Planning Department Transparency
How frustrating is it to read in an LPA or Council agenda item that a significant amendment to our Comprehensive Plan, our local constitution, is being considered in a few days as a result of a developer’s request? And how often is that change something many local residents would consider detrimental to the community, its character, or its environment?
We hear the complaint often – the applicant gets access to the staff for weeks, sometimes months, sometimes with multiple applications, and often develops an apparent friendship. The public has little time to review, research, and develop a strategy once they see a troubling agenda item. And then just minutes to voice objections at a public meeting.
How can we make the planning process fair to all, so the public feels their voices are of consequence? One answer is transparency. If everyone knows about planning applications early in the process, members of the community will have a far better opportunity to study the impact and lobby in much the same way the applicant is able to lobby both staff and council. And give the public an opportunity to discuss their concerns with the staff.
We can learn from Monroe County. In an effort to facilitate public participation in the planning process, the County posts applications on the County website for public access and review.
You can go to the county website and under planning department, the very first menu item is “Pending Applications.” The pending applications page gives access to ten different categories of planning applications. When an application is submitted for any of the 10 categories, a link is created under the appropriate category so the entire application is available to the public. The applications are listed by date submitted and applicant name.
Below is the list of categories Monroe County provides and the number of pending applications as of July 25,2021:
On the pending applications page, the County also provides links to various committee/commission meeting schedules, agendas and minutes:
There are numerous opportunities for the public to learn about the Monroe County planning applications and to voice approval or concerns during public comment at the meetings of any of the three groups.
Much of the applicant’s information is available from the county website without the need for public record requests.
Click here to review the Pending Application page on the County website.
In April 2017, Islamorada eliminated the Development Review Committee (DRC) believing that the role, duties, and actions performed by the Committee as prescribed in the Village Code as part of the development review process were duplicative and redundant.
We do not believe the process should have been shortened.
The elimination of the DRC may have added too much authority for the Director of Planning and Development Services and taken away some transparency and opportunity for early public involvement.
Sec. 30-131 of the Village Code lists the duties of the Director of the Department of Planning and Development Services:
(1) Provide administrative interpretations of this chapter;
(2) Provide nonconformity determinations, including expansions of nonconforming uses and structures through review and approval of minor conditional uses;
(3) Review and approve administrative adjustments to this chapter;
(4) Review and approve certificates of compliance;
(5) Review and approve applications for temporary uses and special events;
(6) Review and approve minor conditional uses;
(7) Review and approve transfers of development rights;
(8) Conduct pre-application conferences with applicants for development approval as necessary or appropriate; and
(9) Maintain the official zoning map and the public records of the Department of Planning and Development services.
Some of the listed duties require no notice at all to the public and no oversight by other members of staff. Others do require notice but often just posting a notice on the property itself. Posted notices can be easily overlooked even by adjoining property owners.
Should these duties be performed when we have an “acting” Director?
Example of need for early involvement
In February 2021 the Village received an application for a change to the Future Land Use Map and Zoning Map that would be of tremendous concern to many of the Village residents. It appears that significant effort by the staff has gone into this “project” to change zoning and transfer hotel development rights to Tea Table Key from the Sunset Inn over recent months.
When we learned about the applications, the Board of the Islamorada Community Alliance met with the Director of Planning and Development Services before he resigned. While his position has the right to interpret code that is unclear, he should not have the right to ignore critical regulations.
However, he indicated he believes that our need for affordable housing is so great that some of the restrictions should be overlooked in order to facilitate the addition of workforce housing units that were part of the project, including ignoring the requirement that the receiver site must be less environmentally sensitive than the sender site for TDR transfers and that affordable housing units can be less than the 500 sq ft required by code.
Numerous other issues would suggest this request for map changes is non-compliant.
We do not believe the application should have been processed at all since there were numerous errors in the application and numerous critical requirements that would render the project non-compliant with our Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Regulations.
You will be hearing more about this proposed project in the near future.