Code Change Study: Clarity or an End Run on Neighborhood Character?

By Mike Lednovich

A parade of speakers voiced its concerns to the Planning Advisory Board (PAB) Wednesday about the city commission’s efforts to have changes made in the Land Development Code (LDC) and Comprehensive Plan that would open the door to increased housing.

The PAB has been tasked with rewriting two sections of the LDC and Comprehensive Plan. One revision would make it easier for current property owners to subdivide their parcels without having to obtain a variance. Another change would remove the word “floodplain” from the equation of how density is calculated and make those affected lots bigger in volume.

Vice Mayor David Sturges, a landowner, homebuilder and construction contractor, said at the commission’s Sept. 5 meeting that the LDC and Comprehensive Plan are not clear and need to be clarified. Mayor Bradley Bean and Commissioners Darron Ayscue and James Antun agreed, and they tasked the PAB with bringing the revised changes to the commission.

Commissioner Chip Ross opposed, saying the language was clear and this was a move by this commission to increase density in the city.

The PAB’s workshop meeting Wednesday launched its study of possible changes to the LDC and Comprehensive plan.

After a lengthy discussion among members about technical terms, citizens were invited to comment.

“The changes that are being discussed here are not by any stretch of definition clarification. Clarify means to make it less confusing,” said Margaret Davis. “This is actually making substantive changes to the LDC. It’s changing what can be done.”

Davis said consideration by the PAB to change the LDC to allow swimming pools, accessory dwellings and garages to be demolished on adjacent lots and in turn then permit the property owner to subdivide their property into two lots is wrong.

“This isn’t a clarification, it’s a true amendment,” she said, ” I’m very open to preserving our open space. The neighborhood character, the property values and the more we allow structures to be torn down and now you can easily subdivide it into two lots, I think we’re asking for a lot of trouble here on the island.”

PAB member Mark Bennett, who has served on the board for more than two decades, talked about how potential changes to the LDC and Comprehensive Plan could have a dramatic impact on city neighborhoods. “Small changes can lead to very big results,” he said.

“I could point out a parcel within walking distance of here that if we made these changes you could add three houses or four houses (to the property) and that would change the entire character of that corner,” Bennett said during discussion about possible revisions.

At issue is an LDC restriction on the ability of property owners to subdivide their parcels if a house is on one lot and a swimming pool or garage is on the adjacent lot. The two lots are considered a combined single lot.

A majority of the commission is seeking a change that would remove that definition of a single lot and the requirement for the property owner to get a variance from the city.

“Now they want to change it so you can take everything else away, the house remains and now you have the underlying lots of record. That increases density, that increases the change in the neighborhood character. All these things that people bought a house for, looked at it as a great neighborhood, and then that all goes away. I certainly wouldn’t be happy about that,” Bennett said.

Board member Nick Gillette, who works at Gillette & Associates, an engineering and management consulting company involved in numerous residential and commercial projects on Amelia Island, disagreed with Bennett’s assessment.

Gillette argued that most accessory structures are in the rear of  properties.

“Most of these things are in the back. Most pools, most accessory dwelling units, whatever the accessory unit would be are in the back of the yard and not visible from the street. So if a homeowner wants to get rid of an accessory use and they don’t have a function for it and they have a lot in the back, why would we prohibit that? I’m in favor of it,” Gillette said. “I don’t think it changes the view corridors, at least the ones I’ve done.”

Taina Christner, a downtown resident, did a projection of the increase in housing if the revisions were approved by the commission.

“I went down third and fourth streets from Ash to Gum. There are 33 houses . If all the underlying lots were released that would mean 213 lots which is a 650% increase in density,” she said. “I think it’s very unwise to mess with this. I think the reason the commission is doing this is because they want the density increased. And this is an easy way to get around the Land Development Code because you don’t have to change zoning, you don’t have to change density, you don’t have to do anything. You just have to say underlying lots of record.”

Joyce Tuten was another resident who reviewed the property records of her neighborhood.

“There are 14 houses, if this revision is passed they could be knocked down and become 28 houses,” she said. “I am very much opposed to these amendments.”

Tuten cited a section of the LDC that states a protection clause to maintain open space, visual corridors, neighborhood character, property values and visual attractiveness of residential areas.

“Knocking down structures and then jamming two or four or six homes (in there) is not doing what the Land Development Code says. The LDC becomes a bit of a lie,” she said.

There were no citizen speakers in favor of the proposed changes during the three hour PAB meeting. The board agreed to take the necessary time to review all aspects of any changes to the LDC and Comprehensive Plan.

15 Comments
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MyFernandina
Trusted Member
MyFernandina(@myfernandina)
8 months ago

Property owners rights should not be as restricted as the LDC requires.
There is no factual basis for the current limits other than the genaral concern
for increased density–how much density is acceptable?
If density is the concern, then define what it is directly and enforce it.

Cmoss56
Noble Member
Cmoss56(@cmoss56)
8 months ago
Reply to  MyFernandina

You say: “Property owners rights should not be as restricted as the LDC requires.”

If there are elements in the LDC that the residents deem to be undesireable, they can encourage changes to it – based on broad input from the people – not the personal views of a few self-interested individuals

Reasonable people can disagree, and not all will be satisfied by a solution – but the PROCESS of transparent, fact-based, honest engagement is an ESSENTIAL element of our system of government.

MyFernandina
Trusted Member
MyFernandina(@myfernandina)
8 months ago
Reply to  Cmoss56

I believe the relook at elements of the LDC is exactly what the City Commission is requesting.
Hopefully the planning department will do the research and evaluate impacts in their report.
Clarity and transparency are indeed essential so that all residents rights are honored.

