Commissioners failed reach consensus on whether to make any of the planned unit development amenities mandatory

STUART – As part of its ongoing effort to ensure that future planned unit developments are both beneficial to the city and satisfactory to residents, the City Commission voted 4-1 Sept. 26 to amend the Land Development Code in order include a list of suggested amenities and change the way in which PUDs are approved.

This was the third time commissioners have debated the changes since the Local Planning Agency offered its own recommendations last July. The last discussion held on Sept. 14 was continued in order to give the newest elected member of the Board, Troy McDonald, time to get caught up to speed on the topic. Both the LPA and the majority of Stuart commissioners previously agreed to a list of recommended amenities for future PUDs along with replacing the weighted points system that previously guided developers.

Development Director Kevin Freeman detailed the proposed changes and provided a new definition of a PUD amenity during the latest hearing.

“It’s a feature or facility added to a PUD that enhances the project beyond those required under the city’s standard zoning regulations,” he said. “[It] demonstrates the application of enlightened and imaginative approaches to one or more of the following: community planning, stormwater management, environmental stewardship, sustainable living, architectural and/or property design, and historic preservation.”

A new guidebook will replace the old points system, which the development director hopes will clarify and simplify the PUD process for all parties involved.

“What we’re expecting is when PUDs come forward and are viewed by various boards and commissions, they will be aware of these criteria and base their design or their proposal around meeting one or more of those criteria,” he added.

Mayor Mike Meier was the first member of the Commission to opine on the proposed changes and the only member of the Board to ultimately cast a dissenting vote, expressing his frustration that the list contained no mandatory requirements.

“We originally discussed having at least two that were required, and now, we’re encouraging one or more,” he lamented. “So, I’d like to negotiate that back up a little bit to require just even one only because some of these are pretty low bars, A PUD should, I think, really rise above and demand more of a developer.”

Commissioner McDonald, however, worried that such a requirement might end up causing the opposite effect.

“By putting in writing that these are the ones, we’re pigeon-holing ourselves into something that’s not as creative,” he said. “If we say this is required, somebody’s going to pick the low-hanging fruit and kind of just low-ball it. I just feel that this can actually limit it.”

Commissioner McDonald also expressed his preference of planned unit developments over straight zoning development requests.

“I think that PUDs are a much better form of development than the alternative, which is straight zoning,” he said. “When straight zoning comes in, that’s how we almost got a gas station on Palm City Road – that was not a PUD.”

Mayor Meier, however, believes straight zoning provides a clearer roadmap for most development.

“A PUD can sometimes create a monster of a city where there’s all sorts of stuff going on that wasn’t originally contemplated by code,” he said. “Our Code is a powerful tool in guiding the development of our city.”

For her part, Commissioner Becky Bruner had reservations about one particular amenity requiring a prospective PUD developer to guarantee an affordable housing component for a decade.

“The sustainable living – I don’t think it needs to be in there,” she said. “I don’t want to tell Mr. Jones how much he has to sell it for, or for 10 years he’s got to come back and tell me how much he rented it far. That one I’d like to see just wiped out.”

Mayor Meier insisted he never planned on making that amenity mandatory, however.

“That’s just one option,” he emphasized. “A developer could come forward and say this is the one we choose, but we wouldn’t require them to choose that one.”

When Commissioner Bruner continued to worry about the long-term oversight, Commissioner Merritt Matheson also came to the defense of the affordable housing amenity.

“Well, we had one project already agree to similar terms for capping their rent in some of those units – I think it was 20 of them – for workforce housing,” he said. “This is a negotiation, [and] they agreed to do it.”

The opposing commissioner still worried that type of amenity would eventually get lost in the shuffle compared to more tangible ones like public art components.

“When I can touch it, [like] art, it’s something substantial, but I can’t touch that,” Commissioner Bruner explained. “I think they could get away with a lot on that one.”

Mr. Freeman then highlighted the similarity between the current Board discussion and the negotiation process of a PUD.

“As we see even now, the differences in commissioners in terms of what they would like to see is a microcosm of what we would go through with a PUD agreement as it comes forward,” he explained. “There can be things outside of these guidelines that the developer could offer. It’s a balance of the benefit to the city.”

Acting City Attorney Paul Nicoletti then offered a legal opinion on the idea of making one or more PUD amenities mandatory.

“A PUD is not a mandatory kind of negotiation between a developer and the City Commission,” he said. “They can always, always go to straight zoning. My concern would be that if you make one or two of these mandatory, then you might create a situation where it could be challenged. Most PUD decisions aren’t challenged simply because it doesn’t trigger the Bert Harris Act or anything else because they could always go to straight zoning.”

When Mayor Meier continued with his desire to insert the word “must” instead of “should” as far as including PUD amenities, Commissioner Matheson expressed the opposite opinion.

“I like encourage,” he said. “The way I look at this, this is a way to show applicants our combined thought process of what we’re asking as the city. The whole point of a PUD is taking different parcels that don’t fit straight zoning – straight code – but it’s on us to say no. This menu of options is basically just a way to facilitate negotiations.”

The Commission subsequently voted 4-1, with Mayor Meier dissenting, to approve the new wording in the amendment and increase the minimum open space amenity to 50 percent more than the 30 percent required under straight zoning.

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