City mulls how it can safely conduct hearings

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  • The short stretch of beach at the dead end of Sadler Road where the city of Fernandina Beach permits on-beach parking is scheduled to reopen at 6 a.m. today, according to City Manager Dale Martin. ROBERT FIEGE/NEWS-LEADER
    The short stretch of beach at the dead end of Sadler Road where the city of Fernandina Beach permits on-beach parking is scheduled to reopen at 6 a.m. today, according to City Manager Dale Martin. ROBERT FIEGE/NEWS-LEADER
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The Fernandina Beach City Commission continues reacting to new situations created by the coronavirus. At Tuesday’s regular but remote meeting, commissioners scrapped a city referendum on land conservation, discussed how to accommodate public input during restricted meetings, and agreed to reopen beach parking at the Sadler Road beach access.

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stay-at-home order took effect April 1, City Commission meetings have been held remotely, and the city’s various board and committee meetings, such as the Planning Advisory Board, Airport Advisory Commission, and Parks & Recreation Advisory Committee, have been canceled. In some cases, their rescheduled meetings of the future will involve proceedings that are quasi-judicial in nature, where sworn testimony is taken. Examples of quasi-judicial hearings are variance requests heard by the city’s Board of Adjustment and all Historic District Council cases. Without the approval of those boards, some projects cannot move forward.

At this week’s City Commission meeting, City Attorney Tammi Bach discussed a resolution outlining the procedure for boards to hold remote meetings. Bach said the resolution was written quickly to get it on the agenda, so she added an amendment regarding testimony in a quasi-judicial proceeding. Apologizing for what she said was a res-

olution that was “lacking” due to the speed with which she wrote it, Bach said its language is based on how the city of St. Augustine is handling what are supposed to be public meetings.

Bach told the commissioners she also added an amendment based on procedures put in place by the city of Miami Lakes. That amendment allows affected parties to participate in quasi-judicial hearings. She said the procedures could be changed as needed, but recommended the commission move ahead to put a policy in place.

“We absolutely have the technology (at City Hall),” Bach said. “Other cities have a separate Zoom meeting or a waiting room. There is a way to engage the public who want to be sitting there listening. They get called when it’s their turn to speak and they are basically patched into our meeting. These rules say you can call in, not sitting and waiting on the phone.

“In other cities, it’s only been a week or two that they have had rules in place to allow this.

“In terms of in-person attendance, there are already rules out there that we can adopt. We are ready to have meetings in May, and we can have rules in place and staff in the chambers.

“I’m not expecting a huge turnout for these meetings. There isn’t anything real controversial, so we will be able to make room for physical or virtual attendance and commenting.”

Commissioner Mike Lednovich expressed concern about people physically attending meetings, noting that the mayor and city manager, who were at City Hall during the remote meeting, were not wearing face masks.

“If you think that I’m going up there to be part of that group, and nobody wearing masks … you’re out of your mind,” Lednovich said. “Until they have a vaccine, I don’t think any reasonable person who has regard for their own health, or the health of others, is going to join a group in a meeting.”

Lednovich asked that the resolution be changed in order for citizens to give input at remote meetings by telephone, but there was a concern that persons calling into meetings could not be verified.

The resolution to move forward with a plan to allow for public input at remote meetings passed with a unanimous vote, allowing city officials to make changes as needed to address an evolving situation.

The commission discussed, but did not take action on, a November referendum to make permanent the half-mill currently on city property taxes to raise money for land conservation efforts. The revenue went into a special account and is being used to fund the purchase of land for conservation and recreation.

The commission had planned to put the matter on the ballot, but with many property owners facing financial hardships due to the coronavirus pandemic, the consensus of the commissioners was that they would not pursue it. There was no vote taken on the matter since it was not a question specifically addressed on the meeting’s agenda.

Another change brought about by the coronavirus, the closing of some of the city’s recreational and public amenities, was also discussed at the meeting.

While city beaches opened to the public earlier this week, an area of the beach usually open for the parking of 4-wheel drive vehicles has remained closed. The prime spot at Seaside Park, at the intersection of Sadler Road and South Fletcher Avenue, includes restrooms that have been closed.

Lednovich said he has received emails from the public regarding what they perceive as a dangerous situation due to the removal of those beach parking spots.

“I drove up and down Fletcher twice, about noon and 2 p.m. Every single parking lot access point was full,” he said. “What we’re doing is funneling pedestrians into that roundabout where cars are backed up. That’s an accident waiting to happen.

