St. Johns County Commission votes to rescind Pier Park offer to St. Augustine Beach

St. Johns County commissioners on Tuesday voted 4-0 to rescind the county’s offer to convey its property at Pier Park to the City of St. Augustine Beach, which had expressed interest in such an exchange numerous times over the past few months.

 

They also voted 4-0 to extend the St. Augustine Beach Civic Association’s contract to run the Wednesday farmers market on site an additional 60 days past its Jan. 31 expiration, for a $250 weekly fee. What happens with the market after the end of March seems to still be up in the air, although county officials have said they want to move the event over to the St. Augustine Amphitheatre or a different venue in order to make way for paid parking.

Neither the issue of ownership of Pier Park nor the contract for the farmers market were on Tuesday’s agenda. Commissioner Jimmy Johns had left the lengthy meeting early for an appointment, missing both votes.

The board in December had indicated it was ready to extend the civic association’s contract, at the city’s request, but for a $500 weekly fee, which was meant to offset the county’s costs for allowing use of the property. The extension was meant to buy the city time to work out the logistics and financials of taking on the responsibilities of maintaining the parking lot, volleyball courts and pavilion.

The city recently scheduled a special meeting for Feb. 2, in order to discuss conveyance of the property. Meanwhile, County Administrator Michael Wanchick on Tuesday said he had yet to receive acceptance from the civic association of the terms as previously outlined.

Commission Chair Henry Dean said it was apparent to him that $500 a week is just over 50 percent of the market’s revenue on a weekly basis. He said he personally wanted to see the lease extended another two months, but at a “little more acceptable” rate, recommending the $250-a-week figure.

“I would like to see the market continue, but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Wanchick, prior to the board’s vote on the contract question, said he also wanted some clear direction from the board on whether there was still interest in ultimately handing over the Pier Park property to the city. (The Feb. 2 special meeting is before the County Commission’s next meeting on Feb. 6.)

“This is dragging on for an extended period of time now,” he told commissioners. “If you want to end the farmers market, which is in a parking lot — and we’re going to need that parking more than ever when the hotel opens up — and we want to move to paid parking in that lot if we’re going to retain it, then we need to give everyone some certainty.”

Wanchick said the county could work with the civic association on perhaps relocating to the Amphitheatre or another venue.

“I think we’re kind of dancing around the issue,” he said. “An extension is fine but we need to make a decision and give everyone clarity.”

Speaking during public comment, Bill McClure, a former commissioner, said it was a “big decision” to rescind the offer rather than give the city a time line to purchase the property or take on the liabilities. He said the city, as a taxing authority, would have the means to do what they want with the property, which is really a “gem” and a symbol for the city more than the county.

Commissioner Jay Morris said the amount of time that has passed since the county first offered the property constitutes something closer to a denial than acceptance. He described Pier Park as a “very valuable piece of property to take over and run with” and that the county could install parking meters to offset its costs.

Wanchick said not only has time passed, the circumstances have only gotten more complicated.

“Even if you let the market stay there and move forward with paid parking, then the next request is going to be to waive the fees Wednesday mornings because they use a third of the parking lot,” he said. “Maybe it is time to just rescind our offer and move forward.”

Morris said that’s what he would do and Commissioner Paul Waldron said he was with Morris on that.

“Right now my answer would be ‘No,’” Waldron said.

Commissioner Jeb Smith said he would have “a lot more questions” if it was the will of the board to convey the property over to the city than the other way around.

“If it comes down to rescinding it, I’m completely fine with that,” he said.

During general public comment at the head of Tuesday’s meeting, several vendors and representatives from the civic association spoke in favor of keeping the market at Pier Park and proceeding with contract renewal.

Bob Samuels, a board member for the association, said they’ve requested more information on costs incurred by the county specific to the parking lot and the market’s use of it but haven’t heard anything. He said based on their own research, Pier Park is included in the county’s bulk rate with Florida Power & Light and that the market uses less than $500 in electricity in an entire year.

Samuels said the rent ($150 per event) that the association pays for the pavilion for its Concerts by the Sea program easily covers the electric bill for both the concerts and the market. He said the association also pays the St. Augustine Beach Police Department for traffic direction and pays the city for trash removal.

He also said the last time the parking lot’s spaces and curbs were painted and striped, it was done by the city’s public works department, about 2.5 years ago, and that the association offered to buy the paint.

 

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