Ten months after the Holmes Beach commission rejected imposing a building moratorium, the panel, including two new commissioners, readied for a Dec. 11 vote on the measure.
The stage was set Dec. 6 by new commissioners Judy Holmes Titsworth and Marvin Grossman, together with Commission Chair Jean Peelen — previously the lone voice on the commission seeking a “pause” in building in February — to revisit the issue at their next meeting.
Peelen first proposed a three-month, Residential 2 zone moratorium limited to new construction to address the proliferation of huge houses — a problem studied by focus groups and debated at city meetings beginning December 2011 and continuing through the Nov.6 city election.
Even before the election, the building department began implementing policy changes and the city planner had been tasked to review proposed code changes.
Peelen solicited comments from the commission, Mayor Carmel Monti and city attorney Patricia Petruff about her proposal. At the end of the meeting, she asked Petruff to draft language for a six-month moratorium designed to halt teardowns, rebuilds and new construction in the R-2 district.
“The purpose is to stem a potential rush for permits when you’re trying to revamp or contemplate changes to your zoning code,” Petruff told commissioners.
“Quite frankly, you probably would want the moratorium to be as narrow as appropriate to reach whatever your public purpose goal there is to establishing the moratorium,” she said.
Petruff agreed to Peelen’s suggested R-2 geographical scope and suggested a six-month moratorium limited to construction passing a certain dollar threshold, perhaps $25,000.
“You don’t want to stop people from remodeling a kitchen. You don’t want to stop someone from putting on a new roof if they need a new roof. But you certainly do want to stop someone from doing a demolition and starting over,” Petruff added.
She recommended a six-month moratorium rather than a three-month halt to allow time to change land development laws, including planning commission review, public hearings and notice requirements.
Commissioner Pat Morton said, “That being said, I have no problem with a moratorium as long as we have a start and finish date.” He agreed with imposing it on teardowns and new builds.
Grossman said a moratorium was a good idea, and believed its purpose was not to stop existing construction, but “to give us a chance to get going.” He liked the idea of a $25,000 or even $50,000 improvement threshold.
Titsworth said, “The reason I’m considering a moratorium is not just for new construction and not just for FEMA, I’m looking at it as the whole R-2 district.
“We’ve got so many issues we’ve got to deal with.”
She listed problems such as land condos not acting as associations; half duplexes; duplexes built close together, creating fire hazards; and illegal lot splits. She also pointed to possible ongoing solutions, such as floor- and land-area ratios; daylight plane; including pools in lot coverage requirements; and a one-pool one-lot rule.
There’s also a problem of numerous homes being bought for future resort housing, such as where seven duplexes are proposed on 77th Street.
“It’s not just the duplexes,” Titsworth said, adding with other homes, rooms are being labeled sleeping rooms rather than bedrooms to get around the one-bedroom, one-onsite-parking space rule.
She said the footer problem “may just go away” with the new building official’s interpretation. The joined footer allowed duplexes to connect underground, allowing two homes, each with a single-family home appearance to multiply over the past several years.
“There’s already been a major effort in the department with denying building permits,” Monti said, adding that more scrutiny is now being given to new permits and plans coming through the process, as well as those currently in progress.
He favored a moratorium to give the building department more time to evaluate policy and ordinance changes.
Commissioner David Zaccagnino said the building department’s new interpretations and scrutiny were the reasons why he didn’t believe a moratorium was needed. He said his priorities as a commissioner are first to safety, then to fiscal responsibility, and then “to listen to the people.”
He said his research showed moratoriums are upheld, not for “feel-good issues, and not because you don’t like the look of a building,” but for “blatant safety issues,” or because infrastructure provisions for utilities, phone lines and streets hadn’t caught up with housing. He said he feared the city’s liability if contractors sue.
Grossman took issue with Zaccagnino’s comments, saying Titsworth’s concerns were not frivolous and he did not consider the moratorium to be about aesthetics.
Morton pointed to the safety issue of the unrestricted parked cars blocking emergency vehicle access on some streets at certain times of the year.
Resident and builder Greg Ross, who operates Ross Built Construction, said as a taxpayer he didn’t agree with having four building department employees during a six-month moratorium.
The city currently employs full-time inspector David Greene, new building official Tom O’Brien and part-time, contractual building official John Fernandez. Joe Duennes, who recently retired as public works superintendent and building official, although no longer at work, is on the payroll until February.
Ross said new homes meet fire codes and are safer than the homes being torn down, and agreed with Morton’s parking issue. He also warned the commissioners that the effects of a moratorium could be “very far reaching,” impacting the many people contractors employ, unless it could be narrowed to a specific type of unwanted construction.
Also speaking against a moratorium, real estate agent and resident Don Schroder said he agreed with Ross. He added O’Brien should be allowed to do his job, and that the commission was moving too quickly and did not have the expertise to make the moratorium decision.
“A moratorium is almost always upheld if reasonable in duration and scope,” Petruff said, and pointed to a recent court case upholding a six-month moratorium in Gainesville.
Moratoriums are a planning tool used by municipalities while formulating a regulatory scheme, she said, adding Holmes Beach is looking to formulate such a scheme after struggling with solutions for almost year.
“If she feels comfortable defending this in court, I’m fine with it,” Zaccagnino said.