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Town approves Whitney Beach overlay

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

A proposed overlay district for Longboat Key’s commercially blighted north end was passed 6–0 by the Town Commission at a special meeting Thursday afternoon. But the approval was not without debate by affected residents and reassurance by town staff who proffered the idea.

Resident and former Virginia land planner Larry Grossman said that while an overlay is a good idea for the north end the Town was on the brink of approving something that was ambiguous, poorly constructed and lacking the fundamentals of what an overlay district is strategically used for.

“An overlay should be specific in what you want to achieve. You are trying to get a certain result and public policy should be clear in what you want to get. This overlay is passive, ineffective and a poorly constructed approach with a lot of rules but without reason,” said Grossman.

Grossman’s criticism followed Town Planning Director Robin Meyer’s opening explanation as to why the proposed overlay is the best and most immediate solution to take a step toward revitalizing the roughly 10 acres the overlay addresses. The overlay district encompasses from south to north several parcels including Whitney Beach Plaza, the former bank building, the vacant gas station as well as a series of residential yet unbuilt lots straddling Bishop’s Bayou to the east.

“What we are providing here is a choice. There is no change in building heights and the overlay will require a mixed-use pattern,” said Meyer.

Meyer said there is no requirement for any individual property owner to use the overlay. And he added that in today’s economy “risky money” is getting hard to come by and unless a developer sees a viable option they will not move forward.

“I would be very reluctant to stand in the way of positive progress,” said Meyer.

Mayor Jim Brown responded to Grossman’s earlier comment about how the Town should be using the overlay as a more specific and prescriptive remedy. He said that Grossman was a planner from Northern Virginia, where special overlays are used to entice something as specific as a 7-11 in a particular location.

“Here we are trying to give a developer some freedom,” said Brown.

Commissioner Jack Duncan asked Meyer how the overlay plan fit into the idea of long-range planning for the Island. Specifically, Duncan was referencing that the Town had committed $125,000 to engage a long-range planning consultant to address the issues of redevelopment and how to best make land-use strategies instead of planning the Key piece-by-piece.

“Is there a conflict or can this all come together somehow?” asked Duncan.

Meyer again spoke of the need to be responsive during these economic times, and yet the criticism at the meeting only got stronger:

“This overlay was created by a staff member (Monica Simpson) who was relieved from her job and is the construct of a Planning & Zoning Board which has no expertise in this area,” said former Commissioner Gene Jaleski.

Jaleski also said that he had not seen a larger turn out in 27 years of following Commission meetings in the summertime. He then said many residents have sent letters and made phone calls stating that this overlay does not serve what they want the north end to be.

“We are asking the Town to be far more proactive. It just throws the can down the road a few more feet,” said Jaleski.

Mayor Brown said, “The overlay is just the beginning and it is not over.”

Village resident Craig Walters said the overlay should be made on analytical studies, not arbitrarily.

“I am concerned some of this is from impatience. We are not talking about a lot of time to do it right. I have no doubt Mr. Meyer  and the soon-to-be-hired expert could come up with a far better and substantiated overlay. The mentality that anything is better than nothing is wrong,” said Walters.

Village resident Richard Estrin described the overlay as “a mess of uncooked ingredients that do not make a dish.”

“Has any owner involved indicated a desire for the overlay? I heard some do not want the overlay,” said Estrin.

He likened the Town’s approach to taking a shot in the dark: “You may shoot yourself in the foot or shoot your neighbor in the back,” said Estrin.

Estrin also raised the much-debated idea of a hotel being erected in the overlay district.

“We talked about the protection of the Bayou. Are we going to have a hotel with guests invited to a raw bar serving manatee sushi and dolphin tartar. Would we wind up with a hotel with hostesses in the bedrooms? You might end up with a different kind of blight and blight spreads; you can have problems all over the island and quickly,” said Estrin.

Brown again said that the Town was trying to allow zoning changes to give owners flexibility.

After public comments closed, Commissioner Phil Younger made his case for supporting the measure.

“Whitney Plaza has been a festering sore for decades. If it stays like it is it will go nowhere. Could this plan be better? Yeah, it could be better. But we need to show something — that we are willing to address and work on this. It acts like a catalyst to move ahead and continue the plan. It may be far from perfect, but what we have is close to imperfect,” said Younger.

Meyer said that during strong markets the town could dictate what it wants.

“Our job as planners is to balance between economic realities and between impacts on residential areas,” said Meyer.

Vice Mayor Dave Brenner explained why he initially was against the overlay.

“The only people who spoke at the initial meeting were all against the plan. But I knew darn well that there were people in the audience who thought we should go forward with it.  I’ve not heard anything so persuasive to convince me we should leave it like it is. Someone suggested the town should buy the property — we would have a revolution. And turning it into a park is about as popular as — well, I’m not allowed to use obscenities,” said Brenner.

The Board then voted 6 to 0 approving the overlay and comprehensive plan changes. Commissioner Hal Lenobel, who was absent due to illness, said after the meeting that he favors using a more long-range planning approach “instead of being reactive to pressure from a handful of interests.”

 

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2 Responses for “Town approves Whitney Beach overlay”

  1. David Baughman says:

    What resposibility/considerations do the planners have to the residents in the immediate area of the overlay? Their comments would lead us to believe, none.

    Seems like there is alot more concern for the commercial interests.

  2. geneonlbk says:

    Link to Web Site:

    http://lbk-folk.blogspot.com/2012/06/niceplace-to-shop-and-live.html

    The commissioners have forced on north end residents an ill-conceived land use overlay on the north end commercial properties, that actually prevents any sort of residential, park or Pine Avenue styled project from being developed. The overlay limits residential use to 30% of the land area.

    It is difficult to envision anything else being developed under the overlay besides a large motel, similar to a Hampton Inn level tourist attraction. Is that what we want for our community?

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