Covert rezoning questioned by city neighborhoods

Photo by Norman Schimmel

There’s a mystery afoot in Tahiti Park. Something happened there five years ago, something very official. And nobody seems to know how it happened, or why. But it could be worth a pretty penny.

Tahiti Park is a small neighborhood south of Whitaker Bayou, north of Whitaker Gateway Park and west of the Tamiami Trail. There’s only one road in or out. And on the northern edge of that sole opening, somebody in 2007 switched the zoning while nobody was looking.

“This is not a minor adjustment or a small change,” said Jennifer Ahearn-Koch. “It is significant when land use changes. It requires three public hearings and a supermajority vote (of the City Commission).”

She knows this stuff. She’s not only a Tahiti Park resident; she sits on the city’s planning board. When she saw a lime-green city sign on the property last month advertising a public meeting for a commercial development on the property, she wanted to know when and how the property went from “residential” to “commercial.” And nobody seems to know.

A layman would call it a change in “zoning,” but professionals use the term differently. What changed on 1174 and 1186 Hampton Road in Tahiti Park was the category of “land use.” That’s the big classification for property – is it commercial; is it downtown; is it residential?

Within those categories, specifics then apply. “Downtown” has four separate zoning districts, for example. One allows 18-story buildings (“core”), while “edge” allows five stories maximum. Those categories within land use are the actual zoning.

The difference is not trivial. Ahearn-Koch was asking for support to get to the bottom of the mystery before a body that knows the difference between “land use” and “zoning” and cares about it. It was the monthly meeting of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations (CCNA). It’s where city neighborhood leaders share their experiences and ask for help to tackle big problems.

A major battle several years ago concerned changing the land use along School Avenue from “residential” to “downtown.” The actual zoning categories were “residential multi-family” and “downtown edge,” as it turned out after numerous public hearings and a developer-sponsored charrette. It was a huge and very public fight over land use, engaging residents all over the city.

But for the residents of Tahiti Park, there were no public hearings on Hampton Road, and certainly no charrette. In fact, all the players deny any knowledge of the change.

Ahearn-Koch said the switch occurred in 2007 during a review of the city’s comprehensive plan called the Evaluation and Appraisal Report – the EAR. The comprehensive plan runs about 1,000 pages, and every word was under scrutiny.

City Planner David Smith was in charge of the effort.

“He recalled no discussion of these specific parcels’ land-use change,” she said. “He could provide no documentation, except for a generic document about land use.”

Ahearn-Koch contacted Dick Clapp, the city commissioner for Tahiti Park’s district at that time. She asked him if he had heard of the switch.

“He recalled no discussion or written documentation about these two parcels,” she said.

(I sat next to Clapp at the CCNA meeting. I opened my hands. He shook his head, No.)

“Imagine the surprise of the neighbor,” she continued. “Without any notification to him, his neighborhood or his city commissioner, the land use was changed from residential to commercial. No one knew about this. We’re not accusing anybody of misconduct, but nobody knew about this.”

During the EAR process, somebody picked up a felt-tip pen and changed the color of the two Hampton Road lots. “The only change was the color on the (land-use) map,” said Ahearn-Koch.

The property changed hands about one year ago, and the new owners are ready to move forward. They are both physicians – a father and daughter – who want to create a skin-care spa.

A spa is not the issue for the neighborhood. “The owners have put in for a change to North Trail zoning. It could be anything under the sun,” said Ahearn-Koch.

She came to the neighborhood coalition looking not only for support to ask the city how this change occurred, but to determine whether changes occurred elsewhere in a similarly stealthy fashion.

“Did this happen in other neighborhoods?” she asked.

CCNA meetings draw an influential audience. The city’s head of neighborhood development services, Tim Litchett, was there. He said, “I suspect these are not the only parcels that changed. We’ll see what facts we can pull up.”

Ahearn-Koch said her neighborhood did not suspect foul play. “I don’t think the city did this on purpose,” she said.

Ryan Chapdelain with the city’s neighborhood department told the group that because the EAR was a citywide effort, no specific notice was given on the Hampton Road property.

Ahearn-Koch asked the CCNA to support Tahiti Park’s request for more information regarding the procedure, or lack of procedure, on the land-use change at Hampton Road. The coalition voted unanimously 21-0 to support Tahiti Park’s request.

If power is the ability to influence events, the CCNA is a powerful group. Last month, it recommended to the City and County Commissions a course of action to improve Myrtle
Street in the northern portion of the city. In a month, its recommendations were approved, to create covered drainage, sidewalks and bicycle lanes, following a spate of public concern.

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