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Landowner advised on coastal options

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By Jenna McKenna

Cedar Key City Commission is trying a little different approach to certain local planning issues. A few months ago, the commission held a quasi-judicial hearing in the matter of a landowner who wanted to develop a non-standard, commercially-zoned coastal parcel. After going through an arduous process of engaging engineers, architects, and the attention of the city's planning consultant Gail Easley, the petitioner?s request was shot down amid a blizzard of problems with his requests for variances to, among other things, the coastal setback, the roadway setback, and the city's seawall ordinance.

The degree to which the commission refused, or was unable, to accommodate the applicant's land-use petitions led to a sense of outrage on the applicant's part, and dismay on the part of the commission, which agreed that although the quasi-judicial process was indispensible, it was not the best way to determine what, if any, development solutions were available to a given landowner.

Furthermore, the city's current policy is to pay Easley?s fee for consulting with applicants on the terms of the city?s comprehensive plan and land development code. Extensive and repeated consultations on the part of determined applicants would be, necessarily, costly, and the commission was also considering modifying its policy concerning who pays Easley for which services.

When the commission refused Robert Solano?s request in August to rebuild a seawall and obtain a variance to (effectively) max out the Impervious Surface Ratio within the coastal setback, Solano complained that the denial was unreasonable. He argued that the variances he requested were the minimum necessary for him to protect his property from taking, citing the parcel's commercial designation and the approximately $10,000 per year property taxes paid on the piece.

The commission replied that the denial was not in itself unreasonable, since Cedar Key's land development codes exist for good reason, but conceded that the quasi-judicial format is an expensive and backwards method for communicating to landowners what development options are open to them, which are negotiable, and which are simply off the table.

Recently, Solano's attorney James Middleton, of Rogers, Towers, approached the commission for an informal presentation and discussion of possible changes to Solano?s original plan, and suggestions from commissioners and the city attorney as to what other options might exist.

Solano's original plan called for a variance into the 50-foot coastal setback and the rebuilding of a concrete seawall to protect his proposed structure, a 2,500 square foot, 16-room hotel. The revised plan, which was being presented for discussion only, called for four rooms to be removed from the plan, which would substantially reduce the footprint, Middleton said.

The main points of contention for commissioners were the encroachment on the coastal setback, the ISR footprint and the request to rebuild the seawall. None was particularly impressed with the reduction of the hotel by four rooms.

Middleton argued that, because the parcel was too far away from the Number Three channel to dredge boat access, water use was not an option for the parcel, leaving hotel tourism the only option.

Commissioner Sue Colson disagreed, noting that several adjacent and nearby properties house clam raceways, a legitimate water use that requires neither dredging to the channel, nor seawall, substantial impervious structures, nor encroachment into the coastal setback. She wondered why Solano had not considered such a use. Middleton shook his head, dismissing the suggestion out of hand.

Commissioner Gene Hodges, who was out of town during the initial, contentious hearing, was bemused at Solano's persistence in pursuit of a seawall, noting that riprap was not only easier to permit in such a situation, but probably more effective for that demand.

Commissioner Vanessa Edmunds revisited the argument that she and Commissioner Pat O?Neal had made originally, that Solano's proposed use did not seem to reflect the principle required for a variance of the coastal setback, that of the minimal use to prevent taking. Colson asked Middleton if he had walked the property and examined the remaining slabs from the motel that had originally stood on the site.

"That's a scale of density more in keeping with what was there historically," she explained.

Middleton said he had in fact walked the site, as well as examining adjacent parcels, and observed that other structures come within four, six and 12 feet of the water. He wondered why the commission couldn?t concede Solano's use was no less legitimate nor more harmful than these.

Finally, the discussion ended in a stalemate because the only drawings Middleton had on hand did not show the current Mean High Water line, so neither side could make any concrete assertions about the parcel?s true dimensions and realistic uses. Middleton admitted he had gained some valuable insight into the city's community standards concerning land development, and hoped he would be able to help his client find a workable solution.