Angela Daughtry, News-Leader
Formal city approvals for a 10-year port expansion plan initiated by the Nassau County Ocean Highway & Port Authority were pushed back to a later date after residents protested at an Aug. 13 Planning Advisory Board meeting.
About 50 residents showed up at the meeting to hear the plan for the Port of Fernandina as presented by consulting firm Genesis Group. As a result of their concerns, the PAB has formed a subcommittee to address the plan (see story, 4A).
According to Brian Wheeler of Genesis Group, which developed the plan, the 10-year expansion strategy is meant to “outline different opportunities” for the Port to increase its operations, because it has been losing cargo in the last few years.
According to the report, the loss of cargo ships is due to the economic downturn and also to the loss of some key carriers.
“Those low numbers are not a sustainable trajectory,” Wheeler said. The Port, he said, is also competing with 14 other Florida ports for dollars.
The Port currently gets between 175 and 225 calls per year, according to the report, but has the capacity to handle 400. The majority of the cargo is “breakbulk,” which includes kraft linerboard, steel rebar and billets, wood and other products. Those products are transported from the Port to other areas primarily by trucks and rail lines.
The Port of Fernandina comprises 23 acres north and west of the city’s main historic district and has 1,200 feet of wharf and 11 acres of open storage. A rail line connects to the facility and trucks are often lined up on Dade Street waiting to be loaded.
Some suggestions in the plan to accommodate increased cargo traffic include extending the wharf and making opportunities for barges to use 71 miles of local waterways for transportation.
Additional rail corridors that connect existing rail lines also are being studied to accommodate more potential cargo.
“While rail service is available at Crawford Diamond (on the West Side), the current rail lines are inefficient as they are required to go down into Jacksonville to get to the site,” the plan states. “Potential alignments for rail service connecting the two CSX lines north of (Jacksonville International Airport) are being studied.”
Wheeler said the plan is also studying the use of the Nassau Fertilizer and Oil Co. (also known as the pogie plant) at the waterfront north of the Port, which could be used for security and administrative functions, but could also become a cruise ship terminal or used as barge staging or ship provisioning.
Possible expansion projects to accommodate more cargo include extending the wharf, filling in areas behind the wharf extension and existing wharf, relocating a breakbulk to areas behind the wharf, and expanding container storage at the existing terminal.
The report’s future estimated traffic projections piqued
the concern of many residents, particularly those living downtown.
According to the report, planned improvements to A1A, including expanding to six lanes off the island, would accommodate additional Port-related traffic 10 years from now, of 134 daily truck trips to 603 daily truck trips. Rail traffic was also projected to increase from six to 11 rail cars per day to 15-21 daily.
The export of liquid natural gas (LNG) from the Port of Fernandina would also be studied, the report noted. LNG is a natural gas that has been converted to a liquid form by cooling it to minus-260 degrees for transport, giving it 1/600th of its original volume.
“… LNG export is well suited to the Port of Fernandina (for) delivery and distribution in the Caribbean market, which is undergoing a conversion away from diesel and gasoline,” the report stated. But “there will likely be blast zone security issues associated with the establishment of a bulk LNG commodity.”
Although the Port would not be welcoming “mega” vessels in the future, the report stated, “it is anticipated that as vessel sizes in the region grow, it can be expected that larger, Class C type vessels would want to call at Fernandina Beach.”
A typical vessel calling at the Port has a length of up to 640 feet, while a Class C vessel is up to 800 feet, according to the plan.
“Post-Panamax ships (which are too large for the Panama Canal) are over-sized for the Port of Fernandina,” the report read, “but the Port may benefit from the displacement of smaller ships from … Savannah and Charleston, along with Caribbean ports.”
The report also listed several areas of potential expansion, including areas between Dade and Franklin streets extending to North 11th Street; a parcel south and north of Nassau Street; and four parcels north of Egans Creek in the unincorporated area neighboring Fort Clinch State Park. The report also noted leasing or purchasing “portions of the RockTenn site.”
Wheeler said the economic return to the region, as a result of the 10-year strategic plan, would be more jobs, such as distribution and warehouse managers at the Port and more “upstream” jobs such as truckers.
“This is what we’re about at the end of the day,” Wheeler said. “We’re not trying to change the land use or zoning. We’re providing the data and analysis at our end and the policies we’ve discussed. We’d like to turn around the declines we’ve had.”
“No one should get the idea that something imminent is going to happen as far as development,” Wheeler said.
PAB members complained at the meeting they did not have a chance to review the 240-page plan, as they just received it.
“I just got this plan this afternoon, and I don’t speed-read,” said PAB Chair Len Kreger. “I personally think the September date for pre-approval is premature since we just got it.”
Judith Lane, vice chair of the Planning Advisory Board, said she would like to see a risk analysis of the expansion plan and more information on how the strategic plan would affect the residents and tourists.
Resident Chip Ross, who lives in the historic district near the Port of Fernandina, questioned the plan’s vision of increasing ship sizes without impacting the community. He also complained about the plan to expand into the historic district and increase the size and number of barges without any risk analysis, as well as increasing rail traffic that could possibly be transporting liquid natural gas through the community.
The plan, Ross said, also did not include any impact statements on residential communities.
“I urge you to defer this to a committee,” Ross said, for the good of all the stakeholders in the community and not just the Port.
Resident Chuck Hall, who also lives near the Port, said he would like to see the city have more meetings so the public could openly discuss the port expansion plan.
“I think this is a bad idea, and I’ll be at every meeting,” Hall said.
Faith Ross said she “felt somewhat insulted” that the expansion plan did not identify Fernandina Beach residents as stakeholders. “Citizens were not mentioned,” she said. “I felt somewhat left out of the process.” She said she also was very concerned about liquid natural gas being transported through the area.
“It looks to me like we need to look at this closer,” said Kreger, “and form a subcommittee to review the Port’s development plan.”
City Planner Kelly Gibson said it was anticipated that this would only be an introduction to the plan, which was to go to city commissioners for approval in October and then on to state agencies.
“This issue is only going to get more heated,” Lane said. “Let’s do it right ahead of time. … This is a major thing and it goes with our vision of this city.”
Kreger said the public would need notification of new dates for meetings and approvals of the plan.
At the end of the meeting, PAB members approved the establishment of a subcommittee to review the port plan, with the goal of being ready to present their findings to the PAB in November. The subcommittee is open for public membership.
The Ocean Highway & Port Authority master plan can be accessed by a link at the city’s website at www.fbfl.us.