• An error in marking, or not marking, the trees to be preserved versus trees to be cut at the site of a new hotel on Sadler Road resulted in “five trees removed without authorization resulting in a loss of 103.75 inches DBH (Diameter at Breast Height) credited toward the tree protection requirements of the site,” according to the county. The developer has agreed to replace the removed trees with 23 six-inch magnolia or oak trees. Photo by Peg Davis/News-Leader

‘Horrible mistake’ stops work on new hotel

All work has come to a halt on a new 103-room Home2 Suites by Hilton hotel at 2246 Sadler Road  after Nassau County issued a stop work order this month because of a tree protection plan violation that project engineer Daniel McCranie termed “a horrible mistake that no one wanted to happen.”

The stop work order issued by the county cites: “Violation of tree protection plan that was accepted by Nassau County (via site plan) SP17-013 Amelia Island Hotel, made effective October 31, 2017 in accordance with Article 37, Sections 37.02 of the Land Development Code. ... Removal and/or damage of protected trees without authorization.”

Work at the more than 3-acre site cannot resume until the case is heard at the county’s Code Enforcement Board meeting July 10. The case was on the agenda for that board’s meeting June 12 but the meeting was cancelled for lack of a quorum.

McCranie, vice president and lead design engineer for McCranie & Associates, Inc., of Fernandina Beach, told the News-Leader, “It is one of those situations everyone would rather not be involved with. We designed the hotel around these trees. No one wanted the trees gone.”

McCranie explained that A.J. Johns Construction of Jacksonville, which is handling site land work, thought all of the trees that were supposed to be preserved had been flagged before they called in their tree removal crew. 

“Everything that was flagged was saved,” McCranie said. “But not all of the trees that were to have been saved had been flagged” before the removal process began. “It’s just a shame,” he added. 

Director of the Nassau County Department of Planning and Economic Opportunity  Taco Pope sent a letter to the hotel development company, Fernandina Investment, LLC, of Columbia, S.C., that violations included “unauthorized tree removal, depositing of soils and other materials within the defined tree protection zones and improperly located tree protection barricades.” 

 In the letter, Pope identified “five trees removed without authorization resulting in a loss of 103.75 inches DBH (Diameter at Breast Height) credited toward the tree protection requirements of the site.” 

The letter indicated several locations where “excavation has taken place within the required tree protection zone utilizing a methodology, likely excavated with a backhoe, which ripped the root structures as opposed to utilizing a ‘clean cut’ methodology.”

Pope listed for the News-Leader the following sequence of events related to the project:

• October 31, 2017, via site plan SP17-013, Nassau County approved a tree protection plan for the Amelia Island hotel site development project in accordance with Article 37, Section 37.02 of the Nassau County Land Development Code.

• May 29, a citizen complaint was received by the Nassau County Code Enforcement Department alleging a violation of the approved tree protection plan associated with the Amelia Island hotel project.

• May 30, PEO staff accompanied Code Enforcement Officer Michael Favors to investigate the complaint and perform an inspection of the ongoing site development project in relation to tree protection.

• June 1, a Stop Work Order was issued.

• June 4, Notice of violation was sent certified mail to property owner, Fernandina Investment LLC.

• July 10, Code Enforcement Board hearing scheduled with Stop Work Order on agenda.

“The issuance or lifting of a stop work order is beyond my authority,” Pope said. “However, it is my understanding that the stop work order will remain in effect until a decision is rendered by the Code Enforcement Board,” whether that takes place on July 10 or at a later date.

Pope said the county “is working with the local representative for the developer (Fernandina Investments LLC) to resolve the issue,” but he did not identify that person. 

McCranie said the developer gets all the blame, “which is just a shame. The sub-contractor made the mistake and will be changing their procedures on all future jobs in Nassau County and will call in an arborist to verify the tree markings before any trees are removed.”

But McCranie said the development company likely has to pay for the mistake, including new replacement trees, an arborist to oversee the work, legal fees involved with the illegal tree removals, etc., but said he is not the person negotiating on behalf of the developer. 

The developer has agreed to replace the removed trees with 23 six-inch magnolia or oak trees, McCranie said. “That will cost the developer $50,000.” In addition, “we won’t know until the Code Enforcement Board hearing whether nor not the developer also has to pay fines.”

“We are hoping there will be no fines, because we did not want this to happen,” McCranie stated. “We hate the fact that these trees got taken out. We believe in preserving the tree canopy on the island.”

McCranie pointed to a design effort that was meant from the start to save trees.

“We got Hilton to change the prototype design for this style hotel – from a front entrance to a side entrance and move it back on the property – to save the big trees on the front of the site.” The building will have to be constructed before the new trees are planted, he added.

McCranie said nothing can be done at the site until after a hoped-for resolution at the July 10 meeting of the Code Enforcement Board. “We are not even allowed to put fill dirt to protect the exposed roots of the trees that remain.” He added that an arborist has been called in to evaluate the situation to see if the county will allow action to protect those trees.

Meanwhile, the county is reviewing possible major changes to its tree ordinance that applies to Amelia Island. The BOCC reviewed those proposed changes June 11. “The ordinance is very vague now,” McCranie said. “That is why the county is working on a new revised Amelia Island Tree Protection and Replacement Ordinance.” 

Depending on what happens with the Code Enforcement Board meeting July 10, progress on the development of the new Home2 Suites by Hilton Hotel could be set back at least two months from its previously announced June 2019 opening, and that delay means more cost to the developer. 

The hotel site, which is currently in an unincorporated area, lies on a narrow section of a wooded wildlife corridor stretching between Egans Creek to the north and the Fernandina Beach Golf Club to the south. There are plans for the hotel property to be annexed into the city in the future because it will be using the city’s water and sewer system, as well as police and fire services.

The Fernandina Beach City Commission was scheduled to address mechanisms to protect the disappearance of green space at a regular meeting on Tuesday with the second reading of a Land Conservation Fund Ordinance on its agenda.

The developer of the hotel is IMIC Hotels of Columbia, S.C., which also owns the Hampton Inn almost directly across the street at 2549 Sadler Road. Interstate Management & Investment Corporation, which operates under the name IMIC Hotels, opened the Hampton Inn in 1997 and “has been a good steward of the island and Fernandina Beach citizen since,” said McCranie. 

IMIC President Bert Pooser III said this is the first Home2 Suites by Hilton the company has developed, although it does have other Hilton products in its portfolio. 

The construction company for the hotel project is Pinkerton & Laws of Atlanta, which Pooser said “has an impressive portfolio of client projects it has done in the hospitality industry.” The company recently completed a Home2 Suites by Hilton hotel near the airport in Brunswick, Ga. and is in the process of building one in LaGrange, Ga.

Fernandina Investments LLC, Pooser told the News-Leader, is “a company specific to this project” and which was set up this year, according to state records. It is based at the home office of IMIC Hotels in Columbia, S.C..

The News-Leader attempted to get input for this article from the development company and Archie Johns of A.J. Johns Company, but neither responded to our phone messages before print deadline.

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