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Consultant: Zoning setbacks should be tailored to neighborhoods

Town zoning consultant Sean Suder recently offered the Planning and Zoning Commission a glimpse into what zoning reform in the town could look like.

Suder is a land-use attorney with expertise in zoning and zoning history. He is founder and principal of Cincinnati-based ZoneCo, which has been assisting the town since May 2022 on a review and update of its zoning code.

Palm Beach is fully built, but historically high property values and the hyperactive real estate market of recent years have led to intensive redevelopment pressure on the island as many buyers raze older houses and build new homes with more square footage.

This has led to complaints from some residents that the larger houses are out of scale with the established neighborhoods and loom over their neighbors or compromise privacy.

At a zoning commission meeting earlier this month, Suder said his study of the town’s six residential zoning districts has focused mainly on the RB zoning district – a medium-density district spread into different parts of town but concentrated in the North End and part of Midtown.

The RB district is where most of the redevelopment pressure and tensions have been occurring, he said. That is especially true in parts of the North End that have relatively narrow streets and smaller lots, he said.

All the RB district is regulated the same – even though the neighborhoods within it have different development patterns and characteristics, Suder said.

He suggested the town carve the RB into three “sub-areas” so zoning rules could be tailored to fit the needs and characteristics of each.

“I don’t like one-size-fits-all zoning – I don’t think it works,” Suder said. “I think we need to be much more intentional and specific.”

The sub-areas would enable the town to avoid the headache of establishing new zoning districts.

“There was some initial talk about creating new zoning districts,” Suder said. “That would require rezoning hundreds, if not thousands, of lots. I don’t think anybody has an appetite for that.”

“Sub-area A” would be for the interior lateral streets of the North End. It would not include the waterfront properties along the Lake Worth Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean; those lots are already zoned outside of the RB, he said.

“Sub-area B” would be for the “Sea Streets” – Seaview, Seabreeze and Seaspray avenues – which have their own distinctive characteristics and lot sizes, Suder said. The Sea Streets were developed with detached garages and other characteristics associated with a traditional 1920s neighborhood.

“Sub-area C” would apply to all other areas within the RB district, he said.

The challenge is to establish zoning standards that reflect what exists on each street instead of creating nonconformities by regulating every street the same way, he said.

Suder said the zoning code reform should address community concerns while protecting, or even enhancing, existing property rights.

“There are no right or wrong answers to any of this,” he said. “It’s a balance we are trying to achieve.”

Suder also proposes to remove civic and cultural uses, including private clubs, from the RB district and zone them separately so that the RB is solely residential.

Street widths, building heights and property setbacks work together to shape the feeling and scale of the built environment, he said. With that in mind, he suggested tying setback requirements to the width of the streets.

“In the North End, the big issue is the street width,” he said. “… we have tried to balance concerns about the canyon effect with making sure that people can build the house they want at the prices they are paying.”

He proposed that streets be classified as “narrow” if under 25 feet in width, or “wide” if more than 25 feet. Some zoning commissioners objected to that terminology.

Suder suggested the town require houses to be set back farther from their lot lines if they are going to have two stories. That would be intended to reduce their visual impact on the streets.

One-story houses could be built closer to the lot lines than their two-story counterparts.

The zoning code should accommodate accessory structures like garages and cabanas, but they should only be permitted in rear yards and should not be closer than 10 feet from property lines, he said. The town could decide whether swimming pools would fit into that category, he said.

Lot mergers could be regulated by establishing minimum and maximum lot sizes for different areas.

He also proposed establishing, within each lot, a “residence area.” Property owners would have the flexibility to determine the “buildable area” within the residence area.

Suder said the zoning code should be updated to have more graphics and tables and should have far less repetition in the text than it currently does.

He said the South End of town, which is zoned high-density residential, needs further study because of the likelihood of redevelopment of the aging multi-residential buildings in that part of town.

Zoning Chairwoman Gail Coniglio agreed.

“I’m worried about potential overdevelopment there,” she said.

Commissioner Michael Spaziani said the town should finish updating its comprehensive plan before making changes to the zoning code, which he said should follow the guidelines set forth in the comprehensive plan.

“The comprehensive plan should be passed before we go into all the details,” he said.

Town staff has begun drafting language for the comprehensive plan update, which the state requires municipalities to do every seven years. Palm Beach’s plan was last updated in 2017.

The comprehensive plan update is due to be submitted for state review in the spring. Any changes would have to be reviewed by the zoning commission and approved by the Town Council.

Coniglio said the comprehensive plan update and zoning code update are proceeding on parallel tracks.

“We are making sure we are mirroring the comprehensive plan review to the zoning code and that they are in sync,” she said.

The update of the zoning code, which dates to the 1970s, will not be completed before late 2024, town officials have said.


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