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Board votes against staff in Colony zoning change

STEVE REID
Editor & Publisher
sreid@lbknews.com

In the face of staff recommending otherwise, the Longboat Key Town Planning and Zoning Board voted a narrow 4-3 in support of sending a zoning code change sought by Unicorp, the company that is attempting to redevelop the Colony property.

Now, that zoning code amendment heads to the Town Commission and at its Jan. 22 workshop there will likely be consensus to either move it forward to a formal vote or deny the measure.

The zoning amendment is one of three requests that Unicorp President Chuck Whittall had on the agenda at last week’s Planning and Zoning Board meeting. The other items centered on his proposal itself to develop a St. Regis Hotel and condominiums on the 17.3-acre Colony site. The zoning text amendment allows Whittall to build the six residential units per acre he seeks as well as used what is called the Planned Unit Development (PUD) process.

And while Whittall has the right to develop six units per acre since that is the underlying density, town code says that if he wants to use the PUD process the allowed units per acre drops to 4.5 units. The zoning text amendment changes the code to read that if tourism units, which Whittall also seeks, are granted out of a pool the commission controls, then the reduction in density using the PUD process to 4.5 units per acre is waived.

Town staff argued in a report that the Planning and Zoning Board should deny Whittall’s request for the text amendment. The staff report, authored by Planning and Zoning Director Allen Parsons and Town Attorney Maggie Mooney-Portale and Patricia Petruff, said the code made sense from a policy standpoint because the Planned Unit Development process allows the ability to depart from several code provisions and the tradeoff is density. And in this case, the reduction to 4.5 units per acre is consistent. The town said the text amendment could also be seen as spot zoning if it only ended up applying to the Colony site.

The other significant element of the town staff report and what was discussed at the meeting was the town staff’s desire to not have the Planning and Zoning Board consider the formal redevelopment plan until the zoning text amendment decision had been made by the commission. The town sought to “bifurcate” the process. Whittall had applied last July requesting the three items – the site plan, the outline development plan and the zoning text amendment – all be considered together.

The meeting opened with Town Planning and Zoning Director Allen Parsons said, “The zoning text amendment is foundational to the total units upon which the applicant’s (Unicorp) plans are based.”

Parsons then said that PUDs typically require a reduction in density and he also showed the departures that are allowed under the process.

Planning and Zoning Board member Ken Schneier did not agree with staff and supported the text amendment. Schneier spoke of the town spending years attempting to develop a PUD ordinance specifically for the reason that the current situation presents. The town Planning and Zoning Board in fact passed an ordinance, which the Town Commission did not move forward on and tabled.

Schneier said that the current situation with town code leaves an applicant, “trying to thread several needles.”

Planning and Zoning Board member Phill Younger was adamantly opposed to the amendment and said that it “destroyed the checks and balances system if you put it in there.”

Board member Len Garner said the philosophy of the PUD is to allow modification to code because it’s impossible for a community to develop a code that is adequate for every parcel in a community. Garner supported the text amendment.

Whittall made his case that throughout the country the cases usually get additional density for using a PUD approach because you can increase open space and setbacks. He said that the town had allocated tourism units to Zota, which is the redeveloped former Hilton Hotel, and it has a final density of 43 units per acre.

Whittall’s current proposal is to build 168-room St. Regis Hotel and 100 St. Regis residential condominiums.

If the town does not ultimately adopt the text amendment, it would cost Whittall 26 residential units from the site if he uses the PUD process. But that process is intertwined with numerous departures that Whittall seeks in his overall plan.

Attorneys for Unicorp, Brenda Patten and Robert Lincoln, spent about 15 minutes arguing for the text amendment and expressing dismay that the town told them less than a week prior of their desire to bifurcate the application, which would have the effect of slowing it down for several months.

Patten showed on a Powerpoint slide that the Town Commission in a workshop discussion earlier this year agreed to get rid of the table in the code that mandates the reduction in density when using a PUD.  That meeting was a workshop wherein the commission was discussing revising the PUD ordinance but nothing was ever formally agreed upon or adopted.

Patten further argued that the Town Code was illogical. So did attorney Lincoln.

“The fact that you mandate PUDs for redevelopment and then penalize for density is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan. The town is supposed to update the code to reflect the Comprehensive Plan. The Town Commission has not complied with its responsibility to update the code to reflect the Comprehensive Plan mandate, so we as applicant, have had to use the method of a text amendment. Applying a density penalty for using a PUD is contrary to land use practices everywhere,” said Lincoln.

Before the Planning and Zoning Board took its vote, resident Pete Rowan suggested the town poll property owners to see if Unicorp should be awarded units out of the tourism pool.

St. Regis Resort and Residences Vice President Paige Hinton said that Whittall’s plans have her company’s support and approval. She said that the company runs 42 5-Star Hotels.

Longboat Key native Michael Saunders urged the Planning and Zoning Board to support the undertaking.

“If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t…I urge you to think you can and move it forward. It will be the only 5-Star Resort in our area where the public will have access,” said Saunders.

Whittall took the podium and urged the Planning and Zoning Board, “Please vote in favor of this. I have invested more than $30 million and I will bring a wonderful project to the key.”

Younger spoke out against it again, saying that the town had a long history of trying to protect itself through density.

“How long until someone else asks us for spot-zoning?” said Younger.

Schneier said it was not an across the board issue that would dramatically affect what goes forward on the key.

“If this text amendment is approved, then all the details of the plan and every issue of the plan will be under a microscope. The critical result is we get to the merits of this case. This is not a rush to judgment, let’s get to the merits of this case,” said Schneier.

The text amendment passed 4-3 with Board members Younger, BJ Bishop and Ken Marsh voting against.

The text amendment that the Planning and Zoning Board passed will now be considered by the Town Commission on Jan. 22. If the commission wants to move forward with it, the first reading would be held on Feb. 5 at the earliest. These dates are important because the Planning and Zoning Board tabled and continued the consideration and discussion of the site plan and project itself until its Feb. 20 Planning and Zoning meeting. That date was picked because it is after the Town Commission meetings and if the commission decides against the text amendment that would derail the plan from going to the Feb. 20 Planning and Zoning Board meeting because it is predicated on the text amendment.

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