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New Longboat rules to affect Colony, building heights and rebuild rights

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

How tall should the future Colony be? What if the Islander Club or Islands West or Sanctuary or Seaplace wishes to redevelop? Should they be allowed to rebuild at their current height? What should the setbacks be? What about the underlying density and number of units?

All of these questions and numerous other issues come into play in a land use ordinance the Town is considering on Monday afternoon, known as the Planned Unit Development (PUD) ordinance.

The stakes could not be higher.

The future look of the Key, the evolution of property values and the protection of development rights all intersect.

Right now, the proposed ordinance limits redevelopment of multi-family and tourism structures to a height of 65 feet. A month ago, the ordinance in an earlier form posited a maximum height of 80 feet. At issue is dozens of buildings on the south end of the island already exceed 80 feet and what their rights under the proposed ordinance would be, remain in question.

Adding to the crucible of contention is that Unicorp President Chuck Whittall, who has a redevelopment proposal in play, has gotten scores of Colony neighbors at the Aquarius and Tencom properties to agree to a redevelopment plan that proposes 80-foot buildings with increased setbacks.

 

Genesis of the effort

In 2015, the town Planning and Zoning Board and Town Commission sought to deal with the non-conforming properties on Longboat Key. These non-conformities were created in 1984 when voters down-zoned the Key to a maximum of six units per acre. A large percentage of properties then and now exceed that density, and some are now getting close to the age of needing redevelopment.

In 2008, voters approved a referendum allowing those properties to rebuild at their existing unit levels, but only to the cubic size of the existing units. The PUD ordinance being considered on Monday will allow an expansion of those rights to allow larger units at the current density levels with the primary restrictions being setback and height limitations.

Currently, the only way these properties can become conforming would be to rebuild at lower unit counts. The purpose of the PUD ordinance, according to its advocates,  is to allow them to rebuild, keep their units, and build something that makes sense in today’s market.

The debate over height was initially  resolved in the Planning and Zoning Board, which recommended a maximum of 80 feet over base flood elevation. That height would have allowed approximately seven stories over parking.

The Town Commission when it considered the ordinance on March 22, 2017, cut the height back to 65 feet. Sixty-five feet is the current maximum allowed without a PUD process.

Mayor Terry Gans said he is concerned with the idea of adopting a PUD ordinance that puts in a 65-foot restriction.

“The idea is to encourage innovative design and the restrictions are supposed to come from staff, the Planning Board and the Town Commission. I am very uncomfortable putting in a 65-foot restriction which is an arbitrary number and I’m afraid we will not be doing what is best for the island,” said Gans.

Unicorp President Chuck Whittall said that Commissioner Jim Brown originally made the case for 80 feet in the Planning and Zoning Board and that he can build a superior redevelopment at the Colony with the additional height. His argument is that if he can build to 80 instead of 65 feet, he can increase setbacks to 70 feet on the sides of the Colony property and 185 feet from the erosion control line and 200 feet from Gulf of Mexico Drive, which he says will create greater buffers and landscaped areas. Whittall said today, without the PUD ordinance he can build 65 feet high with only 35-foot setbacks.

“The town will get a substantially better project. They should really consider treating projects over 15 acres separately in an ordinance rather than a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Whittall.

Whittall said his plan for the property after losing his request to add more density in a March 2017 referendum by more than 80 percent, is to build 103 residences and 165 hotel rooms. Whittall says this will create less traffic than the 237 hotel rooms allowed today, and he can pay the existing unit owners an agreed upon amount that has been approved by the Colony Association Board of Directors.

When asked if he can still accomplish his project within a 65-foot height limit, Whittall says “yes,” but the buildings will be situated far closer to Gulf of Mexico Drive and the neighboring properties and it will lack the same level of landscaping.

Over the past week, scores of Aquarius owners have written the town saying they no longer oppose Whittall’s plan and believe his latest proposal makes sense for them and the community.

Whittall, on the topic of building height, says there are over 59 buildings on Longboat Key that are 80 feet or taller. In his view it is a choice between going vertical or horizontal and that the neighbors at the Colony prefer increased setbacks and vegetative buffers.

 

Opposition in place

Other residents, including Carla and Pete Rowan of Keep Longboat Special, say they think residential development only on the site would be a better fit. Other residents, such as Roy Nevins, believe that 65 feet is reasonable and that a maximum 80-foot height, “would be a disaster for Longboat.”

The Longboat Key Commission has been flooded all week with letters supporting Whittall’s plan and his 80-foot height request as well as others opposing the measure.

It is anticipated the Monday meeting, which starts at 1 p.m., will be attended by residents arguing both sides of the issue.

Others have suggested that the town needs to spend more time considering the impact of the ordinance, and avoid the pressure to move forward with something that will define both the future of the Colony and many other redevelopment options on Longboat Key.

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