By Mike Lednovich
Changes to the city’s rules on how property can be divided into more lots for development will be drafted by the city commission and then forwarded for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review by the Planning Advisory Board (PAB).
The draft changes will first be written by staff of the Planning and Conservation Department and then submitted to the city commission for consideration.
Once approved by the commission, the PAB will assess the changes followed by its recommendation to either endorse or reject the changes to the Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan at its December meeting.
More than 50 people were at the joint city commission and PAB meeting Wednesday as planning committee members sought clarification and guidance from commissioners regarding the changes they sought.
“Staff has provided us with draft language changes (for the LDC). We have had difficulty with this language because we’re not mind readers,” said PAB Chair Victoria Robas. “This must be your (city commission) language. These are your changes and we need to hear from you directly and specifically about what you want.”
At issue are 25-foot-wide underlying lots of record originally drawn up in the 1850s by David Yulee and how property owners would be allowed to subdivide their parcels to return to the 1850s plan.
Current rules state that if an existing structure straddles any two of those underlying lots, it then becomes one lot of record and cannot be subdivided. Under the current rules, a property owner would need to obtain a variance from the City’s Board of Adjustment in order to divide the parcel.
Vice Mayor David Sturges, a landowner, homebuilder and construction contractor, said at the commission’s Sept. 5 meeting that the LDC and Comprehensive Plan were not clear and needed to be clarified. He is seeking revisions that would make it easier for current property owners to subdivide their parcels without having to obtain a variance.
Another Sturges change would remove the word “floodplain” from the equation of how density is calculated and make those affected lots bigger in volume.
“I know people think I’m the big, bad boogie man in this,” Sturges said. “But I’ve brought this up for clarification multiple times because people have brought it to my attention and because this is what I do as a remodeler, not as a developer.”
Both Sturges and Commissioner Darron Ayscue made proposed changes to the process at the joint meeting. Both proposals would bypass the variance requirement of the Board of Adjustment and allow property owners to go directly to the County Property Appraiser’s Office to record the new lot configuration. Their materials were not included as required in the meeting packet that is made available to the public before the meeting.
“Now (going to the property appraiser) you’re going to have three houses where there used to be one and there’s no public notice (that the changes were being made),” Robas said. “The character of the neighborhood will really be a surprise to the public. to say, wait a minute, I thought there was only one house here and now there’s going to be three. There’s no public notice there.”
Robas said, “Doesn’t the public have a right to know this?”
But Sturges pushed back and said, “The only issue with that is that the public didn’t pay for that property for 25 years or 50 years.”
Ayscue’s proposal included the following language: ASSUMPTIONS: If the developed underlying original platted lots of record are separated to a minimum width of 50′ then, the lots can proceed to Property Appraiser for separation and not to BOA (Board of Adjustment).
Sturges’ proposal included the following language: ASSUMPTIONS: Proceeds to BOA for a variance only when combined by principal residential structure. Accessory structures/pools/open-air decks do not combine the lot. Applies regardless of lot size, i.e. 25′, 50′, 75′.
Commissioner Chip Ross brought up what he called “the elephant in the room” and called the efforts to change the LDC and Comprehensive Plan was all about developers making more profits. “That’s what this is about. It’s about developers being able to make a tremendous amount of money (by having more lots to sell).”
Ross also cited the loss of tree canopy by having more lots that can be developed. “You pop off those small lots (into houses) and that’s where most of the trees are,” he said.
At one point in the meeting, Sturges attacked Ross and said “I disagree with Commissioner Ross and I believe he is trying to stunt this process.”
PAB member Mark Bennett, who helped the PAB in writing the current regulations in 2006 spoke about the character of the city’s neighborhoods and the intent of Yulee’s original platting of city property. “These are very complex issues that impact the city to a very large extent,” Bennett said. “Yulee may have been a great guy who built the railroad here and did everything. But we don’t do development like we did 200 years ago any more. His plan doesn’t fit this city any longer.”
Orlando Avila, a former city commission candidate, spoke in favor of changes to the LDC and Comprehensive Plan. “I have one of these big lots. My wife and I bought it back in 2014,” Avila said. “It’s eight original lots. The market is changing. Money is a motivator and you want to leave generational wealth. Recently, the county just approved tiny houses. The focus on homes is shifting from big houses to small houses. Different generations are looking at things differently. I hope you take into consideration people like us … property owners.”
But five other residents spoke in opposition to any changes to the current regulations.
Sandy Kerry said according to state statutes, the city commission was not acting properly and not following the mandate procedures. She cited requirements for public notices regarding changes to the LDC which were not advertised to the public.” I think this is being rushed and I think almost everybody in this room knows why,” she said.
“There’s pending litigation on this that could interfere with that decision. There’s also a conflict of interest because you have a council member who is in that profession trying to bring this forward. It’s not a clarification of the code, it’s an amendment to the code to make density higher at the expense of the citizens here.”