Osceola Commissioners considering 6-month moratorium on new development

Saying they're fed up with cookie-cutter subdivisions and poor quality construction, Osceola County commissioners are on the verge of passing a six month moratorium on new development and rezonings.

By a 4-1 vote Monday night, commissioners directed county staff to bring an ordinance to their Nov. 6 meeting that would halt approvals of Comprehensive Plan amendments and rezoning applications for any project that isn't already scheduled to go to the Planning Commission in November. 

The issue was not on the published agenda. Commissioner Fred Hawkins asked the board to indulge him and add it as a discussion item. He said his biggest issue is with the large number of residential projects that are requesting Low Density Residential (LDR) land use and zoning within the county's Urban Growth Boundary.

"We're seeing a rush of different items that I don't think is the type of development we want to see as a board," Hawkins said. "I think we owe it to ourselves to not allow this kind of development to happen."

He said he wants to halt any new projects until the county completes the update of its Land Development Code and Comprehensive Plan. Any new LDR projects would then have to comply with the new codes and design standards, and pay higher mobility and impact fees. He thinks developers should have to pay school impact fees up front -- now they're collected when the home receives its certificate of occupancy.

He also wants commissioners to have more say in developments at the early planning stage, giving them a vote on Preliminary Subdivision Plans. The current code delegates those approvals to county staff, while commissioners get a vote on the developer agreement and final subdivision plat.

Commissioner Viviana Janer said she'd like to see a policy requiring solar panels on all new single family homes, similar to one recently adopted in south Miami.  Janer said she also wants Osceola County to require developers to comply with new code requirements even if their permits were approved years ago.

That could be tricky since most permits were extended by the state for various reasons, including the recession and natural disasters.  

"The state has authorized automatic extensions for permits," Community Development Administrator Dave Tomek said. "In some cases, we’re preempted from doing anything else."

Tomek told GrowthSpotter it's his understanding the moratorium would not apply to any projects that are either in a Mixed Use District or have proper zoning in place. That means any developer who already has LDR or commercial zoning and has applied for a PSP shouldn't be affected.

"If you've already got your entitlements, you're free to move forward," Tomek said. "You can still come in to get your permits."

County Manager Don Fisher said developers could still meet with staff during the moratorium to discuss future projects. But no county boards would take action on new CPA or rezonings until the county maps and policies were updated.

But those comments offered little reassurance to the development community, which is now potentially facing its third Osceola moratorium in less than two years. 

Shawn Hindle, a principal with Hanson, Walter & Associates, said the move would have a devastating impact on his business and on local homebuilders, like his son.

"My son is a builder," he said. "How is he going to keep his family fed? He has to get his lots for next year, and they don't do it overnight."

Attorney Jo Thacker urged commissioners to work with developers to revise the policies, rather than change the rules in the middle of the game. 

"I understand why you want good development," she said. "I think there are ways to do it. But I don’t think you do it in one night and you don't do it without discussion of the community and without involving the Growth Management Task Force."

Cutting off all new developments without warning isn't fair to companies that have already invested time and money in engineering and design, she added.

Kevin Tolbert, real estate broker from Port St. Lucie, warned commissioners that the long-term effects could devastate the development community for years. 

"I was in Port St. Lucie in 2006 when the Board of Commissioners passed a six-month moratorium -- and it trashed us," he said. "And here we are now, 11 years later and we've never recovered. I cannot sit here and not implore you to not make such a rash decision."

But commissioners were united. Chairman Brandon Arrington said the board needs to take action now because "the east side of Osceola County is about to go insane" with new development. 

"I can't think of one citizen in my daily life who will be upset if we slow down development," he said. "Granted, I'm not talking about some builder who lives in another county." 

Commissioner Cheryl Grieb was the only commissioner to vote against the Hawkins motion, and that was only because she thought the November cutoff date was too soon. The actual vote on the moratorium would occur on Nov. 6.

"This board taking a stance right now to say we want it done better," Hawkins said. "We owe it to our citizens. And I don’t think a developer should complain if they want a better product."

The last time he urged commissioners to take a stance against bad development they voted to reject a developers agreement for Hanover Lakes, a boating community on Alligator Lake, even though the project was fully permitted. In that case, the developer sued and won a settlement from the county just two months later. 

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407)420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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