Palm Beach’s zoning law review attempts to halt construction
The residents of the exclusive little island of Palm Beach made a big noise when their Town Council attempted to halt new building construction during its zoning review process. The topic incited a public response that garnered a huge turnout at its May meeting—despite the fact that the resolution was removed from the meeting agenda for Council action, while time was still allowed for public discussion.
The Town Hall Council Chambers was filled to standing room only, mostly with residents who were either adamantly for or against the construction pause. Whether they had a vested interest in the health of the community, their own construction projects, or a bit of both, it’s likely that the real estate and property development industries were well-represented.
Palm Beach Council tasked with preserving Town’s ambiance
Because Palm Beach prides itself in safeguarding its historical architecture and unique recreational atmosphere, the Town Council is tasked with upholding zoning regulations that address everything from building heights to underground beach access tunnels. At the same time, the Council also needs to be sensitive to the investors and visionaries who are willing to infuse a large amount of capital into the community, as well as the renowned architects and construction companies seeking approval for their oft times multimillion dollar projects.
It’s no secret that there has been a substantial amount of construction taking place as the Town responds to its thriving high-end market. During the first half of this year the Building Division has issued approximately $199 million in valuations of permits for large-scale building projects—those of $100 thousand or more. This is a 40% increase as compared to $144 million during the same period of last year. For additional information, The Town of Palm Beach Brief provides monthly reports on the Town’s land use activity.
Having attracted property owners and investors that are in a position to make the most of Palm Beach’s continued popularity, whether it’s by making some of the most expensive properties in the country even better, bringing antiquated structures into comfortable 21st Century use, or successfully competing with ever-improving world class venues, with prudent oversight, Palm Beach stands to reap the benefits of fresh construction. Consequently, the Town puts considerable time and effort into enforcing and/or adjusting its zoning codes and regulations by approving or disapproving requests for variances and special exemptions of building plans presented to them by construction companies. Not a task to be taken lightly.
This summer, a bone of contention that had arisen between residents that are pro- and con- new construction came to a head. Here’s the narrative, much of which was first published in several issues of The Palm Beach Daily News.
The construction “pause”
Armed with hands-on insight and 20-20 hindsight, and in what some might think is a long overdue move, the current Town Council chose to review its fifty-year old zoning code with an eye at revamping it to better respond to today’s architectural and landscaping development challenges. They have been working with a team of consultants for over a year.
As a preliminary part of the process, the council attempted to pass a zoning in progress resolution that would affect residential properties within the town’s R-B low-density residential zoning district. Enacting zoning in progress would put a pause on projects while the town’s zoning code is being reviewed. Specifically, the Town would not accept any applications for new construction of single-family homes while allowing projects that had been permitted in advance to progress under certain conditions.
If adopted by the council the zoning in progress would take effect immediately and continue for six months, at which time the council could extend it for an additional six months.
Palm Beachers for a construction pause
Some residents have made it clear through various forums that they are simply frustrated with the continuing noise and inconvenience of an excessive amount of construction taking place in their neighborhoods.
Others contend zoning in progress is needed to prevent the demolition of smaller, historic homes and help the town retain its character and charm. Many feel that a construction pause is necessary as part of the process to overhaul Palm Beach’s zoning code, which was written in the 1970s.
Palm Beachers against a construction pause
While developers feel that a pause in construction will lengthen time to market new homes and prolong the housing shortage, many property owners oppose it over concerns that it would lower the value of their homes or make it difficult to repair, modify or sell them.
Real estate agents have expressed dismay over that halting construction would disallow their clients to commence planned-for work on their new properties, and would likely cause closing cancellations.
Plot twist: the resolution conflicts with controversial new state legislation
While Palm Beach was wrestling with its construction issues, the State of Florida was in the process of passing new legislation (Bill 250) preventing any municipality within 100 miles of the landfall of hurricanes Ian or Nicole from proposing or adopting a moratorium on construction, reconstruction, or redevelopment of hurricane-damaged property. It also forbids these municipalities from adding so-called “burdensome” procedures for obtaining development permits before October 1, 2024. The Bill passed and was on the books as of June 29th.
Palm Beach, located just 80 miles to the south of Hurricane Nicole’s landfall at North Hutchinson Island near Vero Beach, is well within the bill’s restrictive boundaries and is subject to this new law even though it experienced little damage. Council members, however, have expressed concerns with the bill, which they say is “ambiguous, arbitrary, and overly broad,” and a recent editorial called the new legislation an assault on home rule. Granted in Florida’s constitution 50 years ago, home rule allocates some individual autonomy to a local government if its ordinances don’t conflict with state and federal law. The concept of home rule also implies that each level of government has a separate realm of authority.
Council rethinks its review process
Due to a combination of public outcry and the controversial new law, the council has decided to take it slow with revamping its zoning code, as well as hold off on pausing existing construction and development while the zoning code is under review.
Instead of hosting a number of hurried public meetings during the summer when many residents are out of town, the consultants the city hired to review the zoning code will work with town planners to draft the new version of the code before showing it to Palm Beach officials and residents for “review, discussion, and input.”
The original deadline for completion of the new codes was previously scheduled for April 2024, but the new zoning law gives the team another six months. Sections of the code will be delivered to the town council monthly starting in August, with a full draft made available for public view and comment on June 1, 2024. Adoption of the new code will follow sometime after that, though it will likely be after October 1, 2024.
“In my mind, it doesn’t make any sense to create uncertainty in our community when we’re already dealing with so many enormous issues in general,” said Mayor Danielle Moore as quoted in the Palm Beach Dailey News.
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