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This shows how a project could qualify for higher density by offering more amenities, such as a neighborhood pool, sport court and pocket park. (Polk County)
This shows how a project could qualify for higher density by offering more amenities, such as a neighborhood pool, sport court and pocket park. (Polk County)

Polk County is looking to simplify and make more flexible its Planned Development (PD) process by creating a points system for developers with the stated goals of preventing premature development, providing for future residents’ needs and protecting existing residents.

At a public meeting on May 18 – mostly attended by engineers and city planners – Polk Planning Administrator Erik Peterson presented the proposal designed by staff and tested on PDs from the past five years. Of the 105 PDs from 2018-2023, nearly a third would not have qualified for the requested density based on their scores.

“One of our other goals was to simplify the process,” Peterson said. Another goal: “We want to promote areas with planned infrastructure.”

While the review process itself won’t change, getting there will. The proposed changes, to be considered by the Planning Commission this summer, will affect PDs, Suburban PDs, Rural Mixed-Use Developments and Residentially Based Mixed-Use Developments.

Proposed new development would be scored on criteria ranging from location, internal design (within the community) and external design (compatibility with surroundings).

Called Proximity to Public and Private Investment, the location section boils down to “The closer you are, the more points you get,” Peterson said. Stated goals of this section are to “objectively determine whether an area has the existing infrastructure and services to adequately serve the proposed density;” “prevent development that will result in unplanned infrastructure needs;” and “promote development where there will be a return on infrastructure development.”

For example, points are awarded for distance to immediate needs such as sidewalk connection to a school, transit route and reclaimed water line. Points also are earned for distance to community needs such as a fire rescue station, a major employer, a grocery store, a pharmacy, a college or university and a city park. The higher the point total, the greater maximum density permitted.

For example, a project with Residential Low land use that garners 6 points would be limited to maximum of two units per acre. A project with 22 points could get entitlements for up to five units per acre. That same project, if it’s located in a transit corridor with Residential Medium land use, could qualify for 10 units per acre.

The algorithm being used looks complex, Peterson said, but it’s the best way to determine whether an area can support planned development. Staff examined the last five years of proposed PDs, including those that were rejected, using the proximity points system, Peterson said.

The Internal Design proposal was requested by planning commissioners last year looking for changes that would provide “higher quality developments” responsive to residents’ needs. Changes here are  meant to allow flexibility in design, produce more recreation opportunities, prevent parking in streets and prevent parking across sidewalks.

The county would award points for different types of passive and recreational amenities. (Polk County)
The county would award points for different types of passive and recreational amenities. (Polk County)

Part of this was a minimum open space and recreation area requirements, which was approved in December.  Points are awarded by type of amenity: Type I amenities – passive recreation where minimal equipment or infrastructure is required; Type II – passive recreation where equipment essential for the function such as a playground is required; Type III – active recreation, where amenities are built for competitive sports such as basketball; and Type IV – community recreation that promotes community interaction such as pools and tennis courts. These points help builders meet the minimum open-space and recreation requirements. Planning staff is proposing an update with an  exemption for subdivisions where residential lots are 80 feet wide or greater.

“It’s not meant to be a bonus point for density,” Peterson said of the amenity score.

Additional parking also is addressed to include “evenly distributed” cluster parking; parallel parking on private roads or drive aisles; and screened recreational vehicle parking. The score determines the number of additional spaces allowed per cluster of units.

Exterior Design scoring includes transition (reasons for the chosen location, buffer plan); green infrastructure; access and travel (access points and likely destinations of future residents); and public outreach, which is optional, (identify potential concerns of nearby residents, and how they have been or will be addressed). This section’s stated goals are to focus on the effect of development on the community; balance immediate property effects with the area context; and incorporate environment into development design.

Developers and builders will be able to work with planners to calculate their scores before they submit an application, Peterson said. The long-term goal is to have a Geographic Information System (GIS) computer application that can be used online, he said.

If a project doesn’t reach the required score, it won’t be sent on to the planning commission, Peterson said.

“This is a litmus test to try to weed out the projects that are premature,” Peterson said. “We have to understand that you may not be able to get the points this year but in two years,” when, for example, a school comes in, “you might get enough points.”

Developer David Waronker, who was not at the meeting but has seen the proposal and discussed with Peterson, called it “a very complicated and convoluted scoring system.” Waronker is president and founder of Celebration-based CBD Real Estate Investment.

“It should take out any ambiguity or any personal feelings if you look at strictly how it will score” Waronker said. “Time will tell.”

Waronker took his own rejected project, a proposal for a 1,151-lot subdivision on 378.8 acres near Bartow along Peace Creek and used the new point system to see how he would have fared. It would pass the test today, he said.

Waronker said he knows the planning staff has put a lot into it the changes, and that he’s confident it will be approved and put into place because Peterson “has done a good job preparing it, answering people’s questions, my questions.”

He has concerns though. “Are they addressing affordable housing?” By limiting when and where development can happen, “the land you can develop is going to be a premium so how are you going to address affordable housing?”

Waronker said he still owns the land for the Peace Creek project. He said he would love to go and reapply for the project with a condition in the PD that a percentage of the units be designated for affordable housing for qualified buyers. “My product and my density is already set. So why am I not doing it? Maybe I will.”

The Polk County Planned Development proposal was scheduled to go before the planning commission in June but “we have some tweaks to make,” Peterson said. It may be July or August.

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