another representative from this board if they want to meet.”
The BOCC at the request of County Attorney Mike Mullin has set a special public meeting for November 9, 2018 at 9:00 a.m. in County Commission Chambers with the law firm of Nabors Giblin & Nickerson http://www.ngnlaw.com on aspects of the ENCPA issue.
Both Nassau County and Raydient have provided information supporting their respective positions on their websites. Those links are provided below:
By the end of November, two new County Commissioners – Aaron Bell (no relation to Mike Bell) replacing Steve Kelley in District 2 and Thomas Ford replacing George Spicer in District 4)—will join the BOCC. Whether new perspectives will advance a settlement of the divisiveness between the County and Raydient remains to be seen.
Currently, Raydient has only one development underway in the ENCPA: Wildlight. The question remains as to whether the company will continue to invest in its development goals in Nassau County in the current antagonistic atmosphere or divert resources to other states, where they also have land holdings.
It is unclear what bearing, if any, a complaint pending before the Ethics Committee of the Florida Bar regarding an alleged conflict of interest involving County Attorney Mike Mullin will have on this issue.
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.