Ask the Candidate: Fort Myers Beach Town Council

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This week the Sand Paper wraps up its series of Ask the Candidate questions with our third and final question. In this series, we contacted all Town Council candidates with a question regarding a topic of interest to Island residents. Their answers are printed here in the order received. This week’s question:

The Local Planning Agency and Town Council are often asked to consider

Special Exceptions and Variances from the Land Development Code, averaging about one request per month over the past two years. LDC Sec 34-87 and 88 are used to review such requests. Do you think these guidelines are adequate or do they need to be revised?

Tracey Gore’s response:

Our variance and special exception request guidelines are more than adequate, and work very well when they are followed correctly. The guidelines laid out clearly in Section 34-87 and 34-88 of our Land Development Code explain in detail the considerations and required findings that our Local Planning Agency and Town Council must make in order to reach a decision to allow a variance or special exception to our codes. These variance and special exception requests are done through the public hearing process providing town staff recommendations, testimony from the applicant and from the public (with the exception of limited minor administrative setback variances found in Section 34-268).

I think our codes for variances and special exceptions are very clear and do not need revision.

Suzanne Katt’s response:

Our Land Development Code should be reviewed periodically to ensure that it is consistent with new state statutes, developing case law and land use best practices. For example, if the state legislature passes a law that conflicts with a provision in our code, we need to amend our town law to conform. It is my understanding that the last update was in 2010. If we do not have a review underway, we should.

With regard to the sections of the code covering variances (Sec. 34-87) and special exceptions (Sec. 34-88), besides a comprehensive review, I recommend two changes.

In the variance regulation I would include a provision that allows a resident to obtain a variance if the safety or security of the resident is at risk. An example I used recently is that of a resident who had homeless people sleeping in his backyard and using his outside shower. He wanted to build a fence to prevent strangers from entering his property. He had to apply for a variance to do so. This is a time consuming and expensive process. I would favor any changes to the code or elsewhere to limit the cost and expedite the process.

In the special exception regulation I recommend that the considerations requiring consistency with the Comprehensive Plan’s goals, objectives, policies and intent be amended to eliminate the word intent. The goals, objectives and policies are objectively defined criteria in our plan. While intent is discussed, it is not easily interpreted.

Dennis Boback’s response:

The Town incorporated in order to manage future development on the Island and to maintain and protect our character, culture and way of life. It is my belief that sections 34-87 and 34-88 were adopted in order to allow the Town Council to give some relief to the conditions set forth in the Land Development codes so as not to create an undue burden or hardship on those that wish to build or remodel their homes and or businesses as long as it is not detrimental to those in the surrounding area or cause a safety issue.

Those codes are a part of a resident-designed, award winning comp plan and Land Development codes that has done our island well for two decades. They were designed to create and maintain the kind of community our islanders want.
I would need an awfully good reason to change them, a reason that would only benefit our town and the people who live here and not add to the traffic and density problems we already are faced with.

I think they are more than adequate but as with any guidelines they should be reviewed from time to time to ensure they are applicable to the current needs of the community. If anything they should be tightened up to so they are not taken for granted.

Jack Green’s response:

It’s been my experience, as Town Principal Planner, Public Works Director, and Town Manager, that our Town’s Special Exception and Variance procedures serve our community well. A reasonable balance between needs of the community and the effect of compliance on the property owner is essential to a harmonious result. Application of the procedures and findings must be consistent to ensure that residents, business owners and seasonal property owners all receive equal treatment. In the end, a properly informed and knowledgeable Local Planning Agency and Town Council is essential to fair and equitable treatment.

The question implies there is an excessive number of requests for Special Exceptions and Variances and therefore the code should be reassessed. To determine if an average of one per month is excessive we’d first need to know the number of permits or applications that have been submitted relative to the special exception or variance requests. Having been involved in the process from a staff perspective, I am aware of the eclectic mix of lots and buildings (both residential and commercial) in our town. Many subdivisions were platted without the benefit of current land use and development practices. The older buildings were built prior to the current LDC and Comp Plan. Many lots require Minimum Use Determinations to be redeveloped. Essentially we have overlaid modern development rules onto an already developed community which was inconsistent with current development practices. So, one would expect the community to have a greater number of special exception and variance requests.

Dan Andre’s response:

In response to the question regarding the LDC Sec 34-87 and 34-88, I am satisfied with the regulations that are currently in the Land Development Code. Having been through many variances and special exceptions, the process works. Having staff input and the Local Planning Agency recommendations is a valuable tool to help the council make sound decisions.

Ber Stevenson’s response:

The intent of variances and special exceptions is to allow for flexibility above and beyond the requirements of the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code. However, this flexibility also allows the Town Council to justify and approve almost any variance or special exception that is presented to it. This is where problems can arise.

To avoid issues (such as the $250,000 settlement paid out by the Town for the elevated-pool fiasco), an additional step should be taken when the Town is presented with a variance or special exception request.

The opinions of the public must be considered and the opportunity to provide those opinions given at a well advertised public hearing. Large-scale projects (such as Grand Resorts) which will affect the entire Island in a major way should require a referendum of the voters prior to granting any variance or special exception. Public opinion should weigh heavily in any decision by the Town Council to grant a variance or exception.

No regulatory document can address all issues presented to it. There will always be a need for variances and special exceptions. The Comprehensive Plan and LDC were created with the vision and intent of the residents in mind, and changes to either one should not be made lightly. A major overhaul at this time only leaves the door open for stepping way outside of the regulations of both the Comprehensive Plan and LDC, as is currently being requested by Grand Resorts. We do not need to leave that door open.

Bruce Butcher’s response:

I believe that the guidelines are adequate for approval of special exemptions and variances. Our town needs a mechanism to allow the council to make exemptions and variances, especially when rigid compliance is not necessary to protect public policy. I think the more pressing question is:  If we have numerous requests per year for variances and exceptions, is our Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code adequate to meet the needs of our community? We must review the Plan and Code and ensure that it works in the best interests of our residents and minimizes requests for exemptions and variances.

By clarifying and improving our Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code we can reduce complications and exemptions and better help our residents understand the code and the process to ensure a high quality of life on FMB.