PLANNING DIRECTOR: ISLAMORADA’S LAND DEVELOPMENT REGULATIONS ‘CUMBERSOME’ & ‘COMPLICATED’

Islamorada Village Hall. CONTRIBUTED/Village of Islamorada

Cumbersome and complicated: Those were the words Planning Director Dan Gulizio provided to the Islamorada dais regarding the village’s current land development regulations. 

Gulizio, who’s been with the village for eight months, provided an in-depth presentation regarding Islamorada’s land use policy during an Aug. 15 special meeting inside Founders Park Community Center. Similar to his presentation in June on the building permit allocation system, Gulizio revisited demographic statistics in the state, county and village. He noted there are 1,102 people per square mile in the village, compared to 406 people per square mile in the state.  

“It’s 10 times more dense than the U.S. and 13 times more dense than Monroe County,” Gulizio said. 

He added that population trends show the village and county growing. Around 1,200 people lived in Islamorada in 1970. Today, more than 7,000 residents call the village home. About 65% of properties in the village are non-homesteaded.

Gulizio told the council and gallery of residents that several factors come into play when considering a development regulation or policy. In 1974, Islamorada and other Keys municipalities were included within the state’s Florida Keys Area of Critical State Concern. Part of the legislative intent behind the designation was assurance that the Keys could be safely evacuated before a hurricane. It also set out to establish a land management system that protected the environment, provided affordable housing in proximity to employment, protected rights of property owners and promoted land acquisition. 

Gulizio said they also take into consideration the village’s mission statement of providing quiet enjoyment and enhancing community character to preserve community and natural resources.

In his time on the job, Gulizio said he closely examined the village’s land development regulations. Overall, he said the regulations were cumbersome and complicated. At the same time, the regulations were very detailed but lacked basic standards. Gulizio said regulations also fail to fulfill policy goals. 

AFFORDABLE HOUSING EQUATIONS

“I thought about how I can say this in a way that doesn’t reflect poorly on me. … But I think I know our affordable housing code as well as anybody here and I don’t understand our affordable housing code. It’s unnecessarily, in my view, complicated.”

Gulizio said there are seven formulas within an 18-page affordable housing plan. One formula is based on a study that takes the total square feet of development that occurred in the village over a three-year period and divides it by the total number of construction workers involved. From that, it developed a number based on square feet per year per construction worker. 

That number was then divided by the building size to determine an “employee equivalent.” Gulizio said that number was then divided by 40 years — the estimated length of a construction worker’s career — and divided by the average number of employees per dwelling unit to come up with the housing need.

“I still don’t understand the rationale for why it singled out construction workers or why it was estimated (to be) a 40-year career for construction workers that had to be factored into the decision,” he said. “It just seems like a number of equations. Again, that’s one of seven formulas.”

Other formulas look at the number of affordable housing units required for commercial development, as well as the estimated number of people occupying the home based on the number of bedrooms and minimum habitable space for each unit. 

Gulizio said he’s worked on affordable housing codes for other municipalities that are all but two paragraphs. 

“Our affordable housing code is driven by the idea that the amount of development will spin off a specific percentage of affordable housing units. In the last year-and-a-half, we didn’t have a single development that generated a full affordable housing credit. The only thing we’re collecting right now is in lieu of fees.”

TONS OF TEXT AND LOTS OF USES

Within a highway commercial district, Gulizio said there are 41 pages of text when adding in requirements for parking and landscaping. He said there are 56 as-of-right uses and more than 130 minor or major conditional uses, for a total of 186 uses within the highway commercial district. 

“Part of that is a reflection of how the district is structured. Instead of listing retail, office, personnel service uses, the code attempts to name every single use under the categories. That’s a cumbersome approach. I think it’s something we can fix easily. It still doesn’t minimize the fact that we allow for an incredible variety of uses in one district. In a highway commercial district, side by side, you can have a single-family home next to a car wash next to an outdoor storage yard. When you have that many uses, it’s more of a free-for-all and it makes it difficult to protect quality of life.” 

LACKING BASIC STANDARDS

Only seven of 22 zoning districts in the village have a minimum lot area requirement. “I don’t think I ever worked with a code that didn’t have a minimum lot area requirement for every single use in the code,” Gulizio said. 

In addition, fewer than half of the zoning districts don’t have a floor area ratio standard. Lot occupancy isn’t applicable for 20 out of the 22 districts, and there’s no minimum lot area for residential mobile home, settlers residential or multifamily zoning districts. 

