Tuesday, May 02, 2017

St. Johns County pier’s future uncertain; Pier Park could go to St. Augustine Beach

Posted May 1, 2017 07:23 pm - Updated May 1, 2017 07:53 pm
By SHELDON GARDNER sheldon.gardner@staugustine.com
St. Johns County pier’s future uncertain; Pier Park could go to St. Augustine Beach

St. Johns County’s pier might, at some point, be just a memory if the county’s financial situation doesn’t change, the county administrator indicated.

The county-controlled pier and Pier Park in St. Augustine Beach were topics Monday at a joint meeting of St. Augustine Beach and St. Johns County commissioners — the first meeting of the two boards in more than three years. Commissioners, who met at the county auditorium, also focused on off-beach parking, road repairs, the former Anastasia Mosquito Control District property and beach renourishment.

All commissioners attended the meeting except for County Commissioner Jay Morris, who didn’t come because he had a longstanding appointment, County Attorney Patrick McCormack said.

St. Augustine Beach Mayor Rich O’Brien said the “clock is ticking” for the pier’s replacement, and commissioners asked about upgrades to the surrounding park and parking lot.

But St. Johns County doesn’t have money for major upgrades to Pier Park, County Administrator Michael Wanchick said. The county is operating with a deficit of more than $1 million in beach services funding and the county could also take about a $10 million hit if legislation allows expansion of homestead exemptions, he said.

“I’m not a sure the pier has a future unless somehow funding appears,” Wanchick said.

Estimates for rebuilding the pier are between $10 and $14 million, he said.

Vice Mayor Undine George asked for an update in six months about ways to fund the pier and keep it alive.

“The pier is iconic. Not only is it on the city of St. Augustine Beach city seal, but it got there for a reason because it is iconic to the county,” she said, adding people should be informed if decisions are being made about the future of the pier.

In terms of getting more revenue for the county, attendees pointed out the county allows the St. Augustine Beach Civic Association to use the pier parking lot for events without sharing revenue from vendors fees and without paying for some other services, like utilities.

Also during public comment, resident Ed Slavin suggested the county could use bonds, by pledging bed tax dollars, to get funding to revamp the pier. He said he raised the issue last year, but the county didn’t act on it.

It is also unclear what is ahead for property near the pier.

Wanchick and Beach City Manager Max Royle are talking about transferring the title of the Pier Park property, including the parking lot, from the county to the city, Wanchick said.

That would be done with the understanding the parking lot stays a parking lot. The county would maintain responsibility for the pier.

County Commissioner Henry Dean supported the city taking the property, saying the parking lot “is in the heart of the city.”

Another issue for the county: events at the pier parking lot. Some have complained about tripping over electrical wires, and an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint has been filed and is costing the city “thousands,” Wanchick said.

With concerns surrounding funding of beach services, the county is looking for ways to bring in revenue.

To help, the county plans to start charging for off-beach parking, Wanchick said. That could bring in more than $1 million annually. The idea, which is not final, is to charge $10 a day per space and $50 for an annual pass with no discounts so that the county will get a profit, he said.

George supported charging for parking while providing a discount to St. Augustine Beach residents. She brought up the idea of hiring a parking attendant at beach parking lots instead of spending money on automated parking systems.

Wanchick said the county won’t do anything without informing the city.

“At the end of the day, there’s just no free lunch,” Wanchick said.

Wanchick also said he doesn’t expect major parking space additions in St. Augustine Beach. The county’s long-term plan is to add parking to Vilano Beach and areas north, which would help develop Vilano Beach and also increase federal funding for beach renourishment, he said.

In St. Augustine Beach, officials have to balance the need for parking while protecting the character of the city, O’Brien indicated.

“There could be such a thing as we reach capacity at some point and people just have to get there early,” he said.

Commissioners also supported looking into more shuttle systems for parking.

In other business

Within about a week, St. Johns County officials hope to finish buying the former Anastasia Mosquito Control District headquarters at 500 Old Beach Road, Wanchick said. The county hasn’t changed its plans for the property, which tentatively include relocating the pier parking lot fire station to the site.

Slavin said a park would be the best and highest use of the property, and he raised concerns about litigation from neighbors based on noise on the property.

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