Seemingly foreshadowing the coming upheaval that coronavirus would cause in the United States just days later, members of the Fernandina Beach Planning Advisory Board said at their March 11 meeting that they want to get back to “the way things used to be.”
But on that late afternoon, they were referencing how the PAB’s members were selected before LignoTech Florida came to town four years ago.
In December 2015, Rayonier Advanced Materials and Borregaard, a Norwegian company, announced their intention to build a lignin processing plant next to RYAM’s existing mill, which sits on land that juts into the Amelia River at the west end of Gum Street. The project carried a hefty estimated price tag of $110 to $125 million, and RYAM said the plant would employ about 50 in high-paying jobs.
City, county, and state officials – touting the economic benefits of all that cash being infused into the local economy – quickly jumped on board in an effort to fast track the proposed facility, but not everyone thought putting a plant that could use potentially hazardous chemicals on the east bank of the Amelia River and in the city’s floodplain was necessarily a good idea, economic benefits or not. Many local residents objected to the project.
The PAB spent more than six months analyzing the project, and as the days ticked by, city commissioners grew more and more impatient with the approval process, with then-commissioner Tim Poynter saying, “We as the commission told the PAB we wanted LignoTech to move forward, but the PAB ... was an obstructionist to what we wanted to do.”
The disharmony between the two boards led to resignations by several PAB members, including the board’s chair, causing even more delays.
Finally, in the fall of 2016, RYAM and Borregaard, indicating they might take the lignin plant elsewhere, gave the city a deadline for approving the project, but the PAB continued to balk, so City Commission members took matters into their own hands by dissolving the PAB and then reconstituting it with the board’s five voting members each being appointed by a commissioner.
The new PAB represented a sea change in how members were appointed. Whereas members of the public with experience relevant to serving on the PAB previously submitted applications to the city, as happens with all other city boards, city commissioners now expressly selected PAB members to represent each commissioner’s views. The City Commission, then composed of Johnny Miller, Len Kreger, Roy Smith, Tim Poynter, and Robin Lentz, stopped short of saying that they expected their PAB stand-ins to vote as they would on issues.
Current City Commissioner Chip Ross was one of the PAB members who was “fired,” as Ross characterized the board’s dissolution while addressing the current PAB this month.
As the board’s current members – each still appointed by individual city commissioners – discussed their dissatisfaction with the system, Ross expressed concern that the PAB could be “packed” with a majority because of the election cycle that has three city commissioners all elected in one year, as will happen in 2020.
While PAB member Greg Roland said he doesn’t want the same situation that affected Ross to happen again, all members were mostly concerned about the loss of institutional knowledge that can happen when PAB members’ terms are tied to the city commissioners they represent.
“If a commissioner decides not to run, poof! That person is gone,” PAB member Genece Minshew said. Minshew is running this year for the Group 1 seat on the City Commission.
Members pointed out that a new PAB member, even one experienced in the industry, can take up to a year to become familiar with city code, board processes, and residents’ wishes.
Fernandina Beach Main Street Executive Director Arlene Filkoff, who has also served as a city commissioner and mayor, told the members that city boards – especially the PAB
and the Historic District Council – should remain apolitical
and be composed of people who understand the issues on their agendas.
PAB members also agreed that their alternate, non-voting members, who spend the same amount of time attending board meetings and studying issues in case they’re ever called upon to fill in for a regular member, should have a vote, expanding the board from five to seven members.
The board voted unanimously to send their amendment to the Land Development Code to the City Commission for approval. The amendment would revert how members are appointed to be in line with other city boards, change the length of members’ terms and stagger them, and expand the board to seven regular members.
In other business, the Planning Advisory Board:
• Approved an amendment that will limit height encroachments to chimneys and vents on properties in a defined area along the coast. That area was increased to 1,000 feet on either side of a Coastal Construction Control Line, which is defined in Florida Statutes.
• Approved an amendment that would allow kitchenettes in accessory dwellings located in Old Town, but with several restrictions: The dwellings cannot be rented, and the kitchenettes can only have a sink, a 10-cubic-foot or less refrigerator, a microwave, and a wet bar.
• Approved an amendment that would add a 90-day waiting period to demolition permits that are approved by staff. Members said city staff would use the time to document the structure to be demolished and also discuss other options with the property owner.
• Postponed action on an amendment that would allow an “aggrieved person” to appeal a decision by the HDC, because the amendment did not define who would qualify as an aggrieved person. The board will take up the issue again at its next meeting.