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Our Town by William Kelly: Zoning officials working on comprehensive plan changes

Palm Beach’s comprehensive plan, often described as the blueprint for guiding growth in the town, is ripe for an update.

The Planning and Zoning Commission is expected to discuss possible revisions to the document, which numbers more than 500 pages, on Wednesday, Nov. 8. The meeting starts at 9:30 a.m. at Town Hall.

Town zoning staff has already begun making suggested changes to the plan, which were presented to the zoning commission at its Oct. 17 meeting.

Staff plans to incorporate changes suggested by the zoning board at its Nov. 8 and Dec. 6 meetings. Public participation will also be very important at those meetings, said Jennifer Hofmeister-Drew, planner III with the Planning, Zoning and Building Department.

Once that process is complete, a draft will be sent to the Town Council for an initial review at a public hearing. State law requires that it then be forwarded to Tallahassee for review by state agencies before being sent back to the council for adoption prior to April 1, 2024, Hofmeister-Drew said.

The plan contains goals, objectives and policies that promote the vision of the community and that are implemented through the zoning code and other regulations enforced by town staff. It influences many aspects of daily life, including where people live and how they use their property.

State law requires local governments to have comprehensive plans and to evaluate and adopt them every seven years. Palm Beach’s plan was last updated in 2017.

Once the new plan has been adopted, state law allows the town one year to revise the zoning code to be consistent with it.

Zoning Director Wayne Bergman said there are some inconsistencies between the existing comprehensive plan and zoning code that must be ironed out in the new version. But he said the new plan won’t necessarily be more restrictive than the existing one.

Staff proposes to leave the primary goals of the plan intact, he said.

“We believe we did not remove anything critical,” Bergman told the commission in October. “We focused on continuing to be town-serving. Discouraging regional commercialization, no increase in the intensification of [property] uses – all those basic tenets are still in the comprehensive plan.”

Hofmeister-Drew said the staff wants the revised plan, often referred to as the “comp plan,” to be more user-friendly.

“We want to make it a more town-serving document,” she said. “It’s hard to read. A lot of people don’t pick up the ‘comp plan’ and read it and enjoy it.”

Commissioner Richard Kleid was among those on the board who welcomed that change.

“I agree,” he told Hofmeister-Drew. “It sorely needed a rewriting.”

Bergman said the biggest change proposed by staff would be to separate two of the plan’s components – its “data analysis” and its “goals, objectives and policies” – from one another. That way, data updates could be added to the plan more efficiently, without having to go through an amendment process.

At the October meeting, Hofmeister-Drew presented a draft of staff-crafted language revisions to the document, which is divided into 11 topical “elements.” Each element contains objectives and policies to realize the community goals in its specific area.

The 11 elements are future land use, transportation, housing, infrastructure, coastal management/conservation, recreation/open space, intergovernmental coordination, capital improvement, historic preservation, public safety and property rights.

Staff proposes to divide coastal management and conservation into separate elements, creating a total of 12 elements.

Several zoning commissioners expressed concern that the timeline provided by staff won’t provide them with enough time to digest all the proposed textual changes and provide their input.

Bergman said the town can ask the state to postpone the April 1 deadline by several months if needed.

“Give us your ideas – what you like and what you don’t like,” he told commissioners. “This is your plan. We want this to be something you are proud of when we submit it to the state.”

Comprehensive planning began in Palm Beach in 1929 – decades before it was legally required by the state, Hofmeister-Drew said. The town adopted its first comprehensive plan in 1979.

A 1985 state law strengthened comprehensive plans across Florida and emphasized the relationship between the plans and their communities’ respective zoning codes, Hofmeister-Drew said.

Palm Beach’s plan has been amended many times since then.

“It’s a living document,” she said.

The Palm Beach Civic Association invites all members of the public to join us at our Welcome Back Forum on Tuesday, Nov. 7, at 10 a.m. at the Mandel Recreation Center. Town Council President Margaret Zeidman and town zoning consultant Sean Suder will be the speakers. For more information, or to register to attend, go here.

 

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