River access hangs in the balance

River access hangs in the balance

After much deliberation and public discourse, both sides of a contentious debate over public access to the St. Johns River versus closure of a right-of-way will have to sit idle for the time being. The land in debate has provided river access for generations, stirring strong opinions in both public forums and subsequent private meetings.

Deferrals of each hearing date on proposed legislation have delayed a vote in four committees and City Council, postponing any progress. Another unexpected bone of contention finds the bill sponsors and voting committee members leaving office – in the middle of the discourse.

A late June meeting between members of Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP), the property owners on either side of the right-of-way, members of Friends of Van Wert Park (FVWP), and city officials helped to provide some dialogue, but have not revealed any concrete solutions as of press time.

It now appears the proposed ordinance 2015-360 [closing and/or deeding a portion of an opened and improved right-of-way on Van Wert Avenue between Richmond Street and the St Johns River] may be withdrawn, or, in the event it cannot be withdrawn due to expiration of the sponsor’s term on June 30, may be voted down by City Council.

In place of the bill that would shutter public access to the river, District 14 Councilman Jim Love plans to introduce new legislation that would define uses and provide rules and restrictions for the right-of-way without making it an official park.

“The main objective is to have open access to the public, with rules. I’m not opposed to a park,” Love said. “The adjoining property owners are concerned that if it becomes an official park, it will appear on a list of parks and places to go and will get more foot traffic.”

Love indicated that the new legislation would address issues such as parking, fishing, and hours of use, with restrictions against drinking of alcoholic beverages, littering and noise, all of which for years have vexed the Surfaces and Cousars, property owners on either side of the right-of-way.

Parking could be a larger issue, for Donna Lewis, who lives on Hedrick. If the rules prohibit any parking along the access or on Richmond Street, that will force cars onto nearby streets both for use of the right-of-way parcel and for guests of residents on Richmond Street.

“Banning parking on Richmond Street will create an issue when those homeowners have large parties and their guests are forced to park on Hedrick and other nearby streets,” said Lewis.

Lewis also noted that at the June 24 meeting at the RAP office there was “talk of either prohibiting fishing or just issuing fishing access to neighborhood residents only.” However, according to Love, the new rules would either allow fishing without regard to proximity of residence or it would prohibit it altogether.

Posting of the rules, including dawn to dusk hours or use, will help the area be less dangerous, Love said. He also stated that drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City of Jacksonville and the Friends of Van Wert Park will create a partnership similar to that for Memorial Park.

“The city will be responsible for mowing [the access] and FVWP can keep an eye on it and do some landscaping,” he said. “We’ll end up with a really nice place to visit and it will be taken care of by the city and the citizens.”

Property lines blurred

Still at issue, though, is the current placement of an old wood and chain-link fence about 10 feet over the property line into the right-of-way.

To rectify that, Lewis has made a request to Love to use funds to remove the fence.

“Once the encroaching fence and the remaining overgrowth are removed, the property’s potential as a park will be apparent to all,” she said. “Given that Councilman Love was willing to spend significant sums to build a wall along the lot line for the benefit of the Surfaces, he should be willing to spend a small portion of those funds for the removal of the encroaching fence.”

Lewis referred to a recent comment by Love that he had $80,000 in city funds at his disposal for improvements in District 14.

“He suggested that he could use a portion of those funds to build a wall along the Surface side of the public property to shield them from the public space and make the public space less objectionable to them,” said Lewis. “Needless to say, that suggestion did not sit well with those of us who are diligently working to preserve and protect the public access for the benefit of the public. If the Surfaces wish to wall themselves off from the public, they have the right and the means to do so.”

In an email to The Resident, Love said there are bond funds available for capital projects. “I have suggested they be used for improving Van Wert. Exactly what is to be done has yet to be determined,” he indicated.

Sunny Gettinger, RAP president, indicated a town hall meeting will be announced to solicit public comment prior to drafting of new legislation to keep the right-of-way open to the public.

For more information on the Friends of Van Wert Park, see story on page 9. Visit residentnews.net and click on Community Calendar for information about the town hall meeting.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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