The final question at the City Commission Candidate Forum Thursday, which asked for ideas to support and sustain industrial businesses, could have been submitted by C.A. McDonald, the general manager of Rayonier Advanced Materials, the pulp mill along the Amelia River at the foot of Gum St. He had a second row seat in the commission chambers at City Hall Thursday evening to hear Orlando Avila and Ronald “Chip” Ross speak about their vision for the city. They’re competing Dec. 12 in a run-off election for a seat on the board. (Miss the forum? It is posted on the city website at www.fbfl.us.)
Perhaps the executive director of the Nassau County Economic Development Board asked about industrial prosperity. Laura DiBella worked to get a long-term tax break for RAYM’s joint venture LignoTech Florida, a heavy manufacturing facility that is being built along the river south of the mill and scheduled to open next year with 50 high-wage jobs.
LignoTech project manager Mark Homans, who was also in attendance, could have written the question. Audience members were asked to submit queries on an index card and send them over to event sponsor Concerned Friends of Fernandina through moderator Chuck Hall, who had a dozen or so prepared questions to ask first. But whomever wanted to know what the candidates would do for local industry, there were many people in the audience with keen interest in the answer.
So, what would the candidates do to help RAYM, LignoTech Florida, and Westrock, Fernandina’a other pulp mill?
The answers, vague and dull for listeners, were safely bland offerings by a would-be commissioner.
“I’m a fan of having a good relationship with all businesses large and small,” said Mr. Avila, a shipping agent who does business at the Port of Fernandina and JaxPort. “You want to be a good partner with them.”
Mr. Avila also said, “We have a duty to make sure everything is safe and the economic viability is protected.”
Okay, sure. But what would you do?
“Number one is communication,” said Mr. Avila.
Mr. Ross, an emergency room physician at Baptist Nassau, also called for communication through workshops.
He would like the City Commission to hold monthly meetings with the mills and other interest groups, such as the airport and golf course to ask, “What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong?”
He said citizens should be involved in the discussions. “We need a more transparent process,” he said.
Mr. Ross called industry “an important part” of the community. “But they’re one part.”
The candidates took more than a dozen questions on key issues and had two minutes to provide answers.
Does Fernandina have a parking problem or a walking problem? Paid parking has recently been considered.
“I’m probably more in the camp of parking as a convenience,” said Mr. Ross, who pushed for more sidewalks “so people feel safe.”
Parking rules need to be enforced, he said, and paid parking is not needed.
“I don’t think we need paid parking. It creates revenue, not parking,” he said.
Mr. Avila said, “I lean toward parking being a convenience as well.” He called for enforcement of the city’s three-hour parking rule, calling the effort a “no-brainer.”
Mr. Avila also said parking issues can be solved “organically” through ride share services such as Uber and Lyft. “You can pile four people in the car,” he said.
Should the city build the Welcome Center for the municipal airport?
Both candidates said the project has already been approved, so whatareyagonnado?
Mr. Ross said the $2.1 million project has “ballooned” into a $4.3 million to $4.7 million effort. But he’d like to stop the “silliness” of plans to add a “nose” and “tail” on the building (so it looks like an airplane from above).
“Enough is enough,” he said.
Mr. Avila called the project “an excessive expense” and said scaling it back was an option to consider.
“Our airport is not a tourist attraction…to walk around and ogle at it,” he said. “An overly engineered building has come to fruition.”
Should the city allow developers to build on wetlands?
Mr. Ross said the city should follow the current rule: “Thou shalt not fill wetlands.”
The wetlands, he said, “are essential for sopping up water during hurricanes and storms.”
Mr. Avila said, “Filling wetlands for the sake of development is not a good thing” and that experts, such as the St. Johns River Water Management District, should decide.
The commission approved this year a large residential development on wetlands at S. 14th St. and Lime St. It was challenged by Mr. Ross in an administrative appeal but it is moving forward.
The answer was likely good for Spurgeon Richardson, the property’s real estate developer who donated $150 to Mr. Avila’s campaign and was among the 90 or so people in the room (chairs were counted by lead organizer Julie Ferreira and additions were made for people who stood).
How about combining lots at the beach? Is that okay?
“If you own property, you should be able to develop to the highest and best use,” said Mr. Avila. “But there are limits…we should have restrictions and balance.”
Mr. Ross said the city needs to revisit the Land Development Code “so everybody plays by the same rules.”
How should the city prepare for Rayonier’s Wildlight district? Thousands of houses are planned along with commercial development and the new residents are expected to visit the city and beach.
Mr. Ross said the city’s Comprehensive Plan has a 15 to 20 year plan to address density concerns. He said parking areas for ‘residents only’ should be considered. He said the island provides 60 percent of the county’s property tax revenue and local governments need to work together. “We’re already carrying our load,” he said.
