Our Town with William Kelly: Zoning “kickoff” meeting attracts enthusiastic public turnout

William Kelly  |  Our Council  |  Our Town  |  January 18, 2023

Town officials say public participation is crucial to the success of zoning code reform – one of the Town Council’s top goals for 2023.

The officials and town zoning consultants saw and felt that participation firsthand Tuesday morning, when nearly 100 people packed the meeting chambers at Town Hall for a zoning “kickoff.”

“What a great turnout,” Mayor Danielle Moore told the audience.

The zoning code, which dates to 1974, is a confusing and outdated patchwork of amendments that fails to address many issues that affect life in the town as it is today, officials say.

Sean S. Suder, president and founder of Cincinnati-based ZoneCo, said code reform gives residents a rare opportunity to design the future of the town. Because Palm Beach is fully developed, its guidelines must focus on redevelopment and adaptive use, he said.

“We want a clear, more consistent, more resilient zoning code,” he said. “It’s going to be a win for Palm Beach.”

Dramatically increased property values and changing demographic patterns have triggered intensive redevelopment in the North End and Midtown, where neighborhoods are rapidly changing as new property owners raise older houses and build larger ones that often swallow more of their lots.

Higher ground-floor elevation requirements are another issue. New federal flood-zone building standards – a response to rising sea levels – are leading to taller houses and elevated lots, which can flood their neighbors during periods of heavy rainfall.

“Your code doesn’t mitigate against these extremes,” Suder said. “These things are coming together in an extreme way that you really have to address.”

ZoneCo is one of three consultants hired to help the town review and rebuild the code. The other two are Yard & Company, also headquartered in Cincinnati, and The Corradino Group, based in Miami.

Joe Nickol, co-founder and principal of Yard & Company, invited residents to visit several “stations” in the meeting room with maps of different areas of town. Residents were asked what characteristics they like, or don’t like, about the North End, Midtown and the South End.

They also were asked to complete a survey, either on paper, or by logging onto a new website, pbzoning.org. The consultants will carry their input forward as they plan public workshops, or charrettes, to be held at the Mandel Recreation Center later this season. The consultants and town officials are hoping for a robust public turnout during that four-day period, from Feb. 27-March 2, which they are calling “Designing Our Palm Beach Week.”

“For this to be successful, it has to be a groundswell … with lots of support around it,” Nickol said.

At the station maps, residents were asked to stick green dots on properties they liked, and red dots on those they didn’t.

“It’s a good place to start,” North End resident Joanie Goodman said. “We’ve been trying to get this done for a long time.”

Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay, who lives in the North End, said the far North End, Chilean Avenue and the “Sea Streets” – Seaspray, Seaview and Seabreeze avenues – represent the “last stand” of the charming old bungalows built when Palm Beach was just a seasonal getaway. Many bungalows have been demolished by younger owners who live on the island year-round and have families who desire or need more space.

“People are taking them down and putting up houses that are 4,000 square feet,” Lindsay said.

Anne Pepper, who has lived in Midtown on Seaspray Avenue since 1987, said that street remained largely unchanged until about five years ago. When she and her husband Charlie moved there, working couples could find “affordable” little cottages on the island, Pepper said. But the average value of those homes has escalated by millions of dollars in the last few years.

“Now we’re seeing all this demolition, that is really changing the street,” Pepper said.

Out-of-state speculators razed a two-story Mediterranean Revival house before the town had approved their plans for its replacement, she said.

New construction must meet higher elevation requirements, so those owners are filling in their lots, sometimes by several feet. During heavy rains, water washes off those properties and onto lots with older houses, like Pepper’s, with elevations closer to the street level.

“The problem with the zoning code is it’s not protecting the existing housing stock,” Pepper said.

Alfred “Skip” Aldridge, who is co-chairman of the Citizens’ Association of Palm Beach, and a Palm Beach Civic Association director, said the South End of town is contending with development issues of its own.

Property assessments are increasing to build up reserves to meet tougher state maintenance requirements for multi-residential buildings in the wake of the Surfside condominium collapse in Miami, he said.

Some of the buildings are faced with the prospect of expensive renovations. “That might make them open to developers,” Aldridge said.


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