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Jacksonville’s Zoning Laws Are Costing Developers Big Money; City Council Is Looking For A Fix

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Lindsey Kilbride
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WJCT News

Rewind to April of 2016, to a protest on Oak Street in Riverside.

“Bicycles over bar stools,” neighbors chanted, holding  signs saying “stay out of my backyard.”

Neighbors had gathered in front of a vacant  laundromat because they were against its rezoning. A developer wanted to turn it into a restaurant.

Their fears: increased traffic and noise on their street. They didn’t believe it belonged across the street from their homes.

But the lot was rezoned to what’s called a planned unit development, or PUD, which allows for mixed-use. And developers get them all the time. They’re the most common type of zoning in Jacksonville — totaling about 190 square miles.

Residential developer Nate Day says he relies on them.

“Of the last five or six [developments] we’ve done, all but one have been a PUD,” he said.

PUD’s were originally intended to create mixed-use communities— like the San Marco Square area —  a blend of businesses, restaurants, apartments and single-family homes. But most PUDs these days, 94 percent of the ones created in the past two and a half years, have been for single uses, like the neighborhoods Day is developing.

“A lot of times the current code doesn’t allow for flexibility so the only way around it is to go to PUD in order to talk about flexibility both from what’s being built as well as buffers, screenings, entry,” he said. “You know everything that would have been sort of neighborhood concern. “

PUD’s allow developers to negotiate conditions that don’t fit into other zoning categories, like having different sized lots in a neighborhood.

“The code’s real strict right now,” Day said. “It's in 10-foot increments as the width of the lots. If it’s a Residential Low Density-60 zoning, your lot has to be 60 feet wide.”

He said at times the debate is over adding or subtracting 10 feet from lots. And, he said, the strict city code goes against what’s in demand: a mix of house sizes next to each other.

There’s also the fact the city allows all residential zones next to each other.  Suburbs can pop up next to more rural areas without the buffers required in other Florida cities. Day said he requests PUDs to put the conditions of those buffers in writing, to keep the neighbors happy.  

“So that it wouldn’t be as maybe quote, un quote. ‘uncomplimentary,’” Day said.

At one recent Land Use and Zoning Committee meeting, there were 10 requests for PUD rezones. One developer wanted to turn a vacant hotel into apartments.

City Planner Bruce Lewis read the terms: a sidewalk, landscaping.  

Day estimates 90 percent of PUD agreements include common elements: some sort of fencing, landscape buffers — like big trees  —  or some traffic related concessions.

But he’d like all this to just be in city code, because PUDs take up a lot of time and money.

“A lot of it’s legal expense,” he said. “It can be $25,000 to $100,000 just to go through that zoning process on a PUD.”

Which ends up getting passed on to homebuyers, he said.

Councilwoman Lori Boyer wants to fix this process because the large number of PUDs is also bad for the city.

“PUDs have become the norm,” Boyer said. “And each one is unique so it is next to impossible for our code compliance people to go out and adequately enforce the conditions of each PUD.”

She says what ends up happening is neighbors are counting on a condition: the maintaining of a landscape buffer or the hours a restaurant can stay open. But then five years later, nobody is enforcing it.

Like Day, she wants to standardize and modernize the code, not just leave it up to negotiators.

“In many places around the state they have a lot more specificity about different widths and opacity of buffers  — how many plants or trees you have to have in it and how wide it has to be,” Boyer said. “And then you create a matrix.”

The matrix she’s working on would be a chart listing different lot sizes and uses and the required buffers between different types of developments — all standardized, even different types of residential.

And for developers still requesting PUDs, Boyer wants more transparency about where they’re deviating from normal standards. The disclosure is already required, but often not provided. She wants a new section on the application created for the purpose.

“That they specifically list what those are and the staff specifically renders an opinion on whether that’s OK or not so the Council is fully aware what they’re doing when they grant that,” she said.

Boyer along with council members, John Crescimbeni and Bill Gulliford, are working on legislation to tackle those concerns. They plan to meet again in about three weeks.

Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.