Town attorney, staff put brakes on Colony redevelopment plan

Editor & Publisher

The stage suddenly shifted this past week on Longboat Key.

The town of Longboat Key has put the brakes on moving forward with hearing a proposal to redevelop the Colony that was scheduled for Dec. 19 before the Planning and Zoning Board.

In a joint memo issued on Wednesday, Town Attorney Maggie Mooney-Portale along with special counsel Patricia Petruff and Planning and Zoning Director Allen Parsons wrote a memorandum recommending that the Planning and Zoning Board does not consider the Site Plan Application nor Outline Development Plan that was slated to be discussed next Tuesday.

The reason for the delay is to save a potential waste of time and effort, say the three in the memo. They elaborate that because the proposal by Orlando-based developer Unicor, is contingent on a zoning amendment that requires commission approval and that they say should be accomplished in their opinion first.

The issue centers on Unicorp’s desire and strategy to rebuild the 17.3-acre site with a mixed-use project consisting of a 168 hotel rooms and 100 luxury residences.

The problem lies in the fact that the Colony operated for more than four decades as a 237-unit tourist hotel with an underlying zoning of six units per acre. The commission grandfathered and has memorialized the 237 tourism units, but that right is contingent on a developer rebuilding what was there as far as unit count and use.

Unicorp President Chuck Whittall is proposing something different.

Whittall seeks to use the underlying six units per acre zoning for 103 units and then ask the town commission for the 165 tourism units remaining in the pool that voters approved in 2008.

For Whittall to succeed, he needs the commission to amend the zoning code to allow him to use the underlying six units per acre that he is allowed to use, but with the additional right to redevelop using what is called the “Planned Unit Development (PUD)” process.

The way it works on Longboat Key is the underlying zoning allows six units per acre at the Colony site. If a developer wishes to use the flexibility that allows departures from several requirements through the PUD process, then the allowed density drops to 4.5 units per acre.

The entire zoning minutia grows complex in part because the town has spent the last several years attempting to develop a PUD process in anticipation that there was no clear process in place to handle a Colony application.

That effort failed when the consultants last year were removed from the process, the former Planning and Zoning Director Alaina Ray took a job elsewhere, and the applicant Unicorp decided to move forward under the existing rules.

In the memo staff and the town attorney wrote that the approach to move forward with the zoning change first will prevent the Town Commission and Planning and Zoning Board from contemplating an approach “that may or may not be enacted.”

The essence of the town attorney and staff’s memo is recommending that the zoning amendment be considered a “preliminary matter” that should be determined before an extensive Quasi-Judicial Hearing about the site plan.

For Whittall, he said he was surprised and somewhat disappointed to find this out months after working on the site plan application and working with staff on every element of the proposal and to be on the agenda and have the meeting noticed. Whittall said that he will request at the Planning and Zoning meeting that the town move forward and he pointed out that the town adopted a text amendment to the zoning code while considering other development proposals in the past.

What this means

The Colony path can take several turns. First, if the Planning and Zoning Board recommends the proposed zoning amendment next week, then the Town Commission would have to sit through two readings if it wanted to adopt the changes. That puts the adoption likely in March 2018 at the earliest, just for the text amendment. That means it would likely be a new commission that would consider the Colony site plan following the March elections rather than the current commission.

If the Planning and Zoning Board or Commission does not want to support the text amendment requested by Whittall then Whittall would have to revise his plan once again to conform to town code.

In short, he would have to shave about another 24 units off the proposal if he wishes to use the Planned Unit Development process.

Another option is that Whittall would have to reconfigure the project to accommodate the units he wants on the site, but somehow not use the Planned Unit Development process and the flexibility it allows. The simple equation on Longboat Key is you lose some of the allowed density by using the PUD process. The PUD process allows developers to depart from certain restrictions but the trade off is the loss in density.

Whittall seeks to have the departures as well as the use of the full six units per acre.

Unicorp attorney Brenda Patten has said that the zoning amendment is consistent with a consensus of the Town Commission that was taken in May of 2017 on the issue.

And while the Town Attorney and staff in their memo recommend that the Planning and Zoning Board does not consider Unicorp’s entire plan on Dec. 19, it appears a fait accompli in that the staff report on the project has not been distributed to the Planning and Zoning Board members for their review.

Staff analysis

The Longboat Key Staff Report Draft was obtained by Longboat Key News and said that granting additional tourism units would “reasonably be expected to be associated with additional densities beyond underlying zoning district densities.”

Staff at the end of its recommendation on the zoning amendment issue said a case could be made either way that being more restrictive is the goal of the Comprehensive Plan but also that the flexibility is also a goal.

According to the Staff Report, the proposed zoning change would only affect a property that received units out of the Tourism Pool. Ultimately, the Staff Report recommended denial of the zoning amendment change.

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