Ocean Highway and Port Authority commissioners were nothing less than enraged at a letter sent by the city of Fernandina Beach requesting a house on port property holding the offices of U.S. Customs be preserved, and saying that state Sen. Aaron Bean and state Rep. Cord Byrd have been asked to sponsor legislation in the next session that would change the port’s charter – changes meant to ensure the port adheres to the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency determined the current customs house needs thousands of dollars in improvements in order to remain an office for that branch. No definite plans were made to upgrade the facility and the port has not yet determined where CBP will be located.
The Port of Fernandina is in the downtown Historic District of the city, and at the Oct. 14 OHPA meeting, OHPA attorney Jeb Branham told commissioners about the letter from City Attorney Tammi Bach regarding the preservation of the customs house as an historic structure. Branham brought a non-binding resolution to OHPA commissioners that said OHPA will “make reasonable efforts to preserve the customs house after CBP vacates it,” and that if the port does not have “practical ability” to preserve it, the city would be given the opportunity to remove the structure from port property.
OHPA Commissioner Carrol Franklin called out the city attorney regarding the matter.
“I find it very offensive that the city’s attorney writes us a letter telling us about our customs house, when we were just discussing it,” Franklin said. “We have not made no plans or anything to destroy this house or take it down, build a new one, or whatever. When it comes time, let’s face that problem then and do what’s right with the city historic committee and all. Right now, I think this is a waste of time for the city to even be attacking us for something like that. It’s senseless, in my opinion. I know exactly where it’s coming from. We do everything we can to preserve it.”
Referring to the resolution presented by Branham, Franklin continued, “I think we ought to take this piece of paper and throw it in the trashcan.”
Branham also presented a resolution that cut to the matter of a proposed warehouse that port operator Worldwide Terminals Fernandina CEO Chris Ragucci wants to install.
The building is made of fabric, like a big tent. Ragucci says he needs it, as the site on the property cannot support a traditional building. The city of Fernandina Beach said Ragucci needs to obtain a building permit and requires impact fees to be paid before the fabric warehouse can be erected, which would cost $25,000. However, the OHPA has determined that, under the port’s charter, it does not have to get the city’s approval before erecting the temporary building. Ragucci refused to pay, and Branham said that he and Bach came to an understanding that the OHPA is not responsible for the impact fees, but would pay the building fee permit of $2,000. The resolution Branham presented this week says that, and also that the OHPA would enter into an interlocal agreement with the city for OHPA to obtain building permits through the city in the future.
The commissioners unanimously passed the resolution regarding the building permit fee, and passed the resolution regarding the customs house 5-1, with Franklin casting the dissenting vote. They noted it is important to be able to show Bean and Byrd that they are making an effort to improve their relationship with the city.
“This resolution gives us more ammunition,” OHPA Chairman Danny Fullwood said. “It doesn’t seem like the city wants to work with us. They just want to throw things at us. They talk about we don’t have good relations, then they throw crap like this at us.”
The OHPA also wants to end the city’s effort to get the port’s charter changed to require it to adhere to regulations within the city limits such as zoning and permitting. Those efforts are one of the matters the Fernandina Beach City Commission has made a legislative priority, meaning the city has asked Bean and Byrd to take action in the next legislative session in Tallahassee, which begins in March.
The OHPA did not receive a port director’s report, a tonnage report, or a port operator’s report, as Ragucci, the port’s director, did not attend the meeting. No reason was given. He texted Branham during the meeting to say he would be late, but he did not come at all.
Branham said he had spoken with the president of the Florida Ports Council, Doug Wheeler, who said Ragucci could not act as port director nor attend meetings of the FPC, as he is also the CEO of the company contracted to operate the port, Worldwide Terminals Fernandina. Branham said Wheeler suggested Branham attend the next FPC meeting in December to represent the port until the OHPA replaces Ragucci as port director, which was approved.