Monday, October 25, 2021

Planning Board Faces Future Challenges

Photo by Steve Stefanides

The State of Florida mandates that each governmental entity must have a Planning Board or Advisory Committee to deal with the issues surrounding growth within its community. It is the only advisory committee with that distinction.

That mandate is a recognition by the state of Florida of the importance that a sound process of planning for growth and the impact it has on the quality of life for all state citizens.

Marco Island is no different than those counties or communities which surround us. They all face challenges in how to balance the inevitable migration of people to the Sunshine State for its obvious amenities. It is estimated that 1,000 per day are added to the population numbers.

Each person that is added will require services, such as fresh water to drink and bathe in each day. A well-planned and maintained transportation system (whether it be highways, mass transit, airports or rail) is part of that. In addition, schools and other basic services such as health care facilities, fire and police services are also necessities.

Companies, such as Florida Power and Light and the Lee County Electric Cooperative, are always in the planning stages for increased residential and commercial growth as they seek solutions to deal with those challenges.

On Marco Island, the Planning Board and staff have been wrestling with a myriad of issues. None of these is more important than dealing with the pressures of growth and bringing their recommendations back to the elected city council to make the final decisions on those issues. They, however, rely on council to reject political pressures regarding those issues, which at times can be considerable.

Updating City’s Planning Documents

Councilor Charlette Roman has expressed concern regarding the Marco Island Comprehensive Plan and the city’s Land Development Code (LDC). This reflects the community’s vision for itself, which is stated in the opening statement of the document: “To enhance Marco Island’s quality of life, environmental quality and tropical small town resort by managing growth and insuring a stable residential community with sufficient businesses to serve the needs of residents and visitors.”

One of Roman’s concerns is that the document has not been updated in almost a decade, and that more protections regarding that “vision” may be overdue. Former councilor and Planning Board Member William Trotter is also concerned that the city could be impacted unfavorably by “off island pressures” to relax that original forethought for the community. “I think it is quite clear that we need to be looking to protect the community from unwarranted relaxation of our codes that could lead to development that would impact our vision as a small town resort community,” said Trotter.

The Planning Board has been working on cleaning up the city’s LDC over the last two years. It is a tedious affair, as the board deals with a number of other zoning and developmental issues. The city hired Calvin, Giordano and Associates in 2016 to help in that endeavor.

That project was to encompass a multi-phase approach and the first phase of the effort was delivered to the board on January 27, 2017. Other work is left to be done, but cleaning up the language has been completed.

Efforts were also made to bring some of the city setback limits closer to the MICA Deed Restrictions as part of the clean up being done on the LDC.

Environmental Issues and Lot Coverage

Another area of concern involves pollution and run-off. There is concern that pollution may be caused by excessive runoff from residential lots, which some people allege are being overbuilt. This, they claim, is a result of builders and owners attempting to maximize their investments due to high land costs.

A rather comprehensive discussion has revolved around permeable and impermeable surfaces of a developed lot and the unintentional run off into canals, which carry high levels of nitrates and other environmentally challenging material.

Permeable surfaces allow water to percolate through them, while impermeable surfaces do not allow that and causes run off into the streets or into canals.

There are ongoing concerns regarding the size of a home that can be built on a lot. Some have suggested reducing the impermeable coverage from 67% to as low as 50%. Discussions regarding compromises that would place the number between 55-60% have been held.

Attempts to find a solution may involve alternative materials or construction techniques. Retention areas on properties or even the use of subterranean detention and filtering systems have been discussed. That debate will continue throughout the upcoming election and may be an issue that gets considerable attention.

Assisted Living and Group Homes

The board recently had two ordinances to amend the city’s LDC come before it. Those would relax requirements surrounding density and intensity for those types of facilities. Before moving into a debate regarding those two ordinance revisions the board entered into a discussion regarding the value and suitability an assisted living facility.

Most board members were receptive to the concept, but many questioned the suitability of such a facility on a barrier island, which is susceptible to the need for mandatory evacuations and other impacts on the community. “I know of no other such facility constructed on a barrier island,” said Chairman Erik Brechnitz. He commented further that he would be concerned about the “unintended consequences,” which could put us in a weak position going forward regarding other issues dealing with the fair housing act.

When the board opened the discussion on the issue they heard from several residents who have needed to access this type of care for loved ones. However, board members questioned the presentation by petitioners seeking approval of such facilities that were directly tied to the ordinance changes.

Board member Ed Issler was first to question why any discussions were being held on any specific project, as only the two ordinance amendments were on the agenda. Craig Woodward, the attorney for the petitioner, explained that they were attempting to school the board on why his clients felt the development should be considered a commercial not residential project, which would have allowed his client a more favorable consideration. “This is a presentation on what these commercial ALF and ILF facilities offer in the way of facilities and the differences in a single family home,” said Woodward.

Woodward and his client were allowed to continue their presentation, although other board members also questioned the process being utilized.

The city staff had recommended that the changes be denied due to their belief that facilities such as this were deemed to be residential and not commercial in nature pursuant to the definitions contained in the state’s building code.

The board will now wait for a clarification as to the defined category for this type of use and further debate that issue.

These issues, in addition to site plan reviews, requests for variances, and other zoning issues are sure to keep the board busy during the upcoming months.

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