Just in time for Memorial Day weekend, Nassau County’s plan to safely reopen and manage vacation rentals during “full Phase One” of the governor’s coronavirus pandemic response was approved by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. An executive order was issued Thursday by County Manager Mike Mullin, who also serves as county attorney.
At a Wednesday morning meeting, Mullin told the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners that the plan can be modified locally if something in it is “problematic.” He said the board might need to change the maximum of 10 people or less allowed in a vacation rental unit to add wording recognizing the authority of property owners’ associations to limit the maximum occupancy of units to even fewer individuals.
The plan was unanimously endorsed in a four-commissioner vote, with Commissioner Aaron Bell abstaining because he owns a vacation rental unit.
The BOCC also heard the latest statistics on local coronavirus testing results from Dr. Eugenia Ngo-Seidel, director of the Florida Department of Health – Nassau County. As of that briefing, 69 people had officially tested positive, 64 residents and five non-residents. Seidel said four of the five non-resident cases had come from Georgia. She added that 2,587 tests had been performed to date and the county has a 2.6% “presumptive positive rate.”
Seidel is attempting to get 2% of the county’s population tested this month and is also going to support mass testing in long-term care facilities. She mentioned the mobile testing sites that were available Thursday in Hilliard and Callahan, saying that they also offered free hepatitis A vaccines due to the state outbreak that began before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
In an answer to a question from Chairman Danny Leeper about how many of the 69 who have tested positive have recovered, Seidel said her department doesn’t want to release a number of recovered “because that is a (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) definition, and until the state actually puts that on the dashboard, we are not going to call it recovered.” Seidel was referring to the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard at floridadisaster.org/covid19. She said she could tell commissioners that 54 of those who tested positive have been released from public health isolation. Commissioner Thomas Ford asked how many are still being treated at a hospital, and Seidel said she did not believe any were in the hospital right now. There have been 13 to date.
Director of Emergency Management Greg Foster said his department is slowly switching over to hurricane preparation mode and continues to receive personal protective equipment from the Florida Department of Emergency Management. Foster is working on ways to store it appropriately in anticipation of hurricane season and potential evacuations. He is also working with regional partners on best practices for “recovery,” which will be presented.
Gil Langley, managing director of the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, told the board he wanted on the record the severity of the downturn in March and April.
“We received late last night this travel research data on the month of April. Occupancy last year at that time was 81.8%. In 2020, our occupancy was 9.1%,” Langley said, going on to note the average daily rate was $134.90 compared to $278 the prior year – a 51% drop. “And perhaps the most stunning figure, our revenue per available room in April of last year was $228. This year it was $12.27.
“In the months of March and April in 2019, just the major hotels, not counting vacation rentals, the major hotel properties brought in $27 million in taxable room sales. This year, it was $8.5 million.” Langley said most of that came during the Concours d’Elegance, which took place during the first week in March.
He told commissioners the TDC is working on a marketing plan and said they were “going to be out in the marketplace hard and fast” and will concentrate first on “drive markets.”
Later in the meeting, Mullin said he had written a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis pointing out that the CARE Act signed into law provides money for counties with more than 500,000 residents but nothing for local governments with 88,000, like Nassau County. Of $1.275 billion sent to the state, Nassau County has so far received $46,000 for Medicaid reimbursement.
Mullin did point out that the latest pandemic support bill passed by the House does include money for smaller counties, but it is stuck in the Senate.
Wanda Forest with the Northeast Florida Transportation Planning Organization gave commissioners an update on local Transportation Improvement Projects, or TIPs. One of her slides showed landscaping of State Road 200 is scheduled in 2023.
As part of their expansion item list, Mullin asked the board to approve canceling their meetings for June 15 and 29 and adding July 16 and 20 in addition to regular meeting dates. The changes were approved. Mullin pointed out that the quasi-judicial hearings the BOCC was set to hear will be continued until next month and July.
The BOCC also approved a resolution extending the county’s state of emergency for another week.
Mullin showed the board a new children’s book called Zoe’s Mission, written by UF/IFAS Nassau Extension Director Rebecca Jordi. All profit from the book, published by the University of Florida, will come back to the county, according to Jordi. The illustrated book is about a zebra butterfly and the harm that development without consideration for the environment can cause.
“I can tell you, unabashedly, go buy this. Read it. It will change the way you look at things. It will thrill you, it will educate you, it will really make you think about the environment,” Mullin said. The cost of the book is $26.75, including tax. For more information, those interested can visit sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/nassau, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (904) 530-6353.
After receiving an update on animal services from Director Tim Maguire, Bill Moore, the project manager for the South Amelia Island Shore Stabilization Association, known as SAISSA, gave the commissioners a report on a petition sent to 2,164 properties on the south end that would be subject to an assessment for the next beach renourishment project on that part of the island. He said 52% of the petitions had been returned.
Citing two U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects – one in 2013 and another in 2019 – in which over a million cubic yards of dredged sand was placed on the north end of the island, Moore said those two projects alone, “along with additional sand placed on the southern end to allow for the increase in erosion we were seeing” was probably the reason why the area of the beach in front of The Residences is doing well, but the northern part of the three-mile SAISSA-managed stretch is not doing nearly as well.
Leeper asked if residents covered by the SAISSA Municipal Services Benefit Unit or MSBU tax can be exempted, and Moore said it would require changing the whole program. Moore added that a lot of money has been spent on modeling sand migration and he is now aware that a lot of the sand migrates toward American Beach.
Later in the meeting, the board adjourned as the BOCC and briefly reconvened as SAISSA to approve a contract with Olsen Associates Inc. to perform physical monitoring of the “Engineered Beach Renourishment Project.”
County Engineer Robert Companion showed the board a slide presentation from a safety study conducted on the intersection of South 14th Street and Simmons Road. About 13,000 vehicles a day go through what is now a four-way stop. The engineering firm that did the study estimated replacing the four-way stop with a traffic signal would cost $374,000 while a roundabout would cost $3.4 million, including the need to purchase the property on the southwest corner of the intersection. The consensus of the board was to conduct another in-house study in the fall because the four-way stop seems to be working.
Consent agenda items passed included approving, for recording purposes only, the final plat for Barnwell Manor Phase Two and several departments’ monthly status reports.
The management of the reopening of parking at two of the county-controlled beach accesses last weekend was roundly praised by the board, with kudos going to Road & Bridge Department employees as well as Public Works Director Doug Podiak and Assistant County Manager Taco Pope.