Our Town with William Kelly- Officials: Town’s comprehensive plan ‘at odds’ with reality of town life

William Kelly  |  Development  |  Our Town  |  December 8, 2021

The comprehensive plan, sometimes referred to by officials as the Bible or the constitution of the town, establishes broad guidelines for land use and redevelopment, touching many aspects of life on the island.

In the last decade, the plan has changed very little, officials said at a Town Council workshop on Tuesday. But the town has changed a lot.

The plan calls for limiting redevelopment and requiring businesses to be town-serving to protect Palm Beach’s traditional small-town character.

Property values in the town are stronger than ever, and Palm Beach continues to be a destination for people who can afford to live anywhere. Yet everyone seemed to agree that there’s a disconnect between the vision articulated in the plan, and the reality of life in the town, which is facing unprecedented growth pains from within its borders and from neighboring West Palm Beach.

Traffic is heavier. Younger families, who often require more living space, are moving into town. Redevelopment, and the associated construction and noise, is intense.

“The town is a much more lively place than it used to be,” Councilman Lew Crampton said. “The comprehensive plan does not account for that.”

Neighborhoods are rapidly changing as houses are razed to make way for dwellings that are larger and closer to their neighbors. At the same time, FEMA is requiring houses to be built at a higher elevation, making them taller.

“The comprehensive plan seems to be at odds with what we have become,” Council President Margaret Zeidman said. “We cannot turn back the clock. But we have to be very careful about how we go forward.”

Palm Beach is fully developed. Town Attorney John Randolph pointed out that much of the development existed before the council incorporated town-serving guidelines into the comprehensive plan and the zoning ordinances that follow the plan. Town-serving rules require that businesses of a certain size cater mostly to customers who live or work in town, or who are a guest of town accommodations.

The plan itself is not an instrument of enforcement, according to Randolph and Zoning Director Wayne Bergman. Enforcement occurs through the zoning ordinances and how they are applied by the council or zoning staff.

The state requires local governments to have a comprehensive plan and to update it every few years. When Palm Beach’s plan was last updated in 2016 there were virtually no substantive changes, Zoning Manager Paul Castro said.

“It was a cursory glance,” Mayor Danielle Moore agreed.

Crampton and Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay suggested the plan itself is not the problem. “We keep saying these things,” about protecting neighborhoods and managing growth and traffic, Lindsay said. “The question is, does our [zoning] code and do our actions reflect them?”

Crampton said he has no problem with the comprehensive plan the way it is now written.

Resident Anne Pepper agreed. The plan is focused on protecting aesthetics, architecture “and the preservation of a certain kind of lifestyle that I don’t think any of you disagree with,” she told the council. “But the underpinnings of this vision have not been carried out and continue to be weakened by too many [zoning] variances and a failure to enforce the [plan’s] principles.”

Tuesday’s workshop is part of a broader effort by the council, staff and Planning and Zoning Commission to review the zoning code over the next few years with an eye toward protecting the town from unwanted change. Moore and the council have said the code review and redevelopment issue is a top priority for the town.

Crampton said there are three “existential threats” that confront Palm Beach: a major hurricane, rising sea levels and “growth which could outstrip our capacity to maintain our unique quality of life here … The town needs room to breathe.”

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