The Fernandina Beach City Commission approved permits Wednesday for Veterans Day and Christmas parades in the city’s downtown but stepped back from making a decision about a Christmas tree lighting ceremony and New Year’s Eve Shrimp Drop and fireworks.
Commissioners said they want to take a cautious approach to approving events in the city due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Commissioner Mike Lednovich noted coronavirus cases are at all-time high in some areas across the country and said approving the tree lighting and fireworks would be “sanctioning a super-spreader event.” Conversely, he said, the parades give people room to distance themselves from each other. Lednovich suggested approving the parades but reviewing other events to see what the trends are with infection rates closer to the time of the events.
City Manager Dale Martin said Florida Public Utilities is set to meet with Light Up Amelia, which sponsors the fireworks, and the city has a meeting scheduled with FPU after that to find out whether Light Up Amelia plans to move forward with the fireworks show. That organization canceled its Fourth of July fireworks and has a $14,000 credit with its fireworks provider, which it could lose if it does not purchase fireworks for New Year’s Eve.
Martin said the city has already purchased a Christmas tree, which will be lighted, but could cancel the ceremony to mark the event.
Commissioner Phil Chapman pointed out the incongruity of allowing two parades but not fireworks or a tree lighting ceremony.
“I am confused … that it’s OK to pack Centre Street with people – shoulder to shoulder – with no mask mandate, but yet we shouldn’t let them go down to the waterfront to watch the Shrimp Drop, but it might be OK to let them congregate there to watch fireworks,” Chapman said. “I don’t get it.”
Vice Mayor Len Kreger said he could consider all the events with the understanding that, in the event of a spike in coronavirus cases, they could be canceled.
Commissioner Chip Ross pointed out the Veterans Day parade is scheduled for Saturday so a decision on the event would have to be made at Wednesday’s meeting. He said the city could recommend parade viewers and participants wear masks and distance themselves.
“Is it perfect for having a Veterans Day parade? No, it’s not,” Ross said. “Is it going to happen whether we allow it or not? Probably.” He said he supported canceling the Christmas tree lighting and waiting to “see what develops” before making a decision on the Christmas parade and fireworks.
“It seems contradictory to the spirit of the holidays to bring somebody in at a time when, based on the world numbers … it’s not looking good right now,” Mayor Johnny Miller said. He noted the Christmas parade attracts a larger crowd than the Veterans Day parade so those watching would have less opportunity to spread out. He said moving the decision regarding the Christmas parade and fireworks allows the organizations organizing those events time to consider plans to make the events safer.
Gil Langley, CEO of the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau and managing director of the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council, said precautions to help limit the size of crowds and enforce distancing were “untenable.”
The commission unanimously approved permits for the Veterans Day and Christmas parades and but did decide to cancel the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, though the tree will still be set up and decorated. They will consider the status of the New Year’s Eve event, including the fireworks and Shrimp Drop, at a future meeting.
In other business:
• The commission approved an option agreement for the purchase of 5.35 acres of land the city wants to put into conservation. The city will pay $675,000 to Pheasant Run LLC for the property, which is located on a tributary to the Egans Creek Greenway. The North Florida Land Trust facilitated the sale but will not be contributing to the purchase price, Mark Hudson, the Trust’s director of strategic conservation, told the commission.
The Trust is in the process of buying other land on the island for conservation, he explained. That property was appraised at $720,000, Hudson said, and includes a mesic hammock forest. The purchase will prevent the installation of up to 16 septic systems on the property if it had ever been developed.
“This is how you conserve land,” Miller said. “You budget for it, you save up for it, you buy it and put it in conservation – no lawsuits, no arguments.” His comments were met with a round of applause.
• Commissioners considered reduction of a code enforcement fine against Dexter and Regina Rainey for having an inoperable vehicle on their property.
City Attorney Tammi Bach explained the city’s Code Enforcement cited the Raineys for more than a year because of the vehicle, which was recently sold, and those fines accumulated to about $14,000.
Code Enforcement recommended the fine be reduced to $2,500 plus $212 in administrative costs.
Ross said he did not feel comfortable ordering the Raineys to pay $2,712 simply because a vehicle sat on their property without a current registration sticker.
Chapman said the Raineys had sufficient time to correct the situation, and a reduction in the fine would be disrespectful to Code Enforcement’s work on the case.
The Raineys were not at the meeting to present their side of the situation, so commissioners voted to defer the matter until their next meeting. That would give them time, they said, to contact the Raineys about the fines.
• There were several revisions to the city’s charter, recommended by the Charter Review Committee, on the commission’s meeting agenda, but commissioners objected to some of the proposed changes so the charter amendments were moved to the Dec . 15 regular meeting agenda to give members more time to study the Committee’s recommendations.
• Commissioners also approved a work order with Passero Associates to provide design, construction documents and bidding for Phase 4 of the riverfront resiliency project and $31,110 for the purchase of Jaws of Life equipment for a new fire truck.