Our Land Development Code: An Evolving Document That Governs Our Town

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Town’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code (LDC) and how they apply to the way the Town of Fort Myers Beach is run. This week, we met with Principal Planner Matt Noble and Local Planning Agency (LPA) Vice-Chair Joanne Shamp, who explained that both the Comp Plan and the LDC were written shortly after the Town incorporated in 1995. We also spoke with Town Manager Don Stilwell, who told us that – at their workshop on Monday morning – the Council will consider hiring a consultant to help them sort through both as they apply to the proposed Grand Resorts FMB project.

“Since any amendment made to the LDC must first be determined to be consistent with the Comp Plan, we are in the process of updating that 20-year-old document via the Evaluation and Appraisal Process (EAR) – something that is required by state law every seven years,” Noble told us. “Town staff has spent the last year going over it element by element with the Local Planning Agency (LPA), and we plan to be done by August of 2016.”

Shamp explained that her committee is going over the Comp Plan with a fine-toothed comb to determine what policies no longer apply to the Town.

“There are state statutes that have changed, or, in some instances, the vision of our town has changed,” she said. “For instance, at one point there was a desire to create a ‘secret bike path’ behind several properties that residents could enjoy. Now, with rising property values, that idea is no longer feasible.”

Shamp explained that the LDC exists to ‘enact the visions and goals set in the Comp Plan’. “It’s the deep detail, the codes that govern the vision,” she said.

Both documents are available online by going on the Town’s website: www.fortmyersbeachfl.gov under “Doing Business.” What may be a bit confusing, however, is the version of the LDC that appears as an 182-page downloadable PDF document does not contain any of the amendments made to it – via ordinances passed by Town Council – since 2010. Those are listed separately on the same page that the links to the Comp Plan and LDC appear.

This is something that frustrates Noble, too, as he and others on Town staff carry around binders with the amendments stuffed into the appropriate pages.

“Getting this updated with all the current amendments is definitely something we’re working on,” he said. “But it’s hard right now because there are so many things in the works – changes to parking regulations, special events etc. The LDC is constantly evolving and changing as issues come up that are important to the Town.”

Things like the proposed Grand Resorts development. Noble told us that while he hasn’t seen any official paperwork because the developer hasn’t gotten to the point where he needs to submit any, the section where the beachfront hotels are supposed to go is zoned ‘downtown’.

“For that zoning, according to 24-675 b(3)c, the height limit is 40 feet or 3 stories above base flood elevation,” Noble said. “He could apply for a change in zoning to Commercial Planned Development (CPD), but the height restrictions for that category are even lower – 30 feet or 3 stories. The only way to build something taller is to set their own Property Development Regulations when they make the zoning change request  – all of which must be approved, or to apply for a variance, which must also go through a lengthy process involving several public hearings, Town staff, the LPA and Town Council.”

Stilwell agreed, saying that he apologizes for the fact that the LDC changes haven’t been updated yet in the online PDF.

“We have been working on this, it is an ongoing thing, but it’s a challenging process because there are so many things,” he said. “And since the LDC is an evolving document, as soon as we get it completely updated Council may make another change so we’ll be outdated again.”

Shamp told us that all changes to the LDC must go through the LPA before going before Town Council.

“When we receive an application for a variance or land use change, we also receive the staff report which references the most current version of the LDC,” she said. “We also have the opportunity to ask staff questions prior to our meeting, and the Town Attorney is always present at the meeting in case we have additional questions on interpretation.”

Shamp says that those applying for variances and land use issues also meet with staff to get apprised of the latest up-to-date version of the Town’s codes, but agrees that it should be easier to find online.

“However, in a period of development like we’re in, it’s very difficult for staff to keep up with the updates,” she said. “I know it’s the technological age where we expect everything to be instantaneous, but that’s not always the case – sometimes you need to do a bit of research or talk to staff.”

As far as Torgerson’s proposal, Stilwell confirmed that no plans have been submitted to the Town.

“People need to know that there is a process and we intend to follow it,” he said. “I can tell you that staff now has a solicitation on the street for someone to help us coordinate special projects like this – just in case Council decides we need the help. This is a huge project with far-reaching implications.”

That solicitation is scheduled for discussion at the Council’s workshop on Monday, January 4th at 10am. The deadline for applicants is January 20th, and Stilwell told us that no one would be hired unless Council specifically directs staff to do so.

“We’re also not going to hire anyone until Torgerson’s team submits something, which he has said he won’t do until he hears back from the Department of Environmental Protection and FEMA regarding the proposed seawall,” Stilwell said. The Sand Paper has been told that the DEP/FEMA process could take upwards of a year.

Last week, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) agreed to delay a vote on whether or not to grant Grand Resorts FMB permission to apply for the permits from DEP and FEMA. The Town Council will decide whether they will sign on to the application at their meeting on January 4th at 2pm.

“Staff is doing everything we can to be prepared for what Council needs,” Stilwell said.

Keri Hendry Weeg