Long-time Amelia Island residents Pat Keogh and Phil Griffin are successful businessmen, entrepreneurs, and two very savvy, well-respected citizens who disagree with Fernandina Beach City Commissioners Chip Ross and Mike Lednovich about the controversial Amelia Buff housing development. They articulately voice their opinions on why here. But first some background.
Lednovich, and his partner in City Commission chaos, Ross, want to tear up the agreement the city has with the Amelia Bluff housing developer, somehow believing they can be the first to put toothpaste back in a tube. They urged like-minded folks — whether they live here or not –to join them at City Hall this past Tuesday while ignoring common sense, reason and logic, nothing new for this pair.
Mr. Keogh and Mr. Griffin are not a duo of money grubbing “development at any cost, damn the consequences” businessmen. Just the opposite. They are informed residents as concerned about the city’s wetlands, parks, tree canopy and wildlife as any of those citizens that packed the Commission chambers this past Tuesday, March 19, to hash out the city’s Amelia Bluff development snafu.
Unlike the 18-month resident and California transplant Lednovich, and his “I’ll sue your pants off” pal Ross, Messrs Keogh and Griffin have actual hands-on experience in dealing with such local matters. In the past both have been vocal public critics of city officials and commissioners when they felt their decisions weren’t in the best interests of the community as a whole. They look for a balance. And they’ve never been reluctant to wag a finger in my direction when they think I’ve got the facts wrong or have an opinion that went off the rails. They take risks by investing their time and money in building a community, not tearing up approved legal agreements then tearing things down to please special interest groups.
Even the local News-Leader’s liberal editor, Peg Davis, piled on with a sophomoric front-page editorial last week telling the developer to “Get out of town.” When’s the last time you’ve ever read a front-page editorial in a newspaper on anything? Does Publisher Foy Maloy ever come to the office or read this paper anymore?
Without thinking through any financial or legal implications to the city and its tax-paying residents, a number of speakers at last Tuesday’s session urged the commissioners to put environmental concerns ahead of any possible litigation with the developer, who has cleared land and built infrastructure on the basis of permits issued to him by the city and the St. Johns Water Management District. Many of those speakers included a number who do not even live in the city limits such as an unhinged and intellectually dishonest, Robert Weintraub. (Full disclosure: “Bullet Bob” Weintraub, was once my next-door neighbor, who publically threatened on Facebook to shoot me and my wife following the 2016 presidential election, resulting in a visit to him by the Fernandina Police Department.)
The Commission meeting ended without a decision. The Commission and the property developer’s agent, agreed to put that off until an April 16 session. In the meantime the city manager, city attorney and staff will meet with the property agent to determine if there is a way to resolve the issue.
My opinion? If the late sportscaster Red Barber were to survey the current situation he’d probably say: “The developer is sitting in the catbird seat,” meaning he’s ahead in the game with the bases loaded, nobody out in the ninth inning, with Mike Trout at bat sitting on a 3-0 count. The city has already slowed the developer down by issuing a “stop work” order. If the Commission votes to renege on the deal it signed with the developer it opens itself up to litigation it is unlikely to win according to legal folks I’ve asked. Operating with city approval and permits, the developer has already poured $2.5 million into the Citrona Street site including water and sewer infrastructure, curbs, streets, and contracts on seven of the 30 planned $600,000-$700,000 priced homes. In addition five acres of the property they purchased from the Nassau County School Board have been donated to the city as wetlands. The developer has also agreed to pay $115,000 to the city for conservation purposes upon final plat approval. On their own initiative and at no cost they also paved a sidewalk for the across the street high school because they thought it was the right thing to do. “Put it back like it was you lousy carpetbaggers,” demand the crazed Lednovich-Ross incited mob.
Local attorney, Clinch Kavanaugh, a life-long resident of Fernandina, spoke directly to Commissioner Ross at Tuesday’s session telling him that failure to approve the development would result in costly litigation that the city would lose. He suggested that instead of putting money into a lawsuit the city should invest in a reforestation program to replant trees where they were inappropriately removed and to replace dead or dying trees, an idea seconded by Mr. Griffin later in this piece. According to the online Fernandina Observer Kavanaugh’s idea was “the only specific suggestion to promote conservation in a broader sense” during the meeting.
The Lednovich-Ross duo, and the torch and pitchfork crowd they incited want none of it. They don’t care. They want the developer and his development gone. It has become so nutty that yesterday I received an email from somebody in a nearby neighborhood saying they’re going door-to-door with a petition to demand the resignation of Commissioner Phil Chapman because he is wavering on the side of the builder and called the anti-development mob a “mob.” Another posting, urging the Commission to stop the development, came from a guy who identified himself as a U. S. Coast Guard Captain, Licensed Master, in an organization called Conservation Action Group, implying that the Coast Guard supports or is part of this group, which it does not and is not.
This past Wednesday Commissioner Lednovich told me emphatically that the builder couldn’t sue the city for loss of future revenue because “that was against the law.” When I asked what law that was he said he didn’t know the exact legal statute. Really Commissioner? I think you can sue the Pope for being a Catholic. Just ask your pal Commissioner Ross, a lawsuit expert, who twice that I’m aware of sued this city — at a cost to tax payers of about $20,000 — before being voted onto the commission.
Mr. Keogh says the entire episode reminds him of a hotel deal on Sadler some years ago saying: “Tom, a school mate of mine who lived near the site did not want the hotel there next to the Cedar River restaurant. Why? He just didn’t want another hotel. Knowing that ‘Tom Doesn’t Want Another Hotel’ might not be a winning cause he framed his opposition as preserving precious wetlands. There’s a shibboleth any self respecting Floridian can get behind.”
