By Bob Allison, 2-8-23
Research the definition of the word “fairway”. You will find two definitions. One is “the part of a golf course between a tee and the corresponding green.” The other is “a navigable channel in a river or harbor.” The picture above is the fairway at Fernandina Harbor Marina.
Take a look at the width of the City marina’s fairway in the picture above. It is wide enough for a small ship to pass and an incredible waste of rentable slip space in the marina. It measures approximately 115 feet wide. Use Google earth to view and measure the fairway widths of other marinas in Florida or anywhere on the U.S. east coast. You will not find a single marina with a fairway width even close to 115 feet. The industry standard for marina fairways is 60 feet. Some fairways with turning basins at their ends can actually be as narrow as 40 feet.
The marina rents space for dockage. This is its primary source of revenues. When thousands of square feet of rentable space inside its protected basin are wasted, the City’s potential for dockage revenues is diminished. What you see in the picture above is waste.
The Citizens Journal has published a link to the Marina and Waterfront Plan I provided to the City in 2017 prior to the marina’s reconstruction. If you read this report, you will see the design I proposed would have actually more than doubled the rentable dock space and slips in the marina. Even with the substantial increase in the number of slips I proposed, I still questioned whether it would be enough to meet the increased demand for dockage which we know will be coming over the life of the marina.
Click to read Mr. Allison’s downloadable, printable PDF COMMON SENSE WATERFRONT PLAN
When I first saw the City’s plan for reconfiguring the marina following the damage from hurricane Matthew I was concerned enough to travel to Gainesville to meet with Robert Semmes, the person who developed the plan. In my opinion, his plan was seriously flawed in many respects. First, it connected 90% of the marina to the platform on which Brett’s sits, dramatically increasing the demand for parking in both Lots A and B. Second, it wasted thousands of square feet of rentable space in the marina basin for dockage. The plan actually created approximately twenty fewer boat slips than were in the marina I developed for the City back in 1984. In our brief meeting, Mr. Semmes was extremely evasive in answering my questions. He would not share with me answers to my two most important questions which were “will you share with me the locations of other marinas you have designed?” and “how were you able to become the City’s designer for this project?” You have to wonder why Mr. Semmes would want to keep this information secret. The only information he was willing to share is that he has degrees in agriculture from the University of Florida.
Commissioner Chip Ross enjoys representing himself as an expert on permitting. When he attempts to speak with absolute authority on what the City can and cannot permit to improve its waterfront, we have to understand he may be just repeating what he has been told to think and to say by Mr. Semmes. Remember Mr. Semmes designed the enormous waste of boat slip space shown in the picture above. I believe it is also likely Mr. Semmes designed the $2.1 million dollar unstable South Shore Stabilization project where hundreds of tons of concrete are expected to be supported by the failing timber bulkheads I built thirty eight years ago. It may be more than charitable to refer to the South Shore project as the “sidewalk from nowhere to nowhere”. Drive over and do your own inspection and form your own opinion.
Reducing the number of slips in the marina was a step backwards for the City. You have to question the logic of Mr. Semmes for developing such a plan and the wisdom of Commissioner Ross for supporting it and of Mr. Martin for presenting it to the City Commission for approval. Did they not understand how the demand for dockage at the City’s marina has increased over the last thirty five years? Did they fail to recognize the marina has been discovered by the large yacht captains requiring significantly more space for their vessels? Were they not aware transient boat traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway is more than double what it was in the 1980s or that boat sales, nationally, increased by more than 12% in 2022 alone. The failure to use the opportunity, in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, to properly reconfigure the marina to reflect these realities and to address the future demand at the City’s marina was a serious mistake. City Hall may have finally fully forfeited the small amount of remaining confidence the City’s citizens held in its ability to make wise and prudent decisions on the waterfront.
Commissioner Ross has stated in recent News Leader posts that the marina “is now operating at near capacity” and that the marina’s “waiting list for slips exceeds fifty slips”. Citizens should recognize that, when any municipal facility intended to serve the public for a period fifty years is “at near capacity” in its third year, its promoters have made a colossal error in planning for the future. Commissioner Ross also stated “the marina reconfiguration occurred to gain more profitability”. Perhaps he will explain in a future post how reducing the slip count and the capacity of the marina caused it to “gain profitability”.
I believe the Citizens of Fernandina Beach deserve honesty from their elected officials. The current reality of Fernandina Harbor Marina is that, with only eighty slips, it cannot generate enough profit to pay the interest on its debt much less begin to reduce it. It will soon be time to dredge again. If you read my report you will see a one-time dredging managed by the City’s airport engineers, Passero and Associates, cost more than $2 million. The ugly truth here is that the marina with its limited number rentable boat slips is a bottomless pit. City taxpayers may be paying the interest on its debt for the rest of their lives before the debt is then turned over to their children and grandchildren. This is the result of the City actually reducing the number of rentable slips in the marina and failing to build a facility capable of financially supporting itself.
Who suffers as a result of Dale Martin bringing the Semmes plan to the City Commission for approval without providing the Commission alternate plans which made a lot more sense? Everyone does. The City is less capable of reducing the debt on the facility. Fewer boat crews will find refuge at the marina. Downtown businesses will suffer when visitors are denied dockage because the marina has exceeded its capacity. Over the life of the marina we should expect ten words to be repeated thousands of times over the marina’s phone and VHF radio. These words are “We are sorry but we don’t’ have room for you”.
I was shocked by Commissioner Ross’s suggestion in last week’s NewsLeader that the City should perhaps consider selling Fernandina Harbor Marina. If the City had built the plan I provided back in 2017 with 165 slips instead of the Semmes plan which provided for only 80 slips, we would not be having this discussion today. The City would also not be hanging its hat on some vague confiscation scheme to seize the property of its next door neighbor in an attempt to solve an economic problem it actually created for itself.
If the City is forced by economic circumstances to sell the City’s marina and its waterfront, the responsibility for the City’s loss of this wonderful public property will fall squarely into the laps of Robert Semmes, Dale Martin and Chip Ross. They will deny any responsibility but those of us who can count the number of rentable boat slips in the marina will know better. There were never enough slips in the City’s plan to rebuild the marina for it to survive without subsidies. This is not hard for anyone to see or to understand. The City may genuinely benefit from these three men divorcing themselves from any future decision making on the waterfront.
The last City Commissioner to suggest the marina to be sold was Tim Poynter. He was immediately thereafter voted off the City Commission by a wide margin. The City’s citizens do not want a private boatyard with its towering dry boat storage warehouses on their waterfront. What they want to see instead is wide open green space and a landscaped public park with comfortable places, under shade trees, to sit and enjoy the waterfront and its views out over the Amelia River.
If you read the Waterfront Report and Land Plan I provided to the City back in 2017, you might appreciate the wisdom of relocating the City’s failing bulkheads to the edge of the marina to create valuable new land. You will see how only a small percentage of this new land can be ground leased for commercial uses to pay for the new bulkheads and to begin reducing the marina’s heavy debt. The plan also explains how the City can have the largest tree lined waterfront park on the entire U.S. East Coast alongside the Intracoastal Waterway. Imagine that.
Bob Allison, a resident of Fernandina Beach, is the father of the FB City Marina
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal Florida.