“The idea that you wouldn’t have a floor area ratio or a minimum lot area for your high density housing district is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “It’s something we should look at and consider carefully as we move forward. Even if we don’t get a host of (building) allocations, ultimately there’s going to be a lot of redevelopment in the village and we need to address that as we move forward.”

Gulizio said there is no minimum lot area requirement and maximum lot occupancy standard within commercial zoning districts. Gulizio had concerns with the way minimum lot area requirements were set for the residential districts.

“When you allow in a residential single-family zoning district, one of the most prevalent zoning districts with 100 acres remaining and vacant, a lot area of 10 units per acre, (it) doesn’t make a lot of sense especially when you consider 10 units per acre is significantly more dense than the entry-level density for a multifamily district, which starts at six units per acre. There should be a rhyme and a reason to all those districts and requirements.”

FULFILLING POLICY GOALS

A house originally built in a residential estate district, developed in accordance with all standards, was once a two-bed, two-bathroom, single-level structure totaling 1,500 square feet. Today, after a series of building permits, Gulizio said the structure is 35 feet high and 12,000 square feet. It has eight bedrooms and nine bathrooms. Its setback from the water is 7 feet. 

“That doesn’t strike me as being consistent with the purpose and intent of our standards, and something I think we need to address going forward. This is something that floor area ratio and some better setback requirements would address. But those standards don’t exist in our code right now.” 

HOUSEKEEPING ITEMS NEED ADDRESSING

Gulizio said a number of items within the village’s land use policy are being addressed. For instance, boat dealerships are not permitted in a tourist commercial district even though there are several such establishments in those districts. 

The village currently allows any type of business to serve as a home occupation in any existing single-family district. “If you wanted to have boat repair in a residential district, you could do that up to 50% the size of the home. You can have outside storage and display as a part of that, and have up to two employees in your home on a daily basis, all permitted,” Gulizio said. “That’s a concern long-term moving forward.”

Gulizio said he plans to bring a draft proposal to clarify permitted uses for accessory structures, and where habitable space is allowed and not allowed. “We want to make sure that we’re as flexible as possible so people can attain reasonable use of their property. At the same time,  we don’t want every single property and every accessory structure in a residential district turn into an Airbnb.”

As for restaurants with outdoor seating, Gulizio said a permit was required. While the ordinance addresses outdoor seating associated with restaurants and bars, the code doesn’t address outdoor activity.

“If you didn’t want to have seats and you just wanted to have a large outdoor area where you serve drinks and you could fit three times the people, that you could do as of right now. Whereas for outdoor seating, you had to come in and apply for a permit. We want to close that loophole, we want to establish reasonable standards and ultimately we want to get people to come in and apply and come into compliance with those standards,” Gulizio said. 

As for zoning, Gulizio said he’d like to consolidate similar residential zoning districts, narrow the scope of permitted uses within certain zones and provide a minimum lot area for all uses. 

PLANNING DIRECTOR AUTHORITY

Gulizio said he’s concerned with the broad authority delegated to the planning director position. 

“The fact that I can provide any administrative interpretation of the ordinance and then it becomes the rule of law without any public hearing or without any discussion with the council should concern all of you,” Gulizio said.

The planning director can also provide nonconformity determinations including expansions of nonconformity uses and structures by simply writing a memo. The director can also review and approve administrative adjustments to the chapter. 

“I don’t know what that means, honestly, but I don’t think I ought to be able to have that authority on my own by writing memos,” he said. 

In addition, the planning director can write, review and approve temporary use permits for special events without public engagement. Gulizio said that doesn’t make sense. 

“I like having control over my shop as much as the next guy, but the idea is that the public should be engaged in this process in a meaningful way and that they should be informed about this process.” 

Gulizio said he’d like to see a planning review committee consisting of the planning director, building official, director of public works, fire chief and three local citizens. 

COUNCIL RESPONSE 

Mayor Pete Bacheler said Gulizio proved beyond doubt “how messed up our development plan is.” 

Councilman David Webb said he was encouraged by Gulizio’s efforts to “take the bull by the horns.” 

“The decades that this community has spent making ingenius interpretations that led to 1,100 people per square mile in our community, for whatever motivation they have, is going to take a significant period of time to start addressing, but we will have the opportunity when in fact the building permits dry up and redevelopment becomes the sole source.”

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Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family (he's expecting a little boy in October).