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Polk County Developments

Lake Wales Commission approves new downtown design rules to protect charm, allow bars

Lake Wales on Wednesday approved new zoning rules meant to encourage pedestrian traffic, preserve historical charm, and encourage more visitors to downtown by allowing restaurant liquor sales and bars.

The Downtown Design Standards create a new Downtown Mixed-Use zoning designation and amend the city’s Code of Ordinances for everything from sidewalks, off-street parking, and landscaping to outdoor seating, signage and alcohol beverage sales and services.

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“The intent here is to provide regulations that dictate the placement of buildings on the property and the design of buildings,” Lake Wales director of development services Mark Bennett told GrowthSpotter. “In other words, we don’t want someone coming in budling a modernistic building that doesn’t fit into the existing buildings.”

The new zoning will dictate roof lines, window allowance, placement of buildings and parking lots on property, sidewalks, parking, and landscaping. For example, a flat-roof building will require a parapet; buildings should be closer to sidewalks with parking lots and garages to the rear; building facades must face the street; any shutters must cover the entire window and be functional and held with shutter dogs.

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“We’re trying to get away from the blank wall,” Bennett said. “Doors and windows will encourage pedestrian activity.”

The project came about through Lake Wales Connected Plan, Downtown Redevelopment Plan adopted by Lake Wales Community Redevelopment Agency in 2019 as a strategy for revitalization of the city’s historic Downtown and one of its close-in neighborhoods, Northwest Redevelopment Area. Lakes Wales approved a new transportation impact fee in August that will help fund the programs in the plan. The new zoning rules will work in conjunction with downtown historic rules already in place, Bennett said.

“If we can fix zoning, we can get more housing variety and we can improve the opportunity for more people,” Bennett told commissioners at an August workshop.

The biggest changes in the rezoning will allow bars and liquor sales downtown – a move that will require some other local ordinance adjustments as well, Bennett said.

The move allows three bars in downtown with rules for special approval of additional bars and may eventually allow restaurants to serve liquor in addition to beer and wine allowed now. Following a public forum in May, city planners decided on the three-bar proposal.

“We didn’t want downtown Lake Wales to have nothing but bars,” Bennett said. Additional bars would require a special exception ruling from the commission. “We’re opening up the door, but we don’t want to open up the door all the way. … There are some communities that have a whole street full of bars.”

After the approval at Wednesday’s regular commission meeting, the city commission will later need to amend some of the so-called blue laws on the books restricting alcohol sales a particular distance from schools and churches.

“This is the big step and then we’ll have to do a couple of item actions to fully implement this,” Bennett said.

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To allow existing and future restaurants to sell liquor in downtown, requirements for building size and seating capacity would need to be reduced, Bennett said. State laws mandate restaurants sell 51% or more of food, have 2,500 square feet of service area and 150 seating capacity to be allowed to be eligible for a state liquor license. “Right now, we don’t have a restaurant that fits that criteria,” Bennett said. “We are exploring the possibility of providing more opportunities by reducing those requirements.”

Circumventing state laws is doable, he said. “Our city attorney has been researching that and talking to other cities. There’s an instance where we do believe the cities can have less requirements. It’s a little quirky but we do believe there is allowed it.”

Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson spoke in favor of adding bars and liquor sales to downtown at an Aug. 10 Commission workshop, saying adults need somewhere they can walk and enjoy life. “We’re not doing anything to help adults thrive.”

The entire city improvement project – including impact fees, design rules, rezoning and bars – is “an important project,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of concern in the city in keeping and maintaining the unique charm of the community and help promote good redevelopment in the community.”

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


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