Submitted by Kevin Hogencamp, Deputy City Manager – City of Atlantic Beach
Atlantic Beach leaders, citizen volunteers and Atlantic Beach Elementary School students participate in the community’s 2018 Arbor Day celebration
On a mild fall afternoon in bustling Jack Russell Park, a stone’s throw from City Hall in Atlantic Beach, 20 or so local political leaders, employees and volunteers assembled for a ceremonial tree planting.
Hundreds of trees are being planted communitywide as part of a citizen-driven initiative to maintain Atlantic Beach’s spectacular tree canopy. But this tree is different, and not just because it’s a descendent of Jacksonville’s famous Treaty Oak.
The live oak sapling is a living tribute to the service and contributions of Joe Gerrity, who retired as city manager in October.
How fitting. After all, it was during Gerrity’s industrious 26-month tenure that this seaside Northeast Florida suburb took a substantial leap forward in the environmental leadership arena.
The Atlantic Beach environmental scorecard includes:
- LEED Silver-certified community designation earned
- Coastal vulnerability assessment completed
- Parks master plan initiated
- Public art, façade and landscape grant program instituted
- Tree City USA designation reinstated
- Heritage tree designated in a city park
- Community Arbor Day celebrations established
- Recycling bins placed at beach accesses and in parks
Atlantic Beach residents plant trees near Tide Views Preserve in 2018; hundreds of new trees were planted throughout the coastal community
Oh, and an abundance of citizen participation. Residents’ engagement is driving the city’s environmental-progressivism train full steam ahead, said Shane Corbin, who stepped up from planning and community development director to city manager in October.
“The bottom line,” Corbin said, “is that we couldn’t have pulled this off without a caring, active – and very smart – citizenry.”
Atlantic Beach’s resolve to become better stewards of the land accelerated in 2016 when the City Commission created a citizens panel that recommended that an Environmental Stewardship Committee (ESC) be created. By 2019, environmental leadership had risen to the top of the City Commission’s priority list.
Established in 2017, the 11-member ESC consists of residents from various backgrounds with a keen interest in preserving and enhancing the community’s natural assets. The committee vets most of the city’s environment-focused initiatives to protect and enhance Atlantic Beach’s mature and diverse maritime forest, parks and open spaces, oceanfront and marsh front.
ESC Chair Bruce Andrews said, “These assets contribute significantly to the quality of life of our citizens.”
The committee members were very active from the start by working with city staff to require tree-removal permittees to post signage informing the community of their intentions and by establishing a vibrant community Arbor Day celebration. Committee members then helped staff establish a web-based inventory of parks, including their description, amenities, history and archaeological value.
Atlantic Beach Environmental Stewardship Committee Chair Bruce Andrews (left) and newly retired city manager Joe Gerrity
Mayor Ellen Glasser said, “We are blessed in Atlantic Beach not only with a very unique maritime forest but a vibrant citizenry that aims to protect it and enhance it.”
The committee also makes landscaping and beautification recommendations; monitors the enforcement of city regulations on tree removal and vegetation; and works with staff to educate property owners, developers, builders and landscape contractors about tree planting and care.
Judith Leroux, the ESC’s first chairperson, said the committee provides an avenue for citizens to share ideas, carry out projects and potentially influence policies and practices such as park maintenance and bike path planning. “Serving on a citizen committee also has the wonderful benefit of getting to know more of your neighbors and hearing firsthand about their issues and opinions,” Leroux said. “And working closely with city staff, who of course are tasked with implementing our ideas, is also a great education in how government really works.“
Atlantic Beach’s latest and perhaps most substantial stewardship milestone is its becoming the first Florida city to be designated as a LEED Silver-certified community. The label from the U.S. Green Building Council was obtained in 2019 after the city implemented practical and measurable strategies and solutions aimed at improving sustainability and quality of life.
Glasser says the certification verifies the city’s commitment to using best practices, including a science-based approach, when making decisions about development and its impact on our environment. Ultimately, Gerrity said, “LEED for Cities will make Atlantic Beach a more environmentally friendly, efficient, sustainable and resilient community.”
The Atlantic Beach City Commission was presented a plaque in September 2019 in recognition of it becoming the first LEED Silver-certified city
Also in 2019, the city parlayed state grant funding to analyze future flood risk under projected sea-level rise. The study enabled the city to assess its vulnerability during rainfall-induced inundation and surge-and-waveinduced flooding for the years 2044, 2069 and 2119.
By better understanding the risk, the city can effectively identify areas to focus on and make informed decisions moving forward, Corbin said.
“Protecting the beach, dunes, marshlands and wetlands is critical in defending the island from hurricane, erosion and flooding,” he said. While a hefty number of stewardship boxes have been checked, the to-do list is still being tackled.
Some of the undertakings are weighty, such as developing a parks master plan and enhancing the city’s tree-protection code. Others are simply exhilarating, such as a massive bat house being planned at Dutton Island Preserve.
“By putting environmental leadership at the top of our list of priorities and by committing the resources needed to carry out our goals, I believe our town is becoming an incubator for ideas, creativity and action,” Glasser said.