“I believe firmly we need to reopen that on-beach parking to relieve the stress on these parking lots and to prevent a pedestrian-auto or pedestrian-motorcycle accident that’s going to happen with beach goers on their way from leaving the beach.”

City Manager Dale Martin said the area is historically the most densely populated place on the beach, and the intent of closing the beach parking was to prevent that density and help stop the spread of the coronavirus. He said the plan had been to keep on-beach parking closed until Memorial Day to monitor the spread of the virus, and make a decision from data collected until then.

Commissioner Phil Chapman said he does not believe the public will maintain guidelines intended to keep people from transmitting the virus.

“People are supposed to wear masks. They don’t, so are we going to have socially distancing police that go to these places?” Chapman asked. “It’s not like most of these people can’t access the beach. It’s just a little more inconvenient and difficult.’

“One of my big concerns is, we are going to see another spike. The second spike may be worst than the first one. … People are leaving gloves and masks on the beach. They’re not being responsible. Who’s supposed to clean up these masks and gloves? If people could keep their word and be responsible, that would be one thing, but I don’t think people are acting responsible about the beaches.”

The commissioners agreed to defer to the city’s police and fire chiefs.

Martin issued a memo Thursday morning detailing the city recreational facilities and bathrooms that would open today. The Sadler Road Beach Access is scheduled to open for 4-wheel drive vehicles to park beginning at 6 a.m.

The Fernandina Beach Fire Department furnishes lifeguards at beaches on the island, and Fire Chief Ty Silcox told the News-Leader the reopening won’t stress his department.

“It will put more people on the beach,” Silcox said. “We just ask that people act responsibly. Don’t park too close to each other or set up too close to each other. Follow social distancing guidelines and use common sense.”

Police Chief James Hurley said his department has had very few issues since the city reopened beaches Monday, except for the need for parking. “We want to open all available parking to make it easier to access the beach, while continuing to stress the need to maintain physical distance as appropriate,” Hurley said.

The commission voted to postpone a vote to enter into an interlocal agreement with the Nassau County Property Appraiser’s Office supporting shared services for Geographic Information System services. The additional costs incurred in the revised agreement, $65,200, would have allowed the property appraiser to hire staff dedicated to support city services in GIS and create enhanced tools online for public use.

Commissioner Chip Ross had concerns about the agreement. Ross said the prior year-to-year agreement in place cost the city $5,000, and the new agreement provides services the city might not need. He wanted to postpone the vote on the new agreement until the City Commission’s June 2 meeting in order to get more information about the new services provided to the city.

The motion to postpone the matter until June 2 passed by a 3-2 vote, with Vice Mayor Len Kreger and Mayor Johnny Miller casting the dissenting votes.

In other business, the City Commission:

• Proclaimed May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day and the week of May 10 as National Police Week;

• Recognized the Amelia Island Beach and Marine Life Conservancy Beach Ambassadors for their environmental stewardship;

• Approved an agreement to receive $34,031 from the Florida Department of Transportation for lighting at the airport;

• Approved a change order with Dunmar Group Inc. in the amount by $1,800 for additional work relating to a drainage project on North 15th Street;

•  Approved a work order with Passero Associates in the amount of $89,200 to provide T-hangar design and bid services at the airport;

* Approved a work order with Passero in the amount of $102,000 to complete a waterfront stabilization analysis and building condition assessment of Brett’s Waterway Café;

• Approved a $400,000 option agreement with JR Holdings for the acquisition of land near the Egans Creek Greenway for conservation;

• Approved a transfer of $25,000 from the Fire Improvements account,  $4,555 from the Fire Communications – Internet account, and $11,000 from the General Fund Contingency account to the Fire Machinery and Equipment account (total $40,555) for costs associated with the purchase of a Decontamination System and Polaris Ranger;

• Amended city code to extend the time frame for tax exemption for completion of work on qualifying improvement projects in the downtown Historic District from two to five years;

• Amended city code to standardize all board appointment terms to begin Jan. 1 and end  Dec. 31 of the given term;

• Prohibited establishments that utilize computer or video displays of games and contests that are generally associated with gambling;

• Approved the amended fee schedules for the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport and Planning & Conservation Department; and

• Amended tree protection enforcement and penalties in the city’s Land Development Code.

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com