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New I-Drive District zoning code nears final approval, land owners get grace period

An updated map of the I-Drive District Regulating Plan, as of late January. The top of this map is cut off; the Transect Zone 3 extends north of Sand Lake Road.
An updated map of the I-Drive District Regulating Plan, as of late January. The top of this map is cut off; the Transect Zone 3 extends north of Sand Lake Road. (Orange County)

The new development code for a 3,500-acre study area around International Drive could take effect next Tuesday, after more than two years of public meetings. But owners of a vast majority of the land will have a grace period of three years or more to follow the old rules, based on concessions made in recent months by Orange County planners.

County Commissioners held the first of two public hearings on Dec. 13 to amend county code and repeal the Convention Plaza District Overlay Zone, in order to make way for implementing the new I-Drive District Overlay Zone. The second and final hearing is set for Feb. 7.

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The new I-Drive District Overlay Zone includes code standards that implement the I-Drive District 2040 Vision Plan, accepted by the BCC in November 2015, and a comprehensive plan amendment adopted by BCC in June 2016.

A key compromise in the final version of the I-Drive District Code is that currently approved Planned Development projects (PDs) will be exempt from the I-Drive District Regulating Plan for the next three years, through Feb. 7, 2020.

Developers will have until that date to submit new Development Plans or Preliminary Subdivision Plans that won't have to conform to the I-Drive District Code, as long as their applications don't necessitate a substantial change to the PD.

This concession by the county gives developers a lengthy window to keep operating under the current rules, with construction allowed to start up to two years after a DP or PSP is approved, potentially as late as February 2023.

A majority of the developed and vacant land in the 21-square-mile overlay zone is currently zoned by PD, so most property owners will have this flexibility.

After Feb. 7, new PDs and substantial changes to existing PDs, DPs and PSPs won't be allowed within the district, unless that change is deemed consistent with the intent of the new I-Drive District Code.

These compromises weren't envisioned by county planners when the I-Drive District 2040 Vision Plan was approved by BCC in late 2015. But through much of 2016, land owners and their attorneys met with planning staff to ask for flexibility, and recognition that existing PDs are really legal contracts between the county and property owners.

Owners will also be able to ask the county to recognize vested rights for land that's partially developed, if that next phase of development won't be consistent with the I-Drive District Code. There is no future deadline for vested rights.

While these exempt clauses exist, planners behind the I-Drive District Code know developers will be fully aware of the new standards. County staff will ask all developers to meet the new code requirements, and they'll likely face tough questions during the Development Review process if they decline to.

Developers and property owners also spoke out last year against a potential height requirement of four stories along the frontage of primary roads, saying it could prohibit their ability to sell land in the near-term.

In writing the new Regulating Plan and code, planners delved into how the vast width of Universal Boulevard could be harnessed to provide features I-Drive never can -- like on-street parking.

The boulevard's width -- at 280 feet in some areas -- offers a broader canvas for reimagining street design and building scale, to achieve a walkable urbanism the I-Drive Vision Plan aims for.

County planners had proposed that buildings fronting Universal Boulevard stand at four stories or more, to fulfill inclusive urban design concepts that planning staff emphasize as key in redeveloping the I-Drive District.

Without a minimum height requirement to enforce, all the undeveloped land along Universal Boulevard and Destination Parkway is included in existing PDs, with unused entitlements that will allow for more development that reinforces a suburban character for the area. Market forces may push vertical development on that land, but it's not guaranteed.

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Some in the development community don't think market demand supports a height minimum now in the district, and won out in the end with flexibility.

County planners believe that local expectations will change as the next generation of high-density, mixed-use projects begins to take shape.

Owners will also be able to request a change for the transect zone designation on their property, which would go through the Planning and Zoning Commission as an amendment to the Regulating Plan.

Changing to the most flexible transect zone, the Special Zone: Theme Park, won't be easy. A parcel must be at least 25 acres alone to qualify, or contiguous with another Theme Park-zoned parcel that adds up to that size.

Last May, Universal Orlando successfully petitioned for a new eighth subdistrict to be created as Special Zone: Theme Park, which includes 457.08 acres of land across eight parcels owned by Universal affiliate SLRC Holdings, which it bought in December 2015 from Colony Capital.

Universal could acquire and integrate portions of two neighboring parcels owned by Universal City Property Management III, an affiliate of developer Stan Thomas' Thomas Enterprises out of Newnan, Georgia.

Those UCPM III parcels total another 173.99 acres, and weave throughout the land northeast of Universal Boulevard, touching nearly every parcel and providing inter-connectivity amongst them all.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at bmoser@growthspotter.com, (407) 420-5685 or @bobmoser333. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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