Hundreds of residents came together for four days of vibrant discussions in the “Designing Our Palm Beach” zoning reform workshops last week at the Mandel Recreation Center.
“It’s been an intense and productive week,” Sean S. Suder, a town zoning consultant, said at Thursday’s closing presentation.
“It’s been very upbeat,” Zoning Director Wayne Bergman said.
Suder is president and founder of Cincinnati-based ZoneCo, one of three consultants hired by the town to review and rebuild the zoning code. The other two are Yard & Company, headquartered in Cincinnati, and The Corradino Group, based in Miami.
The consultants, with support from architect Richard Sammons, of the local firm Fairfax & Sammons, led residents through a four-day long charrette, or public workshop, to gather opinion on how best to update the town’s zoning code, which dates to 1974.
“We had hundreds of residents take full advantage of this opportunity,” Suder said. “This, in itself, is a success.”
Besides the charrette, there was a series of smaller meetings scheduled with neighborhood groups, organizations or individuals – all part of the consultants’ efforts to take the pulse of the community.
The exercise was far more than academic. Town officials and the consultants have said the existing zoning code is an inconsistent and confusing patchwork of amendments that does not fit existing conditions in the town.
Higher property values and changing demographic patterns have led to intensive redevelopment in the North End and Midtown, where neighborhoods are changing as new owners tear down older houses and often “max out” their property values by building much larger dwellings that gobble up a greater portion of their lots.
At the same time, higher federal ground-floor elevation requirements – a response to rising sea levels – are leading to taller houses and elevated lots, which alter the streetscapes and can flood neighbors’ lower-lying lots during heavy rainfalls.
The South End, which is mostly multi-unit residential buildings, is also facing greater development pressure.
The discussions were far ranging and delved into a lot of details, said Joe Nickol, co-founder and principal of Yard & Company.
Topics, to name a few, included controlling the bulk and location of second stories of houses built in the North End; looking at ways to protect the unique characteristics of Midtown’s Sea Streets, which include Seaview, Seabreeze and Seaview avenues; preserving views and access to the water in the South End; mixed uses in commercial areas; and ways to address traffic, congestion and parking.
Residents want the zoning code to emphasize design over density and to encourage a mix of rooflines and thoughtful approaches to first-floor elevation requirements. They do not view Palm Beach as a resort destination, as a gated community or as a “subdivision with McMansions,” Nickol said.
“You’ve got great residential streets and great neighborhoods,” he said. “You are a fully functioning town.”
Suder outlined the next steps for the public to expect. He said he will deliver a post-charrette report to the Town Council and Planning and Zoning Commission within the next two months. Then, this summer, he will draft a new zoning code for the town with language, charts, graphics and illustrations that will be easier to understand than the existing one.
That will be followed by a series of one-on-one and Zoom meetings. Then, in October or November, the new code will be presented to the zoning commission and council with the goal of having the council adopt it into law during the 2023-24 season. He said he realizes all of that is a heavy lift.
“I am optimistic,” he said. “Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I am.”
In an interview following his presentation, Suder said modernizing the code and making it more user-friendly will, in itself, be a great leap forward.
“It’s going to be a game changer, even if we changed nothing” in terms of the zoning regulations, he said.
Suder said most of the people he spoke with during the week are open to changes in the code because they are concerned about how economics and development pressures are altering the town. Sea level rise is another major concern.
Others don’t see the need for changes. “They want Palm Beach to be what they always knew it to be,” he said.
Suder said the existing code is a suburban document written at a time when wider setbacks were in vogue.
“The town has evolved over time,” he said. “The way people live, work, shop and dine out has shifted. The laws need to change to reflect that.”
North End resident Susan Gary said the consultants met with a group of 14 residents from her neighborhood to hear their concerns, which included tougher FEMA elevation requirements and the massing of houses on lots.
“We were very pleased,” she said. “They did listen.”
During the week, Sammons, the local architect, did sketches to illustrate how suggested changes in the zoning code could affect the way houses would appear on their lots or from the street. Gary said he distributed copies of his sketches to her group and that they were very helpful.
Midtown resident John David Corey said having so many residents come together to talk about the town was a unique experience.
“Most of those I talked to are concerned about mitigating [the] intensity” of property uses, he said.
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