CLEARWATER - Citing inconsistencies between Beach by Design and underlying land use and zoning regulations, the City's Planning Department will next week be asking the Council to approve a nine-month moratorium on processing certain site plan applications in the Old Florida District of Clearwater Beach.
Since the adoption of Beach by Design in 2001, the Old Florida District, bounded by Somerset Street on the north and Rockaway Street/Bay Esplanade on the south, had been the subject of little redevelopment activity. That changed in 2004 with the submission of eight site plans for new construction, but according to a staff report only two of them were consistent with Beach by Design guidelines.
Beach by Design describes the Old Florida District as "an area of transition between resort uses in Central Beach to the low intensity residential neighborhoods to the north of Acacia." It further describes the "preferred" form of development in the district as "new single family dwellings and townhouses."
But that vision for the Old Florida District is in conflict with the City's own land use and zoning regulations for the area. Parts of Old Florida are zoned "T", or Tourist, allowing up to 30 dwelling units or 40 overnight accommodation units per acre, and heights of up to 100 feet. Other parts are zoned MHDR, or Medium High Residential, allowing up to 30 dwelling units per acre and heights of up to 50 feet under flexible development standards.
Gina Clayton, the City's Long Range Planning Manager, is concerned not only with the apparent conflict between Beach by Design and zoning regulations, but with the "lack of clarity" in Beach by Design as well. Regarding the Old Florida District, it states, "building height should be low to mid-rise in accordance with the Community Development Code, but that code contains no definition of "mid-rise". Clayton also wonders if the district is really an area of transition between resorts and residences, and what that means in terms of land regulations.
Justifying the proposed 9-month moratorium, Clayton said, "We need to take a time-out to figure out what this area should be." That time would be spent studying the area, engaging the public to determine its desired character, and amending Beach by Design, zoning regulations, and Clearwater's Comprehensive Plan accordingly.
But while the proposed moratorium will provide the Planning Department with the time they need to develop consistent guidelines and zoning for the Old Florida District, it has created uncertainty for the owners and potential developers of properties in the area.
Bob Pennock and Melody Ferguson have owned a 4-plex on Bay Esplanade since 1996, living in one unit and renting the other three. Rising property values in the area, caused in part by neighboring redevelopment projects, have nearly made the property unprofitable to operate. "It used to take the rent from one unit to pay the annual property tax," said Pennock, "now it takes 2 1/2 units."
Their solution? Join the condo craze sweeping other areas of Clearwater Beach. But because of the size and irregular shape of their property, the City-preferred townhouse approach doesn't work; it would yield only three units according to Pennock. He drew-up plans for a mid-rise condo with 6 floors above parking, but those plans were rejected by the City. The reason? Height, mass and scale. According to Pennock, the City suggested to him that a townhouse development would be "preferred", although current zoning would permit 7 residential units on the site.
Pennock has revised his site plan, proposing to reduce height with a structure having only 5 floors above parking, but the looming moratorium has the potential to delay his project 9 months. He is trying desperately to complete his application before the proposed moratorium takes effect on February 3, 2005.
Other property owners in the area, while having no immediate development plans, are concerned that the Old Florida District may be rezoned as a result of the study, and that the area's density may be reduced. A reduction in density, they worry, would lead directly to a reduction in the values of their properties. There is also concern that the moratorium, if approved, will create an uncertain investment climate in the district, scaring away potential investors until the revisions to Beach by Design and the underlying land use and zoning are completed.
But the proposed moratorium does not put a stop to all redevelopment activity in the Old Florida District, Clayton said. Applications for neighborhood retail uses, renovation of existing improvements, and single-family dwellings and townhomes, all consistent with Beach by Design's description of the Old Florida District, will continue to be processed.
Clayton plans to involve the public in determining the future of the Old Florida District. She said, "I don't want to go out to the public and say 'Here it is'. We want to develop a process so that all stakeholders can have a voice in what the area should be." Clayton also has no pre-conceived idea of what the outcome should be; "Until we have some direction from the Council and the public, I really can't make any recommendations," she said.
Two public hearings on the proposed moratorium will be held next week: Tuesday, January 18 at 1PM before the Community Development Board, and Thursday January 20 at 6PM before the City Council.
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