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Our Town with William Kelly: Zoning expert says Palm Beach code should be ‘clear’ and ‘balanced’

Zoning consultant Sean Suder’s message to the Town Council was a familiar one – the town’s zoning code is a confusing patchwork of amendments and is out of step with much of what’s best about Palm Beach architecture.

Suder assured the council at its July 13 meeting he’s gathering information from all corners to help the town turn the problem around. He’s been meeting individually with elected officials and town staff, touring the town, reviewing the code and performing a “diagnostic” exam of zoning processes to identify areas of critical concern.

Suder is preparing an outline for a zoning workshop with the council in September. A larger engagement with the community is planned for the fall and winter, after seasonal residents have returned, said Suder, who is founder and principal of Cincinnati-based Zone Co.

Council members told him to proceed – with caution.

“It appears to me that we are heading in the right direction,” council President Margaret Zeidman said.

Councilman Ted Cooney warned Suder that previous attempts at zoning reform bumped into fierce opposition from property owners who were concerned about protecting their property values and development rights. Cooney advised Suder not to move too quickly.

“Going at the appropriate pace and engaging with the community is paramount,” Cooney said.

Town officials have said current zoning rules are allowing houses to be built that are too large for their lots and inconsistent with their streetscapes. Some residents have complained about loss of privacy and unwanted change that they say is altering the character of the town.

Suder said the town needs a balanced code that will preserve its unique character while respecting private property rights. At the same time, the code should contain “environmentally stable” regulations that will address coastal resiliency, tougher federal flood elevation requirements and sea level rise, he said.

“Getting a document that is clear and consistent and that everybody can use is going to be an important part of this project,” Suder said.

Zone Co. is the primary consultant for the project. The council has also hired another zoning consultant – Joseph Corradino, president of The Corradino Group, based in Miami. The Corradino Group has expertise in South Florida coastal resiliency, FEMA regulations, flooding, building floor elevations and transportation.

Suder said the number of zoning variance requests before the council “is an indication of a broken zoning code … you should not have to approve as many variances as you are if the zoning code is reflecting the community.”

Many of the town’s prized historic landmarks could not be built under today’s code, Suder noted. “Somewhere along the way someone decided a more suburban development pattern was what [you] were going to code and that’s what [you] are going to get unless [you] approve a lot of variances,” he said.

Suder said problems in the town include houses being built too close to their neighbors or to the street; second-story massing with “monolithic facades,”; front-loading garages; lots being raised to meet higher flood elevation standards; mechanical equipment placed in visible locations; and a lack of shade trees and small-scale in-fill development.

“The ability to do varied [building] heights is important,” he said. “Currently, heights are limited. You don’t get enough heights to get shade. You have beautiful courtyards that are not shady enough.”

Creative design and massing should be encouraged, he said. New residences with varied, as opposed to monolithic, facades would avoid a “canyon effect” on the streets, he said.

Elevating lots to meet FEMA requirements can change the streetscape while causing stormwater runoff problems for neighbors. But Suder said he observed architectural solutions that enabled buildings to meet higher ground-floor elevation rules without raising the lot.

“It can be really beautiful and meet FEMA requirements,” Suder said.

Suder suggested that the town replace its “cubic content ratio,” or CCR, a complicated formula used to try and limit the interior space of buildings relative to the size of their lots.

“I can’t really understand it,” he said of the CCR. “I’m hoping it’s something we can replace. I think it’s meaningless. It’s not a standard that’s used anywhere else that I’m aware of.”

The answer may be to revert to the much simpler and more common Floor Area Ratio, or FAR, developed in New York City and used by the town in the 1990s.

The floor area ratio sets a clear limit for interior building space based on the lot size. For example, a .25 FAR would allow 2,500 square feet of under-roof space on a 10,000 square foot lot.

But the FAR does not control yard setbacks, maximum lot coverage or the height or location of a house on the lot, Suder said. Those rules also need to be addressed, he said.

Suder agreed with a town initiative to provide incentives to owners to build single-floor houses that have less impact on neighbors than two-story structures. By giving up their right to build a second floor, the owners gain additional property rights in return.

Councilman Lew Crampton said Suder does not appear to have a preconceived idea of what needs to be done.

“You have demonstrated knowledge of our code … and possible solutions and ways to live the life here, legally, that we should be living,” Crampton said.


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