Faced with a countywide shortage of housing units, particularly affordable ones, Orange County planning leaders are proposing policy changes to allow multifamily development projects to get through the approval process more quickly.
But the suggestions— such as tweaking the rules for waiver requests and giving more authority to planning staff on certain projects— require approval from the seven-member Board of County Commissioners in order to take effect.
Ahead of several workshops planned to further discuss the matter, it’s clear that not all of the ideas are viewed favorably by commissioners.
When possible changes were presented at the Jan. 10 meeting as part of a broader discussion on housing inventory, Commissioner Emily Bonilla called one waiver proposal “such a bad idea” that she “was cringing” during the presentation.
Currently, any and all waivers sought by a developer, no matter how big or small, must be approved by the Orange County Commission as part of a public hearing. Requests to make a minor modification to an internal building setback are treated the same as a major request to increase the building height by ten stories.
“Whether it’s a quarter of an inch or a quarter of a mile, a waiver is a waiver and it must go through the process and be treated the same,” Nicolas Thalmueller, the county’s planning administrator told commissioners. “There are certain waivers that are presented to the board not as a matter of public interest, but as a matter of process.”
Among several recommendations, county planning staff proposed giving the development review committee, composed of county employees, the authority to grant limited types of waivers internal to a PD as a way to save time, reduce staff workload, and ultimately, accelerate the delivery of housing projects.
“This would only apply to projects already zoned PD, that have already gone through the PD process” Thalmueller explained. “The zoning still has to be approved by the board.”
Several commissioners voiced objections to this change.
“I don’t feel comfortable clearing waivers,” said Commissioner Mayra Uribe. “When you raise ten feet to a unit that was already three stories with one-story homes 100 feet behind it, of course, I want to review it. By taking this off the table, we’ve lost leverage.”
Bonilla doesn’t want that oversight stripped away from the elected body.
“The elected officials here don’t need more of our power taken away from us,” she said. “The more decisions and power you’re taking away from the elected officials, the more decisions and power you’re taking away from the people. ...I understand why you’re thinking it’s a good idea, but from our perspective, it’s a bad idea.”
As a whole, county staff brought forward two other recommendations aimed at expediting the permitting process to get much-needed homes and apartments up quicker.
According to the county code, all planned development waivers must be requested early in the development review process, during the land-use planning phase or rezoning stage.
If a development company changes plans and wants a waiver after that LUP is approved, they have to restart the process from the beginning with a brand new application.
“Your typical 14-month process becomes 24, just for a simple procedural step,” Thalmueller, said.
County staff proposes that PD waivers be considered later in the process as part of preliminary subdivision plans (PSPs) or development plans (DPs).
The other policy change deals with the definition of small-scale versus large-scale future land-use amendments.
Currently, small-scale amendments, processed four times a year, are necessary for projects covering less than ten acres. Large-scale amendments, processed twice a year, are necessary for projects spanning more than 50 acres.
Large-scale amendments generally take six months to twelve months longer to process, Thalmueller said.
Orange County leaders are proposing that all multifamily projects under 50 acres be treated as a small-scale amendment.
“It’s a fairly simple pitch,” Thalmueller said. “There’s still a public process, there are still community meetings, there’s still extensive public notifications and public hearings.”
The county is seeking changes as part of its “Housing for All initiative” which aims to address housing affordability and supply by removing regulatory barriers, creating new financial resources, targeting areas of access and opportunity, and engaging the community and industry, according to its website.
Development leaders, however, have said that counties and cities contribute to high rent rates by prolonging the approval process.
A joint study by the National Homebuilders Association and the National Multifamily Housing Coalition in June found that 40.6 percent of the cost of multifamily development is directly tied to government regulation and the delays those regulations cause.
With all of the government oversight and push-back from residents who oppose new apartment construction —which further delays the process — developers in the Sunshine State are left waiting as long as two years in many cases for the city or county to finally hand over building permits, according to the Florida Apartment Association. That slog costs developers between $1.5 and $4 million in soft costs, the association estimates.
Developers are calling on all Central Florida cities and counties to speed up the process so they can get more multifamily units added to Orlando’s inventory at a faster rate.
Orange County has responded to that plea for help.
“We have a responsibility to always be looking at our process,” Alan Marshall, an assistant director of the county’s planning, environmental, and development services department, told GrowthSpotter“We are always trying to make sure we move people through the process efficiently and that everyone is treated with respect through the process. We want to figure out how to get more units through the process faster.”
Mayor Jerry Demings said at the June 10th meeting that the commission will have workshops on these suggestions before any changes are voted on.