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Palm Beach seeks public opinion for zoning code reform

Our Town with William Kelly: Palm Beach seeks public opinion for zoning code reform

For years, town officials have said the town’s zoning code is an outdated patchwork of amendments that are inconsistent and too complicated to fully understand.

Many residents have said the code is failing to protect neighborhoods that are losing their charm to a disturbing development trend: houses that are being built too large for their lots and that loom over their neighbors.

What do you think? If you have an opinion about town zoning rules, and how they affect building design and development trends on the island, the town says it would like to hear from you.

Zoning Code review and reform is a top priority for the Town Council this year, council President Margaret Zeidman said. Community engagement is essential if the effort is to succeed, Mayor Danielle Moore and council members have said.

The town has hired a team of consultants who will steer the community through a series of charrettes, or public workshops, designed to gather views from residents and the business community about current building trends, evolving FEMA elevation requirements, and how zoning rules may be improved.

A public kickoff meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 9:30 a.m. in the meeting chambers at Town Hall. The public will have a chance to meet and hear from the consultant team. The charrettes, which will be held in the fieldhouse at the Mandel Recreation Center, are planned during a four-day public engagement period beginning Feb. 27.

The lead consultant is Sean S. Suder, a lawyer and planner who is founder and principal of Cincinnati-based ZoneCo. The other consultants are Joe Corradino, president of The Corradino Group, based in Miami, and Joe Nickol, principal of Yard & Co., based in Cincinnati.

“We have great consultants who will lead us through the process,” Zeidman said. “The idea is to simplify our code so it is user friendly and appropriate to what we want in our town.”

Subjects that must be tackled include varying roof heights, elevated lots that cause water runoff onto neighboring properties, and changing FEMA standards for ground floor elevations, Zeidman said.

“It will be resident-driven,” she said of the charrette process. “We are not going to do things that are perceived as taking a property right away from an owner.”

Suder told the council in December that his company’s goal is to help Palm Beach develop “sustainable, defensible zoning regulations that advance your vision and that are also balanced with property rights.”

The town failed to achieve code reform in the past when the effort ignited fierce opposition from residents who were concerned about the loss of their property rights and the impact on property values.

This time around, the review and reform initiative is being driven by unprecedented development pressure that many have said is changing the North End for the worse. Many buyers have demolished older houses to clear the way for larger and taller dwellings that “max out” their lots.

Town officials and preservationists have often noted that the zoning code has fallen out of step with the built environment of the town. Many of the most prized buildings in Palm Beach could not be built under today’s regulations, Councilman Ted Cooney and others have pointed out.

Palm Beach Zoning Director Wayne Bergman has referred to the zoning code as “outdated” and “broken.” Suder put it this way: “We are solving for a 1974 code that is cumbersome to use, inconsistent and does not promote the vision of the town.”

By all accounts, public outreach and buy-in is essential to the reform process. But Suder warned the council last month not to expect complete consensus and harmony.

“We’re looking for constructive feedback, but we’re going to get noise, too,” he said. “We need to keep our eye on what we are trying to accomplish as a town and avoid letting the voices of a few drown out the interests of the many.”

The consultants’ public outreach began on a quieter scale last year. They have been gathering information through “countless” individual tours of the town led by town officials and others in the community, Suder said. He said there have already been nearly 50 meetings with individuals, including architects, builders and preservationists.

The week of Feb. 27-March 2 has been dubbed “Designing Our Palm Beach Week.” The consultants will arrive in town and set up a studio on Feb. 27, followed by the charrettes on Feb. 28 and March 1. Local architect Richard Sammons will also participate in the workshops, Suder said.

There will be a series of one-on-one and small-group conversations, illustration pin-ups, receptions and presentations, according to a town news release. Then, on March 2, there will be a closing event and reception.

Suder said the consultants will be back with a summary of their findings by the end of March. But the process will not end there. He said more individual meetings will follow during the summer.

“The goal is a code that is custom-tailored to Palm Beach,” he said.