New Orange land code meant to streamline development approval

GrowthSpotter contributor

Orange County’s land development code was written more than 60 years ago. At that time development was geared toward an automobile-centric society. Development decisions were based on strict separation of uses: residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural.

That methodology worked well then, as millions of city residents escaped to single-family subdivisions in the suburbs. In Orange County, as in many other communities with little or no mass transit, most workers commuted to their jobs in cars.

“When you have that, it starts to generate development that tends to be dependent on the automobile for different purposes of getting people to residences or places of business,” said Alberto Vargas, Orange County’s master planner. “That is a character that is very discernable in Central Florida.”

But times have changed, and county leaders say it’s time to also change the rules that govern development change. So planners are busy crafting the outlines of Orange Code, a land development rule book that is form-based rather than use-based. In its broadest meaning, form-based codes use physical form rather than land use as the organizing principle in development.

What does that mean in concrete terms? For one thing, the code will encourage more mixed-use development with a higher-density residential component, especially near mass transit stations.

“The code needs to be more dense where transit is part of the amenity and services are nearby,” Vargas, the county planner, said. “Density should happen along stations and future stations.”

This is, in part, a nod to millennials, the roughly 22-to-37-year-old age group, that is influencing much of what happens in today’s commerce, including real estate development. Polls have shown many millennials prefer urban, walkable spaces while shunning vehicle-centric living.

These young people also are either unwilling or unable to buy traditional single-family homes.

“The US homeownership of Americans 35 and younger is at a record low,” said Lindsay Winter, executive director of the Orlando chapter of NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association.

“I think that fact, as well as retirees wanting to downsize and be close to amenities, is causing a shift in lifestyles and for the demand for walkable communities,” Winter added. “This shift in lifestyle preferences is changing the commercial real estate landscape.”

Just as important, the new code is meant to streamline the development review process, making it more transparent, efficient and predictable.

Under the present code, most new developments are put forward under one umbrella called “planned development,” or PD. Developers decide what they want the PD community to look like and come to the county to negotiate what codes need to be waived to make it happen, Vargas said.

“The Board of County Commissioners ends up waiving specific code regulations to develop in Orange County,” he said. “It’s very unpredictable. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Because of this negotiated process, Vargas said, each development takes about six months to be approved. Unpredictability is often caused by changes developers want based on market conditions.

For example, developers might come to the county and say commercial strip malls are hot at such and such a time. They’ll ask that strip malls be allowed in certain areas due to what the market is saying, not what the code says is the best use in that area.

Therefore, the new code promises to be less negotiable, but speedier and less bureaucratic.

But form-based land development is about much more, according to Vargas. The new code will mean higher quality development: projects that are “more sustainable, great buildings, great neighborhoods (developed) in a very sensitive, sustainable manner,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the new code will generate design guidelines or enforce certain architectural styles. The market will still determine those. The Orange Code will instead focus on building placement and orientation, Vargas said.

The new code will also be sensitive to existing uses. County officials say they are not going to shoehorn high-density multifamily housing into suburban or rural areas where those uses don’t fit.

In an effort to recognize and be sensitive to the diversity of communities, the Orange Code will divide the county into six market areas that recognize differences in history, lifestyles, economic uses and physical development patterns.

“Orange Code will lay out how the county should grow in a pattern that is sensitive to existing conditions and future conditions that are part of a vision,” Vargas said, adding that 21 “rural settlements” will not be touched.

The county started work to update the code in 2012, forming a committee that included consultants, developers and attorneys. During those meetings some members suggested the county look at a form-based code as a way of making development more predictable, simpler and easier to interpret by both staff and developers.

The county looked at other communities that use form-based codes _ there are more than 350 of them around the country, 21 in Florida -- then started working on a first draft. Planners identified some areas that Vargas says have the “DNA” for form-based development, including the International Drive overlay district, and Pine Castle, an unincorporated community south of Orlando.

Next spring, planners will begin holding workshops with the Planning and Zoning Commission and County Commission. In late summer or mid-fall, the county will concentrate on reaching out to the development community and residents, letting them see a draft of the code.

Throughout the process, the county will try to engage the community about the plan update via social media. Vargas said the county will make the draft available in an electronic format and perhaps do an electronic survey.

“What I think is important in Orange County is we’re not just applying standard best practices,” Vargas said. “We are calibrating and adjusting and being sensitive to the history of Orange County, development trends and the diversity of character. We’ll adopt a code that is tailored to Orange County as a whole.” 

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