By AMELIA A. HART
FERNANDINA BEACH – A proposal to annex 53 oceanfront properties off South Fletcher Avenue is shaping up as a referendum on beach driving.
A divided City Commission voted 3-2 Tuesday night to approve an ordinance that would put a petition to annex 14.27 acres south of the city limits and north of Peters Point Park on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.
Because referendums for that election need to be filed with the state by Thursday, the City Commission has scheduled a special meeting to have a second reading of the ordinance at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.
If the ordinance is approved Tuesday, two referendums asking whether the incorporated area should be annexed into Fernandina would be held Nov. 4.
One would be for the area’s residents – which includes Sandpiper Beach Homes, Villas of Ocean Dunes and 13 single-family homes – and one for city residents.
Both referendums have to pass or the annexation would fail.
Sandpiper Beach Homes Association President Thomas Gambino said 81 percent of the property owners want annexation, 13 percent are opposed and 6 percent are undecided.
However, according to city officials, there are only nine registered Nassau County voters in the proposed annexation area.
Public comment on the issue during the first hearing on the ordinance at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting pivoted almost exclusively on beach driving.
Vehicles now are permitted along the stretch of beach fronting the properties, but that would end if the annexation goes through.
Under the terms of Senate Bill 1577, an agreement reached between state, county and south island resorts in 1989 regarding beach parking on the unincorporated island, beach parking is allowed from Peters Point north to the city limits. If the properties are annexed, the city limits would move, allowing beach driving only in the stretch of beach in front of the park.
Speakers on both sides of the issue drew applause from the packed chamber, with residents asking for the annexation saying beach driving is both a safety hazard and an environmental danger, and those opposed pleading for the commission to reject the proposal and preserve one of the last places where they can still enjoy the “treasured” tradition of driving on the beach.
Longtime beach-access advocate Lowell Hall decried the proposed annexation as a move to privatize the beaches, leaving them open only those who live along the oceanfront.
“Now, there’s another attempt to take the beaches from the residents of this city, this state and our visitors to the north,” Hall said. “This beach belongs to us all.”
Proponents said ending beach driving was the best way to preserve the beach for everyone.
“The beach is not meant for cars, and we need to protect the beach for decades to come and for our children and grandchildren,” South Fletcher resident Otto Kinzel said.
Nassau County Sheriff Tommy Seagraves disputed contentions by some area residents that he had told them that budget restraints prevented his officers from patrolling the beach.
Based on calls tracked by the county’s computer-aided dispatch system, Seagraves deputies had responded to 42 calls for service at Peters Point and north to the city limits in the last seven months, while initiating 565 calls themselves, including 408 property and security checks, in the same period.
“We have responded there. And we have done what we’re supposed to do in terms of response,” Seagraves said.
Commissioner Susan Steger voted for the ordinance along with Mayor Bruce Malcolm and Commissioner Ken Walker.
Saying the decision had been made long ago to prohibit beach driving in Fernandina, Steger said she approached the proposal from the annexation point of view.
She said there would be a minimal cost to the city to annex the property – estimated to add $150,000 to $160,000 in property taxes annually to the city.
“It’s in the best interest for the majority of the city to annex this,” she said.
Commissioner Eric Childers, who voted against the ordinance along with Commissioner Ron Sapp, described the opportunity to drive on the beach as one of the “jewels of Amelia Island” and a traditional use that needed to be respected.
“This is not a financial windfall. It’s a boondoggle,” Childers said. “And it’s all about privatization of the beach. Of taking it away from the people who utilize it with their vehicles with good interest and good intent.”
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