Town tackles future zoning codes

Editor & Publisher

Does Longboat Key have antiquated building codes?

The regulations that dictate how many units can be built on a property, how large a structure can be built or rebuilt, and how an owner goes about getting approval are under review by the town planning and zoning board and town commission as both boards strive to change policy to help Longboat Key compete in the real estate marketplace in the decades to come.

Last week, both boards held a joint meeting in which they laid out the course that may forever alter the density, look and size of future Longboat Key development.

Town Manager Dave Bullock opened the meeting by saying, “Planning does not happen by our aspirations, but by changing our comprehensive plans and codes. Do our rules and comprehensive plan serve the town well, or have we outgrown some of them?”

Next, the Dean of Architecture and Planning for the University of Florida explained the framework by which Longboat Key is currently functioning. In 1984, the town adopted by public vote, “a very, very tight restraint on development,” said Dean Christopher Silver.

Despite these restrictions, Silver said that “Redevelopment happens,” and during the subsequent building boom many Longboat Key properties, especially mom and pop hotels were torn down and rebuilt to lower density (less units per acre) and to higher standards. Silver used the example of the Holiday Inn on Longboat Key, which was rebuilt into luxury condominium residences at a much lower density.

Then Planning and Zoning Director Alaina Ray talked about how in 2008 the voters approved a referendum that allowed property owners to rebuild the number of units they currently have on their site, but with several limitations. In fact, the limitations center on only allowing the existing unit to be built to the same size and ceiling height and proportion. That is what many on the commission board feel is too constraining. One of the numerous changes the town will soon explore is how to allow the redevelopment of existing properties but with larger units that are more marketable.

Ray told the commission and planning board, “The nonconformity label is a black mark in the real estate industry.” She then added, “We would all agree our land development regulations are anything but clear.”

Ray then said one of the major policy considerations is that the town charter only allows residents to raise density or add units beyond what is currently allowed, not the town commission. Ray continued to tell the board that when a developer hears the word nonconforming, they tell the realtor they’re not interested and not to even bother looking into Longboat Key’s building codes, which do allow the redevelopment of existing units with the constraints noted above.

Vice Mayor Jack Duncan said that even though the rebuild ordinance allows the density to remain, it comes in tandem with the nonconformity label.

For Planning and Zoning Board member George Symanski, the town has to figure out what kind of island it wants to end up with.

“The elephant in the room is the charter regulating growth. If you want a lot of growth you take the limitations off. If you want a small amount of growth, then you may modify the charter,” said Symanski.

Vice Mayor Duncan agreed.

“What is the end point? I have in my notes, conforming to what? What are we espousing that we are conforming to? Until we have clarity around end points, it is hard to say we are comfortable with the process. University of Florida consultant Jerry Murphy said the town’s codes and comprehensive plans have conflicts and nonconformities but essentially both constrain density as well as the size of any redeveloped unit.

As the discussion continued, town commissioners expressed sundry philosophical positions and starting points for policy making.

Commissioner Irwin Pastor said, “If we do not make these changes, we will not be competitive. We have to look at this as valuation.”

For Commissioner Pat Zunz who represents the north end of the key in the Village, it is a matter of making some adjustments. “This is not growth, it is retaining what we have. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we are talking about increasing building height.”

Mayor Jim Brown who has strenuously argued over the years to allow more building rights, said, “When these 1984 rules were put in place there was a lot of open space and a big palate. And they saw the possibility of a bunch of high rises going up on the key. We have to show the electorate that we do not want to go back to that density, but we need ways to improve and allow modern conveniences and amenities.”

Brown then talked about the condominium development Seaplace where he stated that “They could expand their density and nobody would even know it.” He said that height restrictions exist and we have to review that.

Commissioner Phill Younger said that the town does not have to hold a referendum to allow redevelopment of the small mom and pop tourism places since they are in his words, “quasi-nonconforming.”

What Younger is referring to is under the rebuild ordinance they can redevelop the number of units they have and the town commission without a referendum has the right to change the size or the scale of the units or increase the height of any zoning district.

The commission and planning board at the end of the joint meeting decided that it wants staff to come back with the following:

• Options on changing the size of the allowable box or unit that can be redeveloped on a site.

• An explanation of town charter changes that could be considered to allow density increases and what kind of public referendum would be necessary.

• What kind of potential referendum or public vote would be needed to address minor density increases.

In the end, Mayor Brown and Symanski said they want staff to explore methods on amending the charter to give the town commission some authority to make density increases, which currently can be accomplished only by public vote.

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