Have More Details; Still Recommend Voting No

At yesterday’s Jax Beach City Council Briefing, details were finally discussed among council members about the structure that will be built on the Latham Plaza parking lot. Our biggest takeaway is that there would be little significant difference in what would be offered to the public regardless of building height. Moreover, there is a 35′ development that is breaking ground in Atlantic Beach that is said to offer everything Jax Beach is looking for in this development:

Given what has been discussed, we still recommend voting no on changing the height limit for this project in Jax Beach. Click the image below to learn more.

What happened to ‘We the people’ in Jacksonville Beach?

Published in The Beaches Leader, Letter to the Editor on March 23, 2023

To the editor:
On Monday, Jax Beach City Council voted 5-2 to put a proposed charter change on the May 16 ballot that will potentially raise the height limit an additional 20 feet (or two floors) for a proposed Latham Park public/private partnership. The prevailing rational for this change is that the additional height will better activate that area of the downtown. In addition, many council persons indicated that the 35 foot restriction was put in place almost 20 years ago and that perhaps the current citizens are ready for a new and improved downtown experience.
I went to all workshops, briefings and council meetings regarding this topic and initially I was intrigued. Part of me said, “Why build something good at 35 feet when you can build something
even greater at 55 feet?” What changed my mind was the lack of evidence that the city had any facts to substantiate that added height is the magic potion to activating our downtown. Not one developer has expressed or conveyed the “great things” they can bring to the citizens with that bonus height.
I also began to question the motivation of council being so energized to get this on a May ballot, one that statistically will get a very weak voter turnout. Something doesn’t sit right, and even Council person Golding indicated that this has the appearance of being “ramrodded through.”
Although the Height Limit Workshop attendance was weak at best, the citizens who came were vocal with questions and concerns, all of which were ignored and never addressed. Sadly, the
workshops felt more like the selling of a timeshare, rather than a public forum for an exchange of ideas.
The final straw for me was the disregard of public input for the various readings pertaining to the two large developments that are now approved at Adventure Landing Site and Gonzales Park area. Many citizens laid their emotions on the line on how these developments would change the fabric of our respective community. Those emotions were met with indifference and complete lack of empathy.
Council has stated that the height change is unique, and that this is a private and public partnership, therefore WE have control over what is constructed on this site. Should this ballot pass, the added height application process will go through the approval of our CRA and Planning Committee (both committees are made up of citizens appointed by the City Council). Then the recommendations will go to council, where there will be two hearings where the public is able to have a voice. This is where the logic fails. Many within this council have a proven track record of disregarding the recommendations from these committees, ignoring the recommendation of staff, and most assuredly, ignoring the voice of the citizens. Thus, the WE that should represent the citizens, has now become the WE of council chambers.
Admittedly, something higher than 35 feet can truly be something great, but in the wrong hands, this could be something disastrous. And quite frankly, I am not willing to trust that this council will be able to execute this additional height in a way that benefits the residents of this community.
Ken Marsh
Jacksonville Beach

Jacksonville Beach voters are tired of the political games

Published in The Beaches Leader, Letter to the Editor on March 23, 2023

To the editor:
Disheartened. Frustrated. Mad. Those are just some words I use to describe how I have felt after attending the [Jacksonville Beach City] Council meetings for the last couple of months. After listening to much public comment, I know I am not alone.
This council seems to think they know best and that residents should just sit back and trust that the elected officials will make decisions in our best interests. We see how you have been voting so WE DON’T TRUST YOU. This council remains steadfast that the only way to activate the downtown is to increase the height limit, albeit this time for only one public property – the Latham Plaza parking lot. The line they use is that this move is to fulfill residents’ desire for a more vibrant downtown. However, before the focus groups that residents participated in noting that they want to see a vibrant, safe downtown, the excuse to raise the height limit was to attract development to the downtown area. Now that desirable development is happening in our downtown, the message has changed to additional height is needed to activate the area.
Residents are being bamboozled. It has been clearly stated that this property will serve as a test pilot for the rest of the downtown area. It needs to be shot down! It’s time for the council to clearly hear that we, the voters, are tired of their political games. Yes, the developers and downtown property owners who helped get them elected have deep pockets and many resources. But we have our vote, and that is far more precious.
Join us to Protect the Beach Life (ProtectTheBeachLife.com) to defeat this charter amendment. After the May election, we will focus on making sure our next council represents us, the residents.
Georgette Dumont
Jacksonville Beach

