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Town eases approach to zoning reform

Our Town with William Kelly: Town eases approach to zoning reform

The town isn’t expected to adopt an overhauled zoning code before the fall of 2024 – about six months later than previously expected.

One reason is new state legislation that prohibits the town from adopting more restrictive zoning rules before Oct. 1, 2024.

The other reason is the Town Council’s desire for a more deliberative process that keeps the public fully engaged.

The council decided Wednesday to slow the pace of the zoning code work so town zoning consultants have time to work more closely with Planning, Zoning and Building Department staff when drafting amendments for the town to consider.

Zoning consultant Sean Suder, principal and founder of Cincinnati-based ZoneCo, was also asked to update the council and zoning commission each month on the progress of the reform effort. Suder has said he is drafting a new zoning code for the council to consider, based on input he received from the public, officials, and community stakeholders at a public workshop earlier this year.

Town officials have said public awareness and participation is essential if zoning reform is to succeed. But some council members said recent feedback they have received from the public indicates that a slower, more deliberate pace may be in order.

“There has been a flurry of public communication and soul searching about the path and procedure and whether we are approaching things the right way,” Councilman Ted Cooney said.

Council President Margaret Zeidman said some residents who were listening to the June 7 Planning and Zoning Commission meeting felt the discussion wasn’t aimed in the right direction.

When it comes to reform, residents are divided into two basic groups, Zeidman said.

One is concerned about the trend toward construction of larger houses, which some say are often too large for their lots, loom over neighbors and are altering the character of neighborhoods, especially in the North End. The other group is concerned about the impact that new zoning regulations could have on their property rights and values.

Cooney said an airing of different viewpoints is beneficial and should be encouraged.

“I don’t want us to freak out over one or two bad ideas,” he said. “I want to support a healthy process, which is going to include some great ideas and some ideas we’re going to be less supportive of.”

Suder, who is one of a team of consultants hired last year to help steer the process, said his team will modify its work schedule and is supportive of the new approach.

“The code writing process is complicated and technical,” he said. “We need to work closely with town staff. We will deliver draft sections of code for the staff to review and comment on. We will be communicating with the Town Council and Planning and Zoning Commission along the way.”

Suder said his goal is to present a draft of the new code to the town early next year, then initiate public engagement that will include a series of public meetings. The zoning commission is then expected to make recommendations to the council, which has sole authority to approve amendments to the code.

The town’s zoning code dates to the 1970s and has evolved piecemeal into a complicated and inconsistent patchwork of amendments, officials have said. The code is so out of step with the built environment on the island that many of the houses and other buildings that residents love about the town can no longer be built under today’s zoning rules.

Impact of SB250

At Thursday’s zoning commission meeting, Town Attorney John Randolph advised the board that there is another reason why the reform process must be modified – potential conflict with new state legislation.

The legislation, known as SB250, was passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and takes effect July 1. It is intended to protect the rights of property owners affected by hurricanes Ian and Nicole last year.

SB250 prohibits any municipality or county within 100 miles of where Hurricane Ian or Nicole made landfall from adopting more restrictive amendments to its land-use regulations, or more burdensome procedures for obtaining a development permit, before Oct. 1, 2024. Palm Beach falls under the new law because Ian hit Hutchinson Island, which is 81 miles from Palm Beach.

Randolph told the commission that SB250 does not prevent it from continuing to do the work of zoning code reform. But he advised the commission not to recommend code changes to the council that could be interpreted as more restrictive.

“You can have a consensus, as long as you don’t vote to recommend it for adoption to the Town Council,” Randolph said.

After Oct. 1, 2024, the commission can recommend and the council can adopt restrictive changes to the code without violating SB250, Randolph said.

Following Randolph’s advice, the commission voted to rescind recent recommendations to the council that, upon approval, would have resulted created more restrictive regulations regarding side yard setbacks and the screening of mechanical equipment.

 

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