Proposed new county regulations regarding development of upper-story residential units in commercial shopping centers to be focus of Dec. 7 commission hearing

Measures seen as means of encouraging more construction of affordable housing

What used to be known as Westfield Sarasota Square, now just called Sarasota Square Mall, has lost a number of tenants over recent years. Image from Google

In early March 2017, Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio and then-Commissioner Charles Hines set the stage, so to speak, for an amendment to county zoning regulations that the board members will address on Dec. 7.

A speaker during a March 1, 2017 public hearing told the commissioners that he opposed a zoning code amendment that would allow freestanding multi-family residential structures in any district zoned Commercial General. Instead, Larry Grossman of Sarasota said, the board should “create a mixed-use zone.”

Maio noted that staff was just about to begin work on what would be called the Unified Development Code (UDC), which would combine all of the county’s land-use and zoning regulations. Perhaps discussion of such a zone could be incorporated into the UDC endeavor, Maio indicated.

“We have some very old, tired strip centers in this county,” Maio continued. Given the community’s need for affordable housing, he pointed out, those retail developments potentially could be transformed, with 1,000-square-foot, two-bed/two-bath dwelling units on second levels.

“What a wonderful way to see those [centers] replaced,” Maio added.

Hines said he believed community residents had modified their thinking about “where they want to work, where they want to live.” Moreover, he noted, shopping patterns had changed. “You see large commercial centers that are closing,” Hines continued. Because such complexes already have plenty of parking spaces and other necessary infrastructure, Hines said, what better use of them could be made than to incorporate residential units into them?

During the morning session of their regular meeting on Dec. 7, the commissioners will conduct a public hearing that could result in the type of UDC amendment that was discussed about four-and-a-half years ago.

As proposed, Amendment 39 would provide new incentives to encourage creation of workforce and affordable housing options while addressing “current development regulations that can pose a challenge for aging commercial strip shopping centers and underperforming malls,” a county staff memo explains.

The changes are available for parcels zoned Commercial General; Commercial, Neighborhood; Office, Professional and Institutional; Commercial Intensive; and Commercial, Marine, where development was approved prior to Oct. 3, 1989, except on the barrier islands, the county staff memo points out.

The proposals

Commission Chair Alan Maio has been a proponent of redeveloping commercial centers to include affordable housing units. File image

Among its provisions, Amendment 39 would allow upper-story residential dwellings with no more than 750 square feet of habitable space, within the Urban Service Area Boundary (USB), to be counted as one-half a unit, as long as they were not used for motel/hotel purposes.

The maximum residential density for such housing is 13 units per acre.

The USB is the area of the county where infrastructure such as roads and utility lines already are in existence to serve developments.

Additionally, any part of a structure with two stories of upper-level residential units that is no more than 50 feet from any residential zoning district could be built up to 50 feet in height. The maximum has been 45 feet.

The staff memo noted of that change, “[A]dditional height allowance may provide flexibility in design which would otherwise not be feasible …”

In regard to parking, the amendment would save an applicant the $1,000 fee for filing for an alternative parking plan, if staff approves an Optional Commercial Redevelopment proposal for a site, the staff memo says. Second, on-street parking spaces could be utilized, where available, to help a developer comply with county parking standards.

The proposed amendment put it this way: “On-street parking spaces located immediately abutting the subject parcel, entirely within the extension of the side lot lines into the roadway, and not within any required clear sight triangle, may be counted toward meeting off-street parking requirements.”

These are examples of clerestory windows in Carlisle Cathedral in the United Kingdom. Photo by Camilla Comeau via Wikimedia Commons

The amendment also would eliminate the necessity of using clerestory windows or translucent windows in upper-story residential units when an exterior building wall is within 50 feet of a residential zoning district. The staff memo explains, “One of the challenges to planning for community development/redevelopment is the impact upon an adjacent residential district as to the character, privacy and livability of those abutting residences. In theory, the expectation of abutting residential districts to a nonresidential district is an acknowledgement of intensified use. Tools currently utilized to mitigate adjacent changes in zoning include clerestory windows to address privacy. The biggest advantage to clerestory windows is the allowance of natural light into the center of the unit and a view of the sky.”

Conversely, the memo says, such windows can cause excessive glare in a room, “depending on the situation of the windows and time of day. In addition, many clerestory windows cannot be opened to allow breezes and circulation.”

Finally, a modification of stormwater regulations has been included in the proposed amendment. That section notes that when less than 5,000 square feet of impervious area would be added to a development, a formal plan for handling stormwater, water quality treatment and floodplain compensation would not be required.

“Impervious” material does now allow stormwater to soak into the ground. For example, concrete is impervious.

The amendment also would increase the applicable size of the redevelopment property from 10 to 20 acres.

The staff memo explains that existing county regulations exempt new developments from stormwater requirements “at the time of site development, if the net change in impervious area is less than 2,000 square feet.”

“Site development” refers to the process through which county staff works with a developer to ensure that, during construction, a project that has won County Commission approval meets all of the county and state building code regulations.

The staff memo for the Dec. 7 hearing does note that, even with the increase from 2,000 to 5,000 square feet, the county would continue to comply with National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) regulations regarding construction in floodplains.

All of these proposed changes would be included in Section 124-129 of the UDC, the staff memo says.

The Dec. 7 meeting will be held at the County Administration Center located at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota. The public notice that county staff advertised pointed out that the hearing would be conducted “as soon … as possible” after the session begins at 9 a.m.

The first item of regular business in the morning is the opportunity for public comments on items the board will not address that day. Then, the commissioners tackle their Consent Agenda of routine business matters before going on to other issues.

The Dec. 7 agenda was not available prior to the publication of this issue of the News Leader.