Longboat building heights define debate

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When the Longboat Key Town Commission discussed the emerging Planned Unit Development (PUD) ordinance last week, putting a limit on the height of Longboat Key construction was top of mind.

The PUD ordinance is a method the town is considering as a way for multi-unit properties to redevelop to allow flexibility in design and potentially accommodate larger unit sizes on existing properties.

The initiative came about as a way to encourage redevelopment to what some say are more marketable and modern standards whereas the current rules do not allow the size of dwelling units to increase if the property’s density is greater than the underlying zoning.

One way developers often seek to build larger units and meet setback requirements is through requesting additional height. Several commissioners have expressed concern that going above the current 65-foot cap on building height will render incompatible development, obstruct views and upset neighbors.

Commissioner Jack Daly questioned why the proposed PUD ordinance allowed 80-foot structures.

“Why 80-feet? What was the Planning and Zoning Board’s rationale to stay with 80-feet? Was that just pulled out of the air? Was it based on some evaluation of neighbors and neighborhoods?” asked Daly.

Planning and Zoning Director Alaina Ray said that 80-feet translates into seven stories if 10-foot ceilings are built. She said that the Planning and Zoning Board was looking for a way to allow an additional story or ceiling height “without opening the door to 120 or 130-foot structures.”

Ray said that if a building is set back far enough from Gulf of Mexico Drive, “The extra story disappears.”

Commissioner Jim Brown said it was really about finding a way to allow “the modern standards” in ceiling and building heights.

To that answer, Daly questioned that if an existing property currently had two or three stories, then if under the ordinance could that property rebuild to 80-feet.

Brown replied, “Yes, with commission approval.”

Commissioner George Spoll said he had been “bombarded” with concerns about height and the scale of buildings.

Spoll added that he had never heard any criticism of the 65-foot height limit, “But the 80-foot number continues to stretch it in the eyes of the public, and I’m attempting to deliver that message.”

Vice Mayor Ed Zunz spoke in general about the aim of the PUD ordinance in saying, “What we are doing is a very bold and justified attempt to address the number of non-conformities that exist on the island.”

Zunz was referring to the fact that dozens of properties currently have more units than are allowed by the underlying zoning density, which is generally six units per acre.

In 1984, Longboat Key voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to limit all redevelopment to six units per acre to encourage the eventual rebuilding of the island to a low-density, primarily residential, community. Recently, the commission has desired to allow the redevelopment to the current number of dwelling units and the PUD process is the method to figure out and negotiate on how to redevelop the site to the current higher density levels.

Brown rhetorically asked if it would be better to allow Seahorse and the Diplomat to rebuild at six or seven stories with more open space or as it is right now.

Daly went back to the height issue and said it is of equal concern to residents as traffic.

“I share their concern and wonder if 65 feet might be a better consistent height than 80 feet,” said Daly.

Mayor Terry Gans asked if there was any way around the fixed cap, whether it be 65 or 80 feet, and Ray replied that most jurisdictions do not have a height cap, but the way it was written it was a “hard limit.”

Gans replied that his philosophical desire was not to have a cap, but to encourage creativity and enact provisions that allows the commission to make a decision.

“I’d be willing to live with 80 feet, but would hate to be more restrictive,” said Gans.

Daly replied that he would lean toward restricting to the 65-foot limit, and said it was much more “in the ambiance of Longboat Key.”

Zunz agreed and said he did not see any public reason to justify going above the existing 65-foot limit.

Commissioner Irwin Pastor suggested that the town look to the future and ensure that economic and property values are substantial and said that outside planners and the Planning and Zoning Board recommended the 80-foot limit. He added that he has a lot of confidence in the commission to make a final decision when a project is presented.

Gans then made the point that he was concerned with making decisions based on specific examples such as the Diplomat or Seahorse. He said that when he looks at the Sanctuary, which is currently eight stories over parking, that it could not rebuild to its current height under a 65-foot limit.

Sarasota Attorney Robert Lincoln was representing Unicorp, which is seeking to redevelop the Colony. Lincoln told the commission that he thought pursuing height controls was improper because of the issue of open space.

“As written now, this ordinance does not offer a great deal of flexibility,” said Lincoln. He added that there was no process for allowing departures and it would be very difficult to build under the ordinance.

Attorney Brenda Patten, also representing Unicorp, said the proposed ordinance is “fatally flawed” and suggested that the town’s approach is ripe for a Bert Harris claim. Patten said that the town cannot dictate to the property owner what zoning uses among permitted uses can be built on a property. She added that Florida law dictates that a property owner gets to decide what use it wishes to develop if the uses are allowed under code.

Brown replied that the commission was not trying to talk about or apply the ordinance to any specific property or site.

Brown asked, “How do you address a site (the Colony) where you have begged to grandfather the existing units?”

Patten replied that you need to look to the codes and said there are serious constitutional and Bert Harris issues at work. She said, “The Colony property is entitled to its property rights under the code.”

Town Attorney Maggie Mooney-Portale entered the discussion and asked Patten if she agreed that nothing compelled anyone to avail themselves of the PUD process.

Patten said that was true.

The discussion ended with the commission retaining the 65-foot height limit and the ordinance will move for a first reading and public hearing at its April 3 regular meeting.

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