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Our Town With William Kelly: Unease over trend toward larger houses triggers zoning review

Unease over trend toward larger houses triggers zoning review

Town officials will consider zoning changes, and may crack down on variance requests, after hearing from residents alarmed by an appetite for building larger houses that they say are out-of-scale with their lots and neighborhoods.

The Town Council decided June 9 to hire a planning consultant to assist with zoning code review and public engagement to inform residents and gather their input.

Mayor Danielle Moore and council members said they’ve received letters from residents contending the town is allowing houses to be built that loom over smaller, older homes and extend too close to neighboring lots, encroaching on privacy.

“There is fear of losing our charm and character in Palm Beach from not fixing our broken zoning codes,” Councilwoman Bobbie Lindsay said.

Council members said the problem seems to be especially acute in the North End, where larger houses are said to be out of scale with relatively small lots on narrow residential streets.

“We have seen dramatic change in the North End,” Councilwoman Julie Araskog said.

About 30 letters were written to Moore and the council, in support of code reform to limit residential overbuilding after Araskog requested in May that the subject of reform be placed on the agenda for the June 9 meeting.

Councilman Lew Crampton said he counted 10 “McMansions” during a recent tour of neighborhoods.

“We’ve got to fix this situation before it gets out of hand,” he said.

Crampton said the council should focus on the North End because “that’s where things are happening that are not good.”

The town and consultant will examine rules governing characteristics including building height and mass, lot coverage, aggregation of lots, yard setbacks, second-floor building setbacks, and the cubic content ratio.

Zoning staff were asked to prepare a tutorial for the council and public outlining the differences between the “cubic content ratio” and “floor area ratio.” Both of those are zoning formulas intended to limit the size of houses.

Zoning Director Wayne Bergman said Palm Beach is the only municipality he knows of that uses the more complicated cubic content ratio instead of a floor area ratio. He described the cubic content ratio as a “mystery” and “convoluted,” with limited effectiveness.

There also are questions about the council’s enforcement of existing zoning rules. From January 2018 through December 2020, the council appears to have granted all but six of the 446 variance requests that it received from applicants looking to skirt zoning rules.

Of those, the greatest number, 83, were for side yard setback encroachments; 57 were for front or rear yard setbacks; and 40 were related to lot coverage, according to the data, compiled by the zoning department.

The zoning code requires an applicant to demonstrate the existence of a hardship before the council approves a variance. Hardships cannot be financial in nature or self-created; they must be tied to the characteristics of the property itself, Town Attorney John Randolph has said. But Araskog said most of the variances that are approved don’t involve a hardship as defined by the code.

“Three quarters of the [requested] variances should not be given,” Araskog said.

Applicants and their attorneys have learned to frequently seek variances because they know they are so often granted, she said.

Crampton agreed. “We need to step up and do the job correctly,” he said.

The council discussed whether to launch a full-blown overhaul of the entire zoning code – an undertaking that Bergman said would take years to complete – before deciding to limit its focus to the residential overbuilding issue, at least for now.

Several council members said they were hesitant to reach for top-to-bottom code reform after several failures since the 1990s.

On one prior occasion, zoning reform collapsed after slamming into a wall of opposition from property owners who viewed it as a government taking of their development rights, Lindsay said.

As recently as 2019, the council backed away from a zoning overhaul after some residents’ nerves were rattled over plans to use consultants with expertise in “new urbanist” town planning.

The reluctance remains.

“We are not doing all-out code reform,” council President Margaret Zeidman said. “We are doing code reform based on specific issues that affect the quality of life of residents who live here.”

Crampton said code reform is the “like the third rail” of town politics.

“You do that, and you’re electrocuted,” he said. “I’m not convinced we need to do code reform. We just need to make better decisions.”

Councilman Ted Cooney said the prospect of code reform “leaves my head spinning.”

But he said he’s also struck by how many variances are granted, and that he sees a problem with the code, especially in residential areas.

“All of the structures we celebrate as being historic and the best of the best are illegal in our zoning code,” Cooney said. “Something has to give.”

Bergman said everyone agrees the zoning code, which dates to the 1970s, is outdated and too complex.

“It is at times completely unmanageable due to the extensive patchwork of fixes and additions made over the past few decades,” he said.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Planning and Zoning Commission recommended in favor of a phased approach toward a complete overhaul of the code.

Commissioners said a piecemeal approach would lead to inconsistencies, repeating the errors of the past.

Commissioner Michael Spaziani, who warned against the taking of owners’ property rights, was the lone dissenter in the 6-1 decision.

“It’s not going to be easy, my friend,” board Chairman Michael Ainslie said to Bergman. “You’ve got to get some good help.”

Excerpts from residents’ recent letters to Mayor Danielle Moore & Town Council:

Annie Cardelus and Timothy M. Jones, 245 Pendleton Ave.:
“Recently, the house next door was demolished and a developer has built an enormous house that we believe is extremely out of scale with the neighborhood. This massive house on a double lot does not fit in. Please change the code to prevent further deterioration of Palm Beach.”

Derek Limbocker, 977 N. Ocean Blvd.:
“Over the last ten years, there is probably not one block, and certainly not one neighborhood, that has escaped this explosion of construction of houses that are just out of scale and too big.”

Donna Hearon, 200 Everglades Ave.:
“I, as a 30-year resident, would hope that our residential zoning codes will be updated as soon as possible before we are totally consumed by all the construction, traffic and mega mansions.”

Peggy and Dudley Moore, 220 El Bravo Way:
“Houses are being demolished and replaced by massive structures built right up to property lines without consideration being given to beautiful streetscapes … this is a matter which deserves timely attention and high priority.”

Mikell and Frank Howington, 1236 N. Ocean Way:
“We live in the North End and have loved the neighborly feel and the quiet charm and beauty of the island. This has unfortunately been changing … many houses are being built which are just too large for the lot size.”