Mr. Avila sees Wildlight as bedroom community for Jacksonville “and those amenities down there.” Crowds, he said, will be similar in size to those during peak tourist season now. If there are concerns, he said, they are at Peters Point, a county beachfront park on the south end of Amelia Island.
Should the city support the municipal golf course with money from the general fund?
A swimming pool and park may draw more people to the facility, said Mr. Avila. “Times change, amenities have to change with them,” he said. When the husband golfs, the wife can play tennis, he said.
Mr. Ross said the course gets mixed reviews on travel site TripAdvisor and he wants to know why. “Drill down,” he said. He also said he would never vote to sell golf course land and would keep it for conservation and recreation.
What would you do to save the tree canopy?
“I’d enforce the tree ordinance,” said Mr. Ross. He would also look at Public Private Partnerships to advocate for buying sensitive land.
Mr. Avila said he supports Public Private Partnerships because it is “economically unfeasible” for the city to take on tree preservation without financial help. He said citizens can set up trusts and leave money in wills for trees. “We can explore that,” he said.
Sea Level Rise is a threat. What steps would you take to mitigate flooding along the river?
Flooding is already here, said Mr. Ross, and he is looking for an island-wide solution. The city could, he suggested, raise building requirements to two feet elevation from one foot elevation. “Expensive now…but less (expensive) to repair,” he said.
Mr. Avila said SLR must be a “holistic” approach. “There’s no cure-all,” he said. “There’s no band-aide.”
Would you allow building on Parking Lot D? The lot is south of the marina along Front St.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at least at the outset,” said Mr. Avila, who also expressed frustration at city efforts to move forward on waterfront redevelopment. “We can’t keep talking about it and planning and not executing,” he said.
Mr. Ross said no. “I think it should be reserved for a park,” he said.
Asked about plans for moving the city forward, Mr. Avila said he would like to see a balanced tax base with non-homestead commercial properties. “Encourage existing companies to expand,” he said.
Mr. Ross said he would tap local expertise and form a Financial Advisory Committee.
Should the city restrict ‘high risk’ materials at the Port of Fernandina?
Mr. Ross said he is opposed to transporting hazardous materials that will have a negative impact on citizens. And he would like to update the port element of the Comprehensive Plan.
Mr. Avila said laws have to be followed and gasoline, a hazardous material, is stored at the marina. “We can’t look at everything…can’t drill down just at the port,” he said.
The city increased the size and scope of development (raising density this year to 34 units per acre from 10 units). Are you in favor?
“No,” said Mr. Ross.
City staff has been pushing expansion of the Central Business District and “you’re supposed to find out need” first, according to the Comprehensive Plan, which is due, he said, for a Housing Needs Assessment and Neighborhood Study. He said the city had an “unfocused” effort and downtown property owners are now being approached by developers who want to knock down buildings and rebuild. He said the character of the community is at risk.
Mr. Avila said, “I think a vibrant urban core is essential” and affordable and workforce housing needs can be met with increased density. He called for a streamlined permitting process and said development is coming and population is growing. “Let’s welcome it and set the tone.”
What is a good financial steward?
Studying information from staff and other resources, setting budgets, looking for revenue, said Mr. Avila.
Mr. Ross said it is living within your means.
Should the city open Alachua St.? It is closed at Front St. to vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
“Now that’s a kettle of fish,” said Mr. Ross, who said he has studied the issue for 30 to 40 hours and would like the city to spend money on a crosswalk, which he estimated at $30,000, before opening the roadway to vehicles. In his estimation, that would cost $500,000 to $800,000.
“Can you even put a crossing in there and have a car turn and twist?” he said.
Mr. Avila said opening the roadway could spur redevelopment and offset the cost. “Get the smart people in the room and count those beans,” he said.
In closing remarks, Mr. Ross read complimentary letters from a judge in Maryland, where he previously lived and battled in court a bar near his home that went from 1,500 sq. ft. to 15,000 sq. ft. without proper permitting, and a chief nurse who praised him for professional, dedicated work. Mr. Ross has received disparaging and untruthful remarks on social media and wanted to set the record straight.
Mr. Avila said in closing remarks that he loves the community and is raising his family here. He has an office for his shipping business on Sadler Rd.
“We want to be sure to take advantage of economic opportunity as it comes our way,” he said. “Having a good mix of properties on the tax rolls helps (improve) the quality of life.”
According to the Supervisor of Elections (www.votenassau.com), Mr. Avila has raised $9,847 for his campaign and Mr. Ross has raised $3,850 for his campaign.
Mr. Avila has received $1,000 from the Florida Conservative Alliance, a political action committee chaired by State Senator Aaron Bean, and $1,500 from his in-laws—School Board President Donna Martin and Nassau Veterans Service Officer John Martin. His company, All American Shipping Agents donated $500. The President of CSX Intermodal Terminal in Jacksonville Wilby Whitt donated $100 to the campaign.
Mr. Ross has received $3,850 in contributions, according to the SOE. He is his campaign’s largest donor at $1,000.