Pay Attention to attempt to increase height in Jax Beach

Published in The Beaches Leader, Letter to the Editor on March 23, 2023

To the editor:
Jacksonville Beach Ordinance #2023-8195 increases the permitted height to 55 feet in the “site specific” Latham parking lot if the construction meets certain incentive criteria in the buildings and/or grounds. City Council voted to defer a similar ordinance allowing heights up to 55 feet all over the CBD.
In an audio of the City Council briefing held February 13, the city manager proposed this “site specific” height increase for just the Latham parking lot. It was suggested that “this would be an opportunity to move forward for some type of height increase in the downtown which could possibly be a showcase for a lot of different incentives proposed for development.” It was approved by the council and thus Ordinance #2023-8195 was born.
March 6, the Jacksonville Beach City Council voted 5 to 2 to pass this “site specific” ordinance on first reading. This was a well-attended meeting and many citizens voiced their opinion against approval of this ordinance. The second reading [was] held March 20 … in City Chambers. If [it] passed on this second reading, the ordinance will be placed on the ballot on May 16, allowing a vote by Jax Beach citizens. This is a VERY IMPORTANT CHANGE to the 35 Feet Height Amendment passed by voters in 2004.
There have been plans for development in Latham Plaza and the surrounding areas for a while. One study showed wonderful development ideas in the CBD within the 35 feet limit. Neptune Beach and Atlantic Beach have successfully developed a smaller and busy Town Center and other areas within their cities under a 35 feet height limit.
Even though we may be able to speak at future City Council meetings to offer our opinions on the type of buildings we would like to see in the Latham parking lot or other places in our city, the City Council vote will determine if they approve or disapprove them. If the majority of the council [approved] Ordinance #8195 on the second reading on March 20, it [has passed] and this increase in height will go on the ballot on May 16. You can decide if this change is good or bad for our city and then VOTE accordingly. If approved, what other city or commercial properties might be next?
This is a slippery slope and once you are on it, you may not be able to stop the slide. Please pay attention and inform your family and friends of this new attempt to increase the height in Jacksonville Beach! Watch for news and Public Notices in The Beaches Leader about this. Be warned, however, the recent Public Notice for ORDINANCE NO # 2023-8195 in The Beaches Leader did not mention the word HEIGHT. You can also check City Council agendas and minutes on the city’s website.
Brenda Shields
Jacksonville Beach

It’s Time to Fight Back

The vote at tonight’s City Council meeting was disappointing, but no surprise. Council decided 5 to 2 to place a Charter Amendment on the May 16th ballot to allow for an exception to the 35′ height limit for the public property south of Latham Plaza so it can be developed up to a height of 55′. Those voting in opposition were Council members Sandy Golding and Bill Horn. Those voting in favor were the Mayor along with Council members Nichols, Janson, Meza, and Sutton.

As noted in Georgette Dumont’s letter to the Beaches Leader, some of these issues are complex and it is the responsibility of the Council to explain that complexity to the voters. They have not done so, which has resulted in an obvious lack of trust between residents on the Council. Residents feel left out and that they are being bamboozled by their elected representatives. Yet Council is asking for voters to vote in favor of this height exception without knowing what they will be looking for from a public-private partnership (P3)! This is unacceptable. As stated numerous times in tonight’s meeting, their job is to represent the voters.

What is most disheartening is the refrain from Council that this is what the residents want because they want to see the downtown activated. They heard this in the Visioning sessions and when knocking on doors during election season. Yes, Jax Beach residents DO want to see the downtown activated, but as can be seen in our neighbors to the north, a height increase is not needed! The real estate market in Jax Beach right now is booming with people and businesses purchasing property knowing there is a 35′ height limit. The argument that if you want a vibrant downtown then we have to raise the height limit is a false dichotomy. It is not either or, and they know it.

For the last couple of months, Council members Cory Nichols, Dan Janson, Fernando Meza, and Mayor Chris Hoffman have decided to ignore the residents that have filled the Council Chamber to side with developers to push for developments that do not align with what residents view as ‘the beach life.’ They have been combative and at times disrespectful. Before we can vote most of them out of office (all the at large council seats as well as the mayor will be on the ballot for the 2024 election), the first action will be to vote down the height referendum at the ballot. Tell your neighbors and make sure they are registered to vote (they have until April 17th to register, and it can be done online) and that they get to the polls on May 16th or vote early!

Ensure that council hears desire to protect beach life

Published on 3/16/23 in the Beaches Leader

To the editor:

The last couple of Council meetings have demonstrated that there is a communication breakdown between Council and Jax Beach residents.

            Recent City Council meetings have demonstrated that 1) residents will show up to express concerns about development in their neighborhoods, and 2) there are some council members who are unresponsive to these concerns. This is demonstrated by the lack of response to emails as well as council members being visibly agitated, and at times confrontational when citizens address the Council. 

            The issues Council has been voting on are complex; they need to balance property owners’ rights with neighborhood and community concerns. Still, that is no excuse for blatantly disregarding citizens’ concerns. It is better to explain the rationale for your point of view than to attack each concern raised. There is no public communication from Councilmembers (except for Councilmember Golding) explaining issues that will be voted on and why some are complex. The City has not been consistent in publishing its newsletter or keeping the public informed about issues, even though it hired a communications manager. Residents want to stay informed and be able to provide options to address public problems, but they are being left in the dark.

