Our Town with William Kelly: Town Council drops zoning resolution

William Kelly  |  Our Council  |  Our Town  |  May 10, 2023

Citing a conflict with new state legislation, the Town Council on Tuesday decided against a zoning action that would have put a hold on new residential development in a key zoning district.

The council unanimously voted to withdraw from the meeting agenda a resolution that would have implemented zoning-in-progress rules for the R-B Zoning District, which reaches from the North End into Midtown.

Zoning-in-progress legally enables local governments to pause new development while zoning regulations are being reviewed for possible changes. Palm Beach has hired consultants to help it overhaul its zoning code, which originated in the 1970s. Town officials have characterized the code as an inconsistent and confusing patchwork of amendments.

But Town Attorney John Randolph advised the council that zoning-in-progress could be at odds with new state legislation recently adopted by the Florida Legislature and expected to be signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in July.

The legislation, SB 250, is intended to protect the property rights of homeowners affected by hurricanes Ian and Nicole last year.

SB 250 would prohibit any county or municipality within 100 miles of where Hurricane Ian or Hurricane Nicole made landfall from adopting more restrictive amendments to its land development regulations, or more burdensome procedures for obtaining a development permit, before Oct. 1, 2024.

Council members and Mayor Danielle Moore said, even though SB 250 appears not to have been aimed at Palm Beach, it would apply to the town. Palm Beach would fall under the new law because Hurricane Ian struck Hutchinson Island, which is 81 miles away from Palm Beach.

“It doesn’t make sense to create uncertainty in our community when we are already dealing with so many issues,” Moore said.

“I think (we) have to, at a minimum, defer it,” Council President Margaret Zeidman said of the zoning-in-progress resolution, which upon approval would have been in effect for six months.

Waivers would have been allowed for some work, such as window or door replacements or kitchen remodeling. Development applications already accepted for town review would not have been impacted.

Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said SB 250 seems “completely arbitrary,” and she questioned the legislature’s intent.

“We have all felt, over the last few years, that there has been a real assault on home rule,” she said.

Councilman Lew Crampton said he wasn’t opposed to a zoning-in-progress declaration, which he described as a “structured pause” in residential development while the council continues the zoning reform effort it began more than a year ago.

But Crampton said he wouldn’t support the resolution while under the cloud of SB 250.

“I’m not in favor of jerking people around,” he said. “It would be disruptive.”

Mat Forest, who lobbies the state legislature on behalf of the town, said SB 250 was drafted after a Naples resident organized opposition to a zoning action taken by that city.

“The City of Naples was trying to change their development code right after (Hurricane Ian hit Naples),” Forest said. “It was causing uncertainty that people wouldn’t be able to sell their homes.”

Asked why the town didn’t learn of SB 250 until this past weekend, Forest said the bill passed both houses of the legislature almost unanimously and without controversy.

“It was not on anybody’s radar,” Forest said. “I have not heard a single flare.”

Originally, the legislation was going to apply to nearly 30 Florida counties and be in effect for several years, he said.

“Often the legislature will over correct, based on what one municipal government has done,” Forest said.

The prospect of a zoning-in-progress declaration has touched off concern among some Palm Beach property owners worried that it might lower their property values or make their houses harder to sell.

But many residents want zoning reforms, and some have asked the council to consider zoning-in-progress while the town and its consultants work to update the zoning code, Lindsay and Zeidman have said. Those residents contend that intensive residential redevelopment is rapidly transforming many neighborhoods as new owners raze more and more older homes and replace them with larger and taller dwellings.

The trend is driven not only by financial interests or a desire for more living space; newer, tougher FEMA building elevation requirements are also at play.

At Wednesday’s council meeting, the council and its lead zoning consultant, Sean Suder, agreed that SB 250 changes the town’s schedule for adoption of a new or revised zoning code.

Suder, who is lead principal and founder of Cincinnati-based ZoneCo, said earlier this year that he is drafting a new code for Palm Beach based on input he and other consultants working on the project received from town officials, community leaders and the general public.

The draft was to be presented later this year for the council, Planning and Zoning Commission and the public to consider. The goal was for the council to adopt a new code in March or April, according to Suder.

But Suder, who participated remotely in Wednesday’s council meeting, agreed with council members that a new zoning code should not be adopted before Oct. 1, 2024, when SB 250 is set to expire.

Council members said that would allow additional time for public review and comment.

“It will just prolong the time we have to look at the draft because instead of adopting it in the spring we will have until the fall,” Lindsay said. “That will just allow more time for public participation.”

At Tuesday’s council meeting, the public was given an opportunity to weigh in on the zoning reform effort and the zoning-in-progress resolution, even though the council had already withdrawn it from the agenda.

Residents, lawyers, realtors and contractors or their representatives all had a chance to speak. Opinions were mixed; some were strongly opposed to zoning-in-progress while others argued the council should have approved it despite SB 250.

North End resident Allen Tomlinson was among those who said the North End and Midtown are under siege by developers and construction.

Tomlinson said he doesn’t want to be “the only chump” living in a small house sandwiched between much larger houses. Builders are putting up houses that cover as much of their respective lots as they legally can, he said.

“The North End ain’t quiet,” Tomlinson said. “It’s losing its charm every day.”

The intensive redevelopment pits financial interests against residents’ quality of life, Tomlinson suggested.

“There’s nothing wrong with investors, realtors and contractors,” he told the council. “But you’ve got to find a way to balance these interests.”

Midtown resident Kim Frisbie took a different view.

Meaningful zoning reform will likely take years for the town to achieve, said Frisbie, whose husband, Robert Frisbie Sr., is a principal of the Frisbie Group, one of the leading developers on the island.

She said it’s misleading to suggest that the zoning or development challenges facing the town could be solved within the six-month time frame provided by a zoning-in-progress declaration.

“Homes must be built higher, regardless of complaints from neighbors,” said Frisbie, referring to FEMA requirements.

“Zoning-in-progress is an unnecessary, almost radical move that is not unifying but creates division within our community,” she said.


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