CLEARWATER - If it's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, Councilmember Bill Jonson's 3-minute slide show of the canyon that is Brightwater Drive was worth a volume. Highlighting the street's narrow setbacks, limited view corridors and limited landscaping, Jonson's presentation seemingly asked the question, "How could this happen?"
The joint meeting of the City Council, Community Development Board and Planning Staff had the right audience to provide answers, the City Council having set direction for Staff, the Staff having written the Community Development Code, and the CDB having approved the site plans for the buildings depicted in Jonson's visuals.
The meeting was intended to share information and ideas among the CDB and Council members. Mayor Frank Hibbard first solicited the CDB's experience with height and setbacks, issues that have been at the heart of planned amendments to Beach By Design for the Old Florida District.
CDB chairman Dave Gildersleeve said, "Height and setback are the two issues we deal with most frequently," and suggested that another Brightwater could be avoided with more creative architecture and better landscaping. Board member Thomas Coates offered a different solution; "One way to control it is to increase setback in exchange for greater height," he said, but added that his suggestion would require a rewrite of the code.
Hibbard then asked the CDB about their recommendation of a 75-foot height limit in the Old Florida District. Board member JB Johnson said, "When you look at it, what's another 15 feet? But it gives the property owner flexibility."
But Gildersleeve said that the extra height should be traded off for more setback and better landscaping. Board member Nick Fritsch agreed; quoting from the Robert Frost poem Mending Wall, he said, "Good fences make good neighbors," and suggested that 5-feet more in setback would go a long way to justifying the extra 10-feet in height.
There was a general consensus among the Council and CDB members that extra height was acceptable (in the case of the Old Florida District, 75-feet), but only if the site plan contained greater setback and stepbacks than required by the Code.
The development code's flexible standards were a source of concern to both the Council and CDB. Jonson started the discussion by saying, "I think that there's higher standards in the code than the CDB has been approving. I can't believe what's getting through."
Outgoing Board Member Alex Plisko explained, "There's too much flex built into our ordinance. If staff says it complies, there's no way for me to say no." Plisko opined that the code lacks open space and setback requirements, and complained that landscaping can not survive on properties that provide as little as three feet of width for it.
Implying that staff was interpreting the code too loosely, Plisko added, "What they're bringing to us is not what the code was intended to do. We need to have more open space; it's going to be all concrete out there (on the beach)."
Plisko also bemoaned the CDB's inability to impose its own judgment over that of staff. "Some of the buildings we voted on were about the ugliest things I've seen, but if staff says it meets the Code, we can't deny it." The board is required to make its decisions based on findings of fact and conclusions of law, leaving little to no room for any subjective evaluation of the quality of design or compatibility with surrounding developments.
Board member Kathy Milam expressed her concern with the increasingly unfriendly nature of Clearwater Beach developments to pedestrians. She wants the code to be more attentive to pedestrian view corridors, keeping setbacks wide and open. "Right now, they (developers) are creating their own formula based on what the code will permit," she said.
While the meeting ended with no decisions being made, there did appear to be a consensus to preserve building setbacks, create pedestrian view corridors and limit some of the flexibility that is now present in the Code.
Council member Jonson concluded by asking his colleagues, "What are we going to do differently on Thursday night?" "Based on the discussions we had today, I think we need to increase the standards for the Old Florida District," he said. A hearing and vote on proposed revisions to Beach by Design for the Old Florida District is scheduled for tonight's Council meeting.
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