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IRNA concerned oceanside height limits at risk

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of June 7, 2012)

A proposed plan to potentially allow slightly higher buildings along Ocean and Cardinal Drives than called for in the 2007 proposed master plan has provoked a backlash from the Indian River Neighborhood Association, which voiced concern this week that long-standing height limits in the beachside business area are about to go by the wayside.

The IRNA issued a statement blasting the Ocean Drive Cardinal Drive Overlay District being fleshed out by the planning and zoning commission, saying, “The proposed ordinance is said to closely follow the Vision Plan, and the associated Master Plan. Unfortunately it does not.”

The confusion lies in the difference between the zoning regulations currently on the books, a Vision Plan that was conceptualized in 2005, and a proposed Master Plan for the area developed in 2007 but never codified into law.

Vero Councilman Dick Winger put an item on this past Tuesday’s City Council agenda seeking to clarify matters, even though the proposal to create a beachside overlay district has yet to work its way through the city’s planning and zoning commission.

“Any proposal to increase height limitation should initiate with this council,” Winger said in his memo. “Council should direct staff and the planning and zoning board that the proposed ordinance should adhere to the vision plan and the master plan, and specifically should not be used as a vehicle to revisit the height limitation as to stories established by prior councils.”

“The master plan called for a limit of two stories on west sides of Cardinal Drive and Ocean Drive and three stories on east side of Cardinal (if third story is residential) and east side of Ocean Drive,” said Vero Planning Director Tim McGarry. “The vision plan never specifically addressed the number of stories on the east side of Ocean Drive.”

An overlay district that has been under discussion the past several months would increase height limits beyond those called for in the 2007 master plan, but not beyond current code, McGarry explained.

“If three stories were to be allowed on the west sides of Cardinal and Ocean Drive, it would be an increase in height over the two-story limit and height limits (40 feet) for two-story buildings in the master plan,” McGarry said.

Existing regulations do not address the number of stories, but the current height regulations would easily allow three stories and even four stories on these properties up to a maximum of 50 feet (35 feet to eaves and 15 to top of roof). 

Some local residents, including several from Riomar who have held leadership positions in the Indian River Neighborhood Association, were planning to speak Tuesday about their wish to enact the old master plan with its 40-foot height limits rather than the new overlay district.

Riomar resident George Christopher, chairman of the IRNA this year, has been a staunch proponent of turning the 2007 vision plan into the law of the land, without it being revamped into the currently proposed overlay district.  Even back in 2007, when council members entertained loosening the plan to allow three stories on the west sides of Cardinal and Ocean, he railed against the move.

The March 20, 2007 council minutes state, “Mr. George Christopher mentioned that he was a member of the Vision Team and the issue of two stories was debated. He said that the Vision Team unanimously approved the vision plan and Council needs to adhere to what is in the vision plan.”

The official IRNA statement underscores this point.

“The Vision Plan was nearly a two year effort, involved several hundred thousand dollars for professional land development consultants and experienced zoning lawyers, received extensive public input from six community town hall meetings attended by hundreds of people and a community wide survey, and from a diverse 15-person vision team,” the IRNA paper said.

“The proposal placed before the Planning and Zoning Board by the city staff ignores this vital (two story) height limitation and provides for three story building throughout the area. We believe this is wrong. It is another example of government seeking to circumvent the wishes of the people,” the IRNA position paper said. “Height limitation is what makes Vero unique and the envy of the Treasure Coast.”

But the worst-case scenario for those like Christopher and the IRNA, who are concerned about controlling growth, would be for the city to do nothing, according to McGarry.

The overlay district would provide incentives to encourage retail, restaurants and offices on the first floors of buildings, with hotel and motel rooms or residential condominium units on the upper floors. The idea is to bring more residents and foot traffic to the Ocean Drive and Cardinal Drive business district.

“The proposed ordinance follows the current maximum height limit of 50 feet but also sets a maximum limit of three stories on all properties within the district, even if a property owner doesn’t seek any of the available development incentives,” McGarry said. “If development incentives are sought, the third story must be for residential or hotel uses.”

The type of development that would be discouraged would be buildings like the yellow structure commonly known as the PNC building at 3001 Ocean Drive. That building, a particular source of distress to the IRNA, has retail and restaurants on the first floor, but offices instead of residential units on the second and third floors.

“There was considerable public adverse reaction to the newly built ‘yellow’ building,” the IRNA reiterated this week.  “The strongly held view was that its bulk was not consistent with the area’s intrinsic scale and character.

“The overriding public viewpoint was that the neighborhoods must be protected and that the commercial areas must maintain their small town character. Specifically the Ocean Drive-Cardinal Drive commercial district was identified as the ‘symbolic heart’ of Vero Beach and the Plan directed that it continue to be a quality-oriented boutique retail center that maintains its intrinsic scale and character.”

The proposed overlay district is still being considered at the level of the planning and zoning commission and will probably not come before the City Council for a vote for a couple of months.