Brent Batten, firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-263-4776Published 5:00 a.m. ET March 22, 2018
The three successful candidates in last month’s Naples City Council election got the message.
But on Wednesday, it didn’t make a difference.
On the campaign trail, the candidates heard one demand — expressed in a variety of ways — more than any other: Keep density low; prevent overdevelopment; maintain Naples’ small city feel.
At Wednesday’s meeting the challenge was presented to the newly constituted council for the first time in a request to rezone a city block along the south side of U.S. 41 between 10th Street South and 11th Street South, east of the Four Corners.
The petitioners, represented by veteran land-use attorney John Passidomo, made a compelling case.
An aerial view of the property up for rezoning Wednesday before the Naples City Council. In a 4-3 vote, council members approved a downtown zoning for the property that will allow buildings to cover more of the land. (Photo: Collier County Property Appraiser)
The property encompassing retail shops that burned in a tragic fire that claimed a life in 2015, and other buildings, are zoned under a commercial designation. The owners were seeking a change to a downtown zoning that would allow for greater lot coverage and potentially more than doubling the number of residential units allowed.
Doing so would effectively extend the “Fifth Avenue South” feel of the area, making it more pedestrian friendly and bringing the character of development in line with that of the properties across the street on the north side of U.S. 41.
The current zoning, calling for large, paved parking areas in front of the buildings, is a departure from the look the city strives for in its downtown development plans, Passidomo said.
A planned, cohesive redevelopment of the parcel, coupled with the neighboring site of the old St. George and the Dragon restaurant owned by the same group, would link Fifth Avenue South to Naples Bay, he argued.
The move was approved by city’s staff and Planning Advisory Board.
And by the City Council — unanimously — acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency board in April of 2017, before the 2018 campaign.
Councilwoman Linda Penniman was in office in 2017 and joined in that approval.
Then she campaigned for re-election.
On Wednesday, she voted against the rezoning citing the redevelopment concerns she heard from voters. “We are hearing that consistently,” she said.
Penniman worries greater lot coverage — up to 100 percent under the downtown zoning — will exacerbate already expensive drainage problems. The present zoning allows only 40 percent lot coverage on the three acres. “The density, intensity we’ve all agreed to, now it’s payback time,” Penniman said.
Gary Price and Terry Hutchison are the other two City Council members who won seats last month. They too voted against rezoning, citing the message from voters.
But it passed 4 to 3, with Mayor Bill Barnett and council members Reg Buxton, Michelle McLeod and Ellen Seigel voting in favor.
The split shows a disparity between long-held city plans and the concerns of residents.
On the one hand, a revitalization plan for the downtown area led to the rebirth of once-moribund Fifth Avenue South. An extension of that plan calls for similar redevelopment east to Naples Bay. Thus, Wednesday’s request for a rezoning.
At the March 7 first reading of the rezoning request, Passidomo reminded council members of the importance of allowing developers the option to do things like put buildings close to sidewalks and provide parking in the rear, off site or even underground.
It’s too early to say what might go on the property, he explained. The owners don’t have specific plans but wanted to get the zoning in place so they could put together a unified project. Just trying to minimize the size of buildings isn’t always best, he said.
“If the measurement is least impactful, we’d never have Fifth Avenue South,” Passidomo said.
To Price’s point that 40 percent lot coverage makes for less intense development, Passidomo pointed to a picture of one of the existing properties with its paved parking lot separating the sidewalk from the building. “There it is. You’ve got 40 percent lot coverage. You have front-yard, asphalt parking lots at the entrance to the city. It’s not what your comp plan says you want, but it’s what you’ve got. That’s where we think there’s this enormous disconnect.”
On the other hand, a growing chorus of voters let the 2018 candidates know they believe new development has been too intense.
“It’s very clear to me the community is tired of density and traffic. At some point we’ve got to recognize we’re creating our own problems,” Price said.
With zoning in place, the developer’s plans for the site can be approved by city staff without further input, so long as they don’t seek anything outside the base downtown densities. That also makes Price uncomfortable. “If we don’t have a plan what we want the area to look like, the developers will get ahead of us,” he said.
With the battle lines already drawn on March 7, when the council approved the rezoning on the same 4-3 vote, Wednesday’s discussion was little more than a formality. Although voters protested the intensity of redevelopment during the campaign, no one from the public showed up to speak at either of the two council hearings on the question.
“This hearing was embarrassing,” Price said Wednesday. “I don’t think we’ve spent enough time on the impact of this zoning.”