“Tom and his cohorts raised enough ruckus until the city agreed to buy the property. The city paid the owner his purchase price plus his legal and planning costs. That’s how the city handles property conflicts; they throw your money at them. So add that parcel to the array of nonperforming assets bought and paid for by the city with your money.”
“Want a fun filled Sunday family drive?” asks Keogh facetiously. “Then, go to the Nassau County Appraiser’s web site and enter ‘City of Fernandina Beach’ as the property owner. You will find some 208 parcels. Any idea what all that is worth? No? Neither does the city. But not only was much of that bought with your money but you continue to pay for it with your taxes because those properties generate costs and no real estate tax income. Take that Sunday drive and check out all your stuff.”
Pat, who is also an attorney, spent a number of years on the Nassau Planning and Zoning board and knows the topic well.
“While on the Board, if I had been confronted with a proposal like the Citrona project there is no question that I would have voted for the change in the comprehensive plan because the project is a high value addition to the surrounding compatible residential development,” he says.
“But that’s not the way this city works. It either engages in endless, costly and inevitably losing litigation or it buys the property to add to its growing portfolio of dormant assets. All managed by its long time lawyer and fixer, Tammi Bach.”
Mr. Griffin, an 18-year resident of Amelia Island a long-time area broker who owns Amelia Coastal Realty, submitted the following assessment of the situation to this blog following the Commission session:
Letter to the Editor:
I am very concerned that the Commission would contemplate reneging on the development agreement at Amelia Bluff. Denying developers the right to develop this property after they went through the permit process is an action that would surely lead to a Burt Harris Act claim against the taxpayers. This would also send a message to the public that the City of Fernandina Beach cannot be trusted to honor a signed contract.
Homeowners and business owners should be wary of any precedent that might be set for the city to seize private property under the guise of a past error by the planning department, building department or due to code changes or scrivener errors.
It is quite logical that the reason this slipped through the cracks is because the land was held by another government entity, so there was no reason to be concerned with the underlying zoning or Land Use Map. It was owned by the school district which is normally zoned as Public Lands and Institutions.
Did any of the dissenters consider how much the land could have been negatively impacted had the school district built a 100,000 square-foot school with a three acre parking lot, bus area, and playgrounds and more versus what 30 homes will make on the overall land?
Furthermore there is nothing that says that private landowners will not be better stewards of the remaining trees. Only 25% of the land will be used for houses and roads anyway so there is no reason that man and nature cannot coexist on this site. This project is contextually aligned with hundreds of similar houses along the Citrona and Will Hardee roads that follow the uplands of Egans Creek.
It would be easy for the commissioners to appease the mob that cries to save every parcel on the island from any kind of development, but they also have a duty to obey the laws of the land and respect property rights.
There are better ways to save trees than attacking developers. This obsession with finding ways to halt legal development even after it’s been approved has to stop and the energy needs to be put into amending our Land Development Code to encourage what we all want — tree preservation.
Prior mistakes by city officials have led to lawsuits that cost tax payers millions. These included the illegal accounting and use of impact fees, the airport FBO disaster and purchasing park equipment.
The last thing we need is for the commissioners to create another lawsuit against taxpayers. Instead let’s consider other properties where we could constructively use our tax money. Assuming we have an extra $3-5 million to spend on stopping this project and refunding the school district and developer for losses, why not consider other property improvements including:
- Purchasing vacant lots at market or below market pricing
- Purchasing the South 8th Street concrete plant and planting 200 trees
- Creating a park on the waterfront
- Buying 200 acres of Rayonier land and make a city park in central Nassau County
Citizens can always donate their own property to the city or a conservation entity if they want. What society does not have is the right to deny other property owners from building on their legally owned land.
I am willing to work with and or meet with any group that is serious about forming a citizen’s group to save trees and discuss ways to achieve this goal. We are all in this together
Phil Griffin, Broker, Amelia Coastal Realty, email@example.com
Seniors Own The Rental Market: Older Americans are increasingly choosing to rent instead of owning a home, according to a new analysis of U.S. Census data. The number of renters age 60 and older in large U.S. cities rose 43 percent from 2007-2017, RentCafe reports. A researcher at RentCafe said seniors like the flexibility and affordability that renting provides. — Source: Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Things I Wish I’d Said: “Too bad that the only people that know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair.” — George Burns
Fascinating Factoids: Did Nero fiddle while Rome burned? He may have fiddled around, but he couldn’t have played the fiddle during Rome’s Great Fire in A.D. 64 because that musical instrument wasn’t invented until the Middle Ages. *** There are 350 varieties of sharks, not including loan and pool.
Drinking, Dining & Dancing: I have it on good authority (the pub owner and the drummer’s wife) that the Jacksonville-based Sunjammer Band that will be performing tomorrow, Saturday, March 23, at Main Beach’s Sandbar Restaurant & Kitchen, will knock your socks off. I’ve never heard them but Sandbar owner Kevin Dooner says even an old foggie like me will enjoy this rock and roll group. The drummer’s wife, Jill Metlin, sent a note informing me that the band is a mix of “younger dudes and aging rock-n-rollers who have been jamming together for years.” She said “the one male and one female lead singer will entertain all evening and the music is so good it gets people up and dancing, clapping their hands, and singing along.” That got my attention so I’ll be there when they start at 7 p.m.