“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
October 10, 2018 5:17 p.m.

Cool Hand Luke author of the famous quote
Source: https://www.azquotes.com/quote/628781

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.

Mike Bell

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.”

What next?

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:

Nassau County:  http://www.nassaucountyfl.com/887/BOCC-Statement-on-RaydientENCPA

Raydient:  https://info.raydientplaces.com/the-truth-about-nassau-countys-dispute-with-raydient

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.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’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.

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10 Responses to “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

  1. Mac Morriss says:

    If this was conducted in the light, in BOCC chambers, wouldn’t there be a video or audio recording, or at least a typed transcript of who said what???

  2. Douglas Adkins says:

    It is interesting that Mike Bell who is also a part of Citizens for Better Nassau has spent significant time pushing for increased tax rates, new roads and bigger budgets to help address the infrastructure that will be needed to support the loading of 40,000 new residents onto the local system of roads and bridges, schools, etc. He has known for a long time that the success of Wildlight is interdependent on his ability to control the BOCC and he thought he had secured complete control of those seats last election. What he fails to realize is when people understand what he wants, and recognize who must pay for what he wants those with the necessary back bone like Commissioner Pat Edwards, Justin Taylor, Danny Leeper, Steve Kelley& George Spicer and Mike Mullin will tell you no thank you. It is well known to everyone that the county was told early on that the parks would be built and maintained by Rayident and that the county taxpayers would carry no share of the costs of the ENCPA. It is ironic that that Mr. Mike Bell is now opposing a tax on his Wildlight community, he had no trouble advocating taxation on everyone else because he knew it would benefit the success of Wildlight. Now that the County wants to ensure Wildlight pays its way for the parks there is a different view coming into focus. This will no doubt affect the confidence of the bond traders in New York City and other investors who are needed to float the $600 million needed to build the infrastructure that has been promised inside Wildlight. My opinion is that before the bond traders put up that kind of money they will want to know how the fiscal impact of a MSTU will impact the cost of purchasing a home inside the Wildlight community and whether this will tilt the scales enough so that potential homebuyers start shopping down the street at Three Rivers or other alternative communities that are emerging in the area. I suspect the Rayonier end game to hi-jack an entire political subdivision of local government has failed and try as they will to get their people into office and to vote for their agenda, local elected officials once in office have a duty to the citizens and once provided the facts and the evidence will predictably act in the interest of the community. It is likely that they will turn their attention to the legislature where they have stronger ties and more influence. The problem right now is they were so heavily tied to the Adam Putnam Campaign that this will not play well with Team DeSantis , if he prevails in the November election. Hats off this morning to the BOCC members and Mr. Mullin for being home town heros and standing tall for the taxpayers.

  3. Richard J. Cain says:

    Minor note … Florida has 67 counties … not 66. But an interesting article.

  4. Robert S. Warner, Jr. says:

    Excellent post. It always seems like the basic issue is passing liability for infrastructure to some entity (or person) down the road. Public Debt, Bonding Public Debt, Securitizing that Debt, Bond Traders…., Eternal Public Liability for Debt Service.

  5. Wes White says:

    It’s difficult to imagine how a publicly traded company could have screwed up so badly.

    There’s an old phrase that “money can’t buy you love” – which is particularly true when you’ve been caught trying to steal the other person’s money.

  6. Gerald Decker says:

    This debacle between county government and one of the largest industries in the county almost certainly guarantees that any other large enterprise looking at Nassau county will think twice, thrice, be gone……so much for county development.

  7. John Goshco says:

    I don’t know Mike Bell, but to state “…Citizens for Better Nassau has spent significant time pushing for increased tax rates, new roads and bigger budgets…” Is incorrect. I have been following the organization’s efforts for several years and their primary effort seems to be directed towards BALANCED growth with an emphasis on attracting more industry and high-paying jobs. In most places, industry pays more in taxes than it uses in services (i.e. schools) where residential growth tends to require more services (i.e. parks & recreational facilities) than it collects in taxes. Industrial properties are taxed at full appraised value while residential properties are often “homesteaded” and taxed at a substantial discount.

    “… local elected officials… will predictably act in the interest of the community.” I have lived here nearly 20 years and have seen little evidence that this is automatically true. Assuming that all of the Board members always put forth their best/unbiased efforts (big assumption) there have been many instances of Commissioners who vote positively on issues that affect their own industry even if their specific business is not directly affected.

    Nonetheless, it would appear that Raydient is trying to rewrite the deal.

  8. brandon farmand says:

    Quite simply, the cost of litigating this (which is where this is headed) will be far less than the cost of the promise originally made. Hard to believe a matter as large as this would’ve been left to oral promises (no matter if they were in public session or not). Florida law may specifically make unenforceable verbal promises for this type of deal. The guy that made the promises to the BOCC doesn’t appear to be wih Rayonier anymore. And after his departure, is when this push back/change in posture started. Not hard to guess what happened from Rayonier’s side.

    • Vince Cavallo says:

      I have a question, was the guy who made the commitments empowered to bind the company to them? Or, was he just a sales rep or point of contact person?? I suppose there is a letter on file from the company specifying his duties. The fact nothing is written would indicate to me he had no such authority, kind of like when you negotiate a price with a sales rep at some car dealers but you have to go to the “manager” who actually commits to price and options.

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