Commercial rules may change soon

By Steve Estes

If consultants listening to public input recently turn that input into proposals for the update of the county’s comprehensive land use plan, there may be some big changes in store for the commercial footage allocation policies.

Getting permission from Monroe County to add commercial square footage here has long been tied to the number of residential units allocated, which has been 355 yearly for a long time. Unincorporated Monroe County receives 197 of those allocations, with 71 going toward affordable housing and the remainder to market rate housing. The affordable housing allocation pool has been growing yearly with the drastic drop in real estate prices. The county allows 239 square feet of new or expanded commercial footage for each residential building allocation.

But with growth as slow as its been in the last decade, there is a lot of commercial footage that has gone unclaimed. The county has policies in place to discourage the development of big box stores in many areas, including a size limit of 10,000 square feet for any one structure.

But for a small business to get a few hundred extra feet of commercial floor space for expansion, the process has been long and arduous.

But what public input suggested during a recent spate of meetings designed to find out what comp plan policies might need tweaking was that existing businesses be allowed to get up to 1,000 extra square feet per year without competing in the county’s Non-Residential Rate of Growth Ordinance system.

“We haven’t been able to give out all of our NROGO allocations for a number of years,” said Mike Roberts, county planner. “So our goal is to make it easier for the local businesses that need extra space to get what they require. We hope that helps to spur the economy.”

The commercial facility would still have to meet maximum allowable floor ratio and set back criteria.

Planers also suggested that maximum floor area limits be relaxed in areas designated as a community center. For instance, there is more than 30,000 square feet of unallocated commercial floor space on Big Pine Key, but it can only be used in increments larger than 2,500 in what is designated as the community center, a space 1,000 feet encircling the traffic light on the island. Size limits still exist, however, that keep any building 10,000 square feet or less.

Attendees at the meetings also suggested that the county relax rules on non-conforming structures in commercial districts. Under current rules, if a building is more than 50 percent destroyed or renovated, the existing use could not continue if it doesn’t conform to land use zoning. The suggestion was that the business be allowed to rebuild or expand and continue with the non-conforming use.

Seeking ways to spur commercial enterprise wasn’t the only focus of the meetings.

Planners asked for opinions on the development of marinas along the various waterfronts and those in attendance seemed to approve of allowing new marinas if usage at existing marinas were at a certain threshold and that the marinas provide pump out facilities for boats.

Many of those in attendance suggested that the county cut back on the number of residential building allocations each year so that the build out horizon would be pushed back. Right now, it’s estimated that the county has 10 years at 197 allocations yearly until it reaches the build out plateau. That plateau will be reached when the county can no longer guarantee that permanent residents can escape the island chain in the face of a major storm within 24 hours.

Part of that issue is the 10,000-plus building lots that still exist from the rash of large scale subdivision platting that occurred in the 1950s through 1970s. The only certain way to extinguish building rights on those lots is to buy them for public ownership, but attendees suggested allowing neighboring property owners to buy lots and expand their own lot. In return they would extinguish the building rights. It was also suggested that the county issue extra points to anyone wanting to build in the Rate of Growth Ordinance residential allocation system if they donated a buildable to the county’s coffers.

Other suggestions included establishing a distinct taxing district that would be paid into by every property to build a nest egg from which the county could buy buildable lots from willing sellers and eliminate some building rights that way.

According to Dawn Sonnenborn of the consulting firm of Keith and Schnarrs, they will be ready to deliver a report to the county staff on recommended changes to the land use codes and comprehensive plan in March of 2013.

From there, the proposals will go through the normal land use change process, with at least five public hearings before they will be transmitted to the state for final adoption.

Residents who wish to see what has been done thus far can find the documents on the county’s website under the comprehensive plan update link.

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