Cmoss56
Noble Member
Cmoss56(@cmoss56)
8 months ago
Reply to  MyFernandina

Agreed, And a rushed process does not serve the interests of the public at large – it shortcuts the information exchange and deliberation process. Review and discuss, weigh pros and cons, then move forward with broad support from the community.

This is not a question with such technical complexities that the average citizen cannot comprehend it – research it, make it relateable to the citizenry, get their input and move forward on that basis. It’s the right thing to do

Cheryl Grant
Active Member
Cheryl Grant(@cheryl-grant)
8 months ago
Reply to  MyFernandina

They should do their own research before buying, don’t you think? Follow the rules and live with it.

lucyp74
Noble Member
lucyp74(@lucyp74)
8 months ago

Seems to me that the public has voiced their concerns and if the government officials have any decency, they WILL listen and not mess with this AT ALL. However, as is par for the course with most thing in Nassau, the government officials will do what suits THEM and BOT the constituents that they were elected to represent.

Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
8 months ago

This was another sneaky attempt to help developers, not a clarification, at all. Despite that, we need to have an open conversation about increasing density in appropriate areas for affordable housing.

RichardCain
Noble Member
RichardCain(@richardcain)
8 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tomes

“Appropriate areas” translating to NIMBY.

jfindlay
Noble Member
jfindlay(@jfindlay)
8 months ago

This City Commission is determined to increase density and benefit developers. Remember that when they come up for re-election.

Betsie Huben
Famed Member
Betsie Huben(@betsie-huben)
8 months ago

So – in this situation, we have a commissioner who is a builder/contractor leading the charge for changes that will most certainly allow him to continue to contract and build in the city. Why is this happening now? It is because we are a city on a barrier island with finite limits and we are nearing “build out” of available lots inside the city limits. Apparently if a commissioner does not like or anticipate benefit from the existing city LDC rules, it would appear that the go-forward game plan is to simply change the rules that have served our community so well over time. Raise your hand if you think our city can handle a 650% increase in density given existing service levels and infrastructure?

Cmoss56
Noble Member
Cmoss56(@cmoss56)
8 months ago
Reply to  Betsie Huben

A potentially dramatic change as is being suggested by Vice Mayor Sturges and encouraged by 3 out of 4 other commissioners should not be done on a whim

A fact-based, public presentation of the case for change is what’s required to be fair to all residents and property owners

Gather the facts (how many properties would be involved, which ones, show aerial and street-scene views of what this could look like) , share the facts, debate the merits and detriments of the proposal and decide accordingly – with INPUT FROM THE COMMUNITY

Isn’t that the way this is supposed to work?

Cmoss56
Noble Member
Cmoss56(@cmoss56)
8 months ago

Seems we have gone beyond a tipping point in Florida with regard to rights of property owners. In this case, we have a clearly self-intereseted City Commission Member in Vice Mayor Sturges driving for an LDC change that puts the interests of a minority of property owners over the rights of all of their neighbors with the potential to fundamentally change the look and feel of the community.

Who speaks up for the rights of the homeowners whose environments will be transformed by this end-run around the process?

The Nassau County BOCC is embroiled in litigation over their trampling of the legal processed regarding zoning when they approved the Riverstone settlement on the south end – COFB won’t be far behind if they try this stunt

Mr. Mayor and Mr. Vice Mayor, why not put this to the people in a referendum? This is a BIG deal for all property owners and residents of the area and has NO BUSINESS being decided by 4 men against the will of the people.

Let the people’s voices be heard and heeded

And to those of you who want to shout “this is the way representative democracy works – get over it” – I say this: an elected public SERVANT does not have power OVER the people – but power granted BY the people to do the PEOPLE’S business, not line their pockets or feather their won nests

This self-serving approach to local government MUST STOP

RichardCain
Noble Member
RichardCain(@richardcain)
8 months ago
Reply to  Cmoss56

No less than three comments and you don’t even live in the City, pay City taxes, or vote in City elections. I think City residents are quite capable of expressing themselves without assistance.

Cmoss56
Noble Member
Cmoss56(@cmoss56)
8 months ago
Reply to  RichardCain

Mr. Cain those of us that call Amelia Island home need to join forces to protect this special place.

In the same way that those that live in the FB limits are affected by ill-advised development of the unincorporated sections of the island (think Riverstone towers proposal) those of us that live outside the FB limits are affected by what happens inside that circle (think increased housing density, loss of historical areas, loss of tree canopy, to name a few)

That’s why, even though we don’t live inside the FB limits, we fight for good things IN the city (like preserving historical landmarks) and against bad things IN the city (think race track at the aiport)

We volunteer our time, expertise, and contributions to help the entire island not just “in our back yards” – we hope you will do the same and seek to collaborate to defend and protect our unique island home

Cheryl Grant
Active Member
Cheryl Grant(@cheryl-grant)
8 months ago

One of the many problems with this Commission is that they are self serving. Period. The contractor Commish should be made to recuse himself from these votes. Also take note that several issues brought to PAB and eventually BOA (Adjustment) have been denied. Money somehow brings the issue to the CC and they, meaning the 4, quickly approve. Why bother having these hardworking, UNPAID, Boards if you don’t want to respect their research and time?

Moving citizen comments to late in the meeting proves they don’t give a hoot about the taxpayers. We need to form an organized citizens group to fight this crew at every step before they do more damage. I’ve had enough.