            This Council believes it is its job to tell the community what is best, not work with the community to find balanced solutions. An example is the push to increase the height limit downtown. When I was on Council, there were ‘workshops’ on this issue. Unfortunately, these were more of a sales pitch to convince the public to support raising the height than to work with residents to develop a common vision of how we want our downtown to look.

            There were supposed to be additional workshops to come to an agreeable set of incentives the City could use to get developers to align their projects with the community’s vision. Those never happened. Instead, Council moved forward to place a Charter change to allow development in the downtown area to build up to 55’ on the May ballot without letting the public know what the incentives would be. Ultimately, they decided to postpone the vote until May 20, and at their next Council briefing, agreed to vote on a slimmed-down version: for additional height only on the public lot south of Latham Plaza. It was also noted that this would be the test pilot for increasing the height limit in all of downtown.

            I am not opposed to a public discussion on the height limit, but that is not what the Council has attempted to do. If it is, then they failed miserably. They began with the assumption that the height must be increased instead of starting with working with the residents to identify the problem(s) we are trying to solve and then identify possible solutions. 

            Council has identified the problem as the lack of desired development in the downtown area. Some have decided that the solution is to allow for more height (even though there are some wonderful new developments, all within 35′). Others have posed alternative solutions that are much easier to implement, such as revamping the parking requirements for businesses downtown. While there is agreement that current parking requirements are an issue, there is still a push to increase the height limit. 

            If the problem is that 35’ is too limiting, as the mayor has said, then there are other alternatives as well if we are willing to change the height restriction in the Charter. Allow for aesthetic, non-conditioned space to have additional, limited height. Allow for roof-top use with a covering, but no walls. There are options to address resident and developer concerns, but quickly pushing for a height increase, especially now, is just adding to our residents’ distrust of what is motivating our elected officials. 

            Council is asking us to trust that they have heard our concerns and will take them into account when developing the RFP (Request For Proposals) for the Latham parking lot. How can we do that when they have not demonstrated an interest in our concerns, only those of their friends and donors? They are the ones who have the ear of the Council, not us.

            I have no doubt that Charter Amendment will pass Council, which will move the decision to the voters in May. That is our opportunity to ensure that Council hears us and our desire to protect our Beach Life.

Georgette Dumont, Jax Beach

It’s time to have some say in your community in Jax Beach

Published on March 16, 2023 in the Beaches Leader

To the editor:

Another crowded city council meeting on March 6. The issue drawing the large numbers was the city discussing an attempt to get past the building height limit set into the Jax Beach City Charter by its citizens. Many citizens spoke at the meeting and many of them had interesting ideas. While there was plenty of opposition to the proposed amendment, there were a lot of ideas and examples of very successful and attractive development in our area that stays at or below 35 feet. A top example is in our backyard in Neptune and Atlantic Beaches at the end of Atlantic Boulevard. Most people mentioned that it was a more likely destination for them than Jax Beach. Although this portion of the meeting is for listening to the residents, it doesn’t seem like the council were interested in that. The first reading passed anyway. It doesn’t seem like our council has any idea about how to get our downtown developed beyond listening to some outside investor and trying to push their plan past the residents of Jax Beach. City Manager Mike Staffopoulos described this proposal as “an opportunity to move forward with some type of height increase in the downtown, which could potentially end up being a showcase for a lot of the different exceptions that we’re talking about because we would have total control over the P-3 process.” Who would have control, the citizens or Staffopoulos and the council?
The requirements for the PUD south of Gonzalez Park didn’t mean much. Their trick is to leave a small gap, a requirement, a maybe, a what if, and then push it until it happens the way that they want. We don’t want any more buildings above 35 feet in Jax Beach, period. The council has all of the flexibility that they need within that requirement. They should try to develop a showcase that enhances downtown within attractive limits. What was their mindset when they took office?
Southern Living recently published “The 50 Best Small Towns In The South 2023.” Many of you may have seen this and know that St. Augustine was Number One! This wasn’t for three or four states around the Gulf of Mexico, but extended out to Arkansas and up to Virginia. That wasn’t the end, either. Number 36 was Fernandina Beach! What’s in the middle? We don’t need to hear what compromises we have to make in our community to have a vibrant one. If our council can’t understand this and start to work in this direction, they need to get out of the way and open the space for some representatives who will, and not destroy any chance for this to happen in the future.
This proposed ordinance will come up for a second reading on March 20 and, if approved, will go on the ballot at the May 16 election. There’s little doubt that the council will approve this and the paperwork to get it on the ballot is already submitted: “Shall the Jacksonville Beach Charter be amended to allow the redevelopment of a City-owned property bounded by 1st Street North, 2nd Street North, Latham Plaza, and 111 Beach Boulevard, exempting the property from the 35 feet height limit, to allow a maximum building height of 55 feet for a mixed-use redevelopment with a parking structure?”
Better be prepared to get out and vote NO on this on May 16.
KC Braun
Jacksonville Beach