County Commission asks staff to schedule discussion of potential for Government Use zoning districts to be used for affordable housing projects

Commissioner Cutsinger had requested that staff research the idea

At the request of Sarasota County Commissioner Mark Smith, with consensus from his three board colleagues, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis will ensure that staff schedules an upcoming discussion on a report regarding the potential of using Government Use-zoned properties for affordable housing developments.

Smith brought up the staff report during the board’s regular meeting on May 9. When Smith said he would like for the commissioners to discuss the findings outlined in it, Lewis responded that “the next appropriate step would probably be for you all to have a discussion …” Based on the results of those talks, Lewis added, staff would pursue the next step.

When Chair Ron Cutsinger asked whether he had consensus for the inclusion of such a discussion on an upcoming agenda, no one voiced opposition.

County staff this week was not yet able to provide a date for when that discussion would take place.

During the commission’s regular meeting on March 21, Cutsinger broached the idea of allowing affordable/workforce housing to be constructed on GU-zoned sites. He pointed out that seeing more of those types of dwellings built in the county remains a top priority for the commissioners.

Cutsinger gained the consensus of the other commissioners that day to direct Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho — who was sitting in for Lewis — to ask staff to look into the issue and provide a report.

The resulting document, dated April 20, explains, “The GU District applies to those lands where national, state, or local government activities are conducted, and where governments or other public entities hold title to such lands. In certain rare cases,” the report adds, “there are some GU zoned properties owned by private parties as a result of being sold by other governmental agencies.”

Yet, the report points out, “The permitted uses in GU” do not include residences as a primary use. “The maximum residential density, outlined in Section 124-77 of the UDC [the county’s Unified Development Code of zoning and land-use regulations], for GU is 1 dwelling unit per acre, as accessory to a principal permitted use; however, no GU parcel shall contain more than a total of 5 residences regardless of the total acreage of the GU zoned parcel,” the report notes.

Staff identified a number of issues that would need to be addressed, with direction from the commission desired before staff could begin drafting what would be characterized as a “publicly initiated UDC amendment.” That phrase refers to proposed modifications to language in the UDC that are sought by the commission or that have been suggested by county staff, with commission go-ahead to pursue them. Private individuals also can propose amendments during the semi-annual cycles for that action.

The report focuses on nine issues for the board members to consider:

  • Current and Planned Government Uses — Every property in the county’s inventory has a current or planned government use. If it does not, then it has been deemed to be surplus or it has been targeted as surplus property. “If a residential use is to take priority at a specific location,” the report says, then an alternative location for the governmental use likely will be needed. Alternatively, the county does have a process through which the commission can declare lands surplus; then, at commission direction, staff can enter into contracts with developers to construct affordable housing units on those parcels.
  • Affordable Housing Criteria — “Policy guidance would be needed to determine appropriate criteria for the type of affordable housing unit desired and for what duration of time it would need to remain affordable.” Because no residential density provision exists for GU zoning district, “careful consideration is needed to ensure any required affordable units are truly incentivized,” or their expense is fully offset, as stipulated in Section 125.01055 in the Florida Statutes.

Among the incentives, that part of state law says, can be the following: “Allowing the developer density or intensity bonus incentives or more floor space than allowed under the current or proposed future land use designation or zoning”; and “Reducing or waiving fees, such as impact fees or water and sewer charges.”

  • Affordable Housing Monitoring and Oversight — Long-term challenges would be entailed in monitoring how affordable housing units would remain complaint with established requirements , along with their remaining “available to the intended residents.” Concerns also exist in regard to determining what entity would handle that oversight, along with the logistical challenges involved in monitoring the housing units “over an extended period of time.”
  • Financing Implications — Many developers of affordable housing rely significantly “on financial incentives that have specific, long-term requirements and restrictions on use. It will be important to identify potential implications of any land restrictions.”
  • Zoning Standards and Compatibility — No zoning or design standards — such as those regarding density, intensity, height, setbacks, landscaping and parking — exist in the GU district for residential units. “Therefore, specific policy guidance will be needed to determine the desired zoning and design standards that are to be applicable.”
  • Liability and Ownership — Responsibilities related to maintaining multi-family residential structures “are significant. Even if an external entity is deemed responsible, there will be expectations that the County is responsible and financially culpable to some degree.”
  • Site Integration — Other uses likely would exist on GU parcels with residential construction. Therefore, challenges may arise with integrating those residential uses with the current and other planned uses.
  • Taxes and Fees — “A review of taxes and fees that are applicable to GU uses as compared to residential uses allowed on GU properties would need to be conducted prior to [the crafting of] any UDC amendment,” to determine the potential implications.

The surplus lands option

County staff also took the opportunity to point to the success the county has realized in declaring lands surplus and seeking affordable housing developments on them. Two examples, staff noted, were the parcels standing at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail and 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, both in Sarasota. Contracts were approved for both sites, the report said.

A third affordable housing development has been proposed on yet another surplus parcel, this one located on McCall Road in Englewood. All of these GU-zoned parcels are slated to be rezoned to another zoning district, the report adds.

“if there is a specific County-owned property that is well suited for affordable housing,” the report continues, a similar process could be followed for it.

Moreover, the report notes, opportunities exist for direct negotiations of sales agreements with other government entities “and certain non-profit organizations without the need to go through the surplus process.”

Yet another alternative, the report says, is for the board to direct staff to proceed with a publicly initiated rezoning of a piece of county property “that is well suited for affordable housing,” so the parcel would be able to “accommodate the desired development outcome.”