Simmons Road park construction underway

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  • The walking track around the new city park under construction on Simmons Road has an area veering to the east that a local property owner says is too close to her back yard. The city of Fernandina Beach said some additional trees and shrubs will be planted, but the property owner wants a fence. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
    The walking track around the new city park under construction on Simmons Road has an area veering to the east that a local property owner says is too close to her back yard. The city of Fernandina Beach said some additional trees and shrubs will be planted, but the property owner wants a fence. JULIA ROBERTS/NEWS-LEADER
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Plans for a park on Simmons Road that will be accessible to those with physical disabilities as well as on the autism spectrum are moving forward, but one person whose property abuts the park says it is too close for comfort.

The park, planned since 2018 for an undeveloped wooded parcel owned by the city, morphed from a rest station for those using the new Amelia River-to-Sea Trail into something more ambitious, including a playground for children with varying degrees of mobility and special needs. The elements of the park now include a quarter-mile walking track, the playground area, an ADA-accessible restroom, a pavilion-picnic area, and a parking lot with eight spaces.

Some members of the community objected to the park, saying the city was, on one hand, urging citizens to donate money to preserve undeveloped land, and on the other, developing a wooded lot it owns.

The Fernandina Beach Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee initially recommended the park plans, but then reconsidered. The committee asked the City Commission to delay a decision pending more public input and consideration by the PRAC, but the City Commission approved the plans by a 3-2 vote anyway.

The non-profit 8 Flag Playscapes, whose mission is to create playgrounds that are accessible to disabled children, partnered with the city to create the park and pledged $100,000 in equipment, design work, and other donations.

In 2018, the city applied to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for a $200,000 Florida Recreation Development Fund Assistance Program grant that would have required a dollar-for-dollar match by the city, which appeared in the fiscal year 2018-19 budget. When the city didn’t receive the grant, the Parks and
Recreation Department used some of the $200,000 budgeted for the matching funds to complete design and survey work and also purchased some basic equipment in July and August 2019. The city’s 2019-20 capital improvement budget had another $400,000 earmarked for the
park. City Manager Dale Martin said that, due to the project’s taking place over multiple fiscal years, $300,000 in impact fees was allocated for the project in the 2020-21 Capital Expansion budget.

After hearing the negative reactions to the plans, 8 Flags Playscapes approached Amelia Tree Conservancy, among others, for input on scaling back the project to have less environmental impact. According to a statement released last month by 8 Flags Playscapes Vice President Benjamin Morrison, re-engineering the drainage eliminated the need for retention ponds, leaving approximately 5,000 square feet of area originally set to be cleared untouched instead, the playground area was scaled down, the walking track is to be made of pervious material, and 25 oak trees approved for removal will be kept.

Parks and Recreation Director Nan Voit said the project is moving forward. The parking area and quarter-mile footpath have been cleared, the foundation for the restrooms has been poured, and the pavilion is about 70% completed.

Sandy Neuss’ back yard abuts the park’s eastern boundary, and changes to the park plan moved the walking track closer to her property. One point on the path has what almost appears to be a fork, with a cleared area that branches off toward her yard. Neuss said she and the president of the Egans Bluff Homeowners Association met with Voit and asked the city to erect a fence between the walking track and her property line to afford her some privacy and keep people from getting into her yard from the park. Instead, the city wants to plant shrubs and trees to create a thicker buffer, said Neuss, who worries not only about privacy but also security, so she is planning to install her own fence between her yard and the park.

“If the city thinks there won’t be kids there, and homeless people in that park, they are wrong,” Neuss told the News-Leader. “The path goes right into my back yard. No one else is impacted by the park.”

At its regular meeting on Oct. 6, the Fernandina Beach City Commission unanimously approved a Memorandum of Understanding with 8 Flags that is retroactive to May 2019. That memorandum indemnifies 8 Flags against any third-party claims not covered under the group’s insurance, according to City Attorney Tammi Bach, who said the city would then defend 8 Flags.

Noting the 18 months between the City Commission’s approval of the park and the MOU, City Commissioner Mike Lednovich said city processes need to be improved.

But City Commissioner Phil Chapman, voting to approve the MOU, noted the work done on the park after some in the community raised concerns about its design. “Instead of battling each other, everyone worked together and brought about pretty great changes,” Chapman said.

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com