Zoning overhaul ‘mixed’ into Vero’s comprehensive plan

Vero Beach is updating its comprehensive plan – the legal scaffolding for land use in the city – and if it passes in its current draft form, it will spread “mixed use” throughout the main traffic corridors in town.

Mixed use is a primary concept found in “smart cities” and “sustainable growth” city-planning philosophy that’s infiltrated comprehensive plans for the last 25 years – which is the age of  Vero Beach’s plan, which was last updated in 1992.

City budgets can’t sustain the attenuated network of roads, electricity, sewer, water and other infrastructure now leading to dead shopping malls, single-family enclaves and languishing downtowns. Property values and their tax revenues have declined and city coffers are stretched thin.

Mixed use maximizes infrastructure use and minimizes cost by combining land-use functions, allowing people to live, work and play in what were single-use zones. It cuts down on car use and promotes walking or biking to work or taking mass transit.

In mainland Vero Beach, the areas principally affected by mixed use would be Royal Palm Pointe, U.S. 1, Miracle Mile, Old Downtown, the Twin Pairs and the Cultural Arts Village.

The Planning and Zoning Board and city planning department didn’t educate the public or the City Council on these new concepts. They held nine public meetings in the middle of the day on each of the nine chapters in the plan and then held a public hearing with no one attending or speaking at any of the sessions.

Then the 400-page comprehensive plan with its 270-page technical document and 144-page policy document and multiple complex maps were dropped into the public’s and City Council’s laps.

Few have read the documents, and in the absence of education and public outreach, public debate on the comprehensive plan has been reduced to what people do know about – the Cultural Arts Village – spearheaded by Barbara Hoffman.

The  executive director of the Cultural Council of Indian River County has presented their plan at numerous public venues over the last two years, gathering a large base of support.

Proponents of the Cultural Arts Village are pushing for a quick approval, because the project cannot move forward until the comprehensive plan is approved by the City Council.

“It appears to have taken over the whole conversation of the comprehensive plan, and that is unfortunate, but we’re just presenting our interest. We’re protecting the project,” Hoffman said. “It is important to have the plan approved and sent on to the state because it will allow us to do zoning changes so people can work, live and sell artwork in their homes.”

The Cultural Arts Village takes up three east-west streets, 19th Place, 19th Street and 18th Street, and five north-south streets, from 14th Avenue to 20th Avenue.

Mayor Laura Moss is the only member on the City Council who wants to slow the approval process. She has requested about 140 changes to the plan. It is unclear how many of her edits will be incorporated, but a new draft will be posted before it goes to public hearing.

At the last city meeting, Moss was out-voted by the other four members who ruled the comprehensive plan will go to public hearing Nov. 7. A vote by the council will follow, approving the draft and sending it to the state, or voting it down for further revision. Moss said the other members were swayed by the Cultural Arts Village proponents, who were the only ones in the audience.

During the two “readings” of the plan, in August and September, Moss and resident Phyllis Frey expressed alarm at the changes “mixed use” zoning will bring to the city, claiming it will increase density and possibly building height.

They claim the plan weakens home rule, opening the door to outside-government control, because new policies require the city to promote infill, renovation and new-building development by rewarding or matching state and federal grants offered by the Department of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and other government entities. The grant money comes with strings they said – zoning changes allowing mixed-use development built up around transportation hubs.

They foresee “stack and pack” developers making Vero into the next West Palm Beach. Both are in favor of the Cultural Arts Village, but that project is only a small part of the comprehensive plan.

At the most recent public vetting session, Sept. 20, City Council Member Tony Young said, “The staff is not opening the door to high-density stack-and-pack. There is no radical departure from the current plan … the plan aids in implementing a vision we all agree on.”

Young was referring to a visioning process undertaken 12 years ago, which developed ideas that are the basis of the new comprehensive plan, as stated in plan documents.

Despite Young’s assertion, many residents said the visioning process excluded all but those who agreed with the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council’s tenets, which include stack-and-pack and mixed-use development centered around mass transit, including All Aboard Florida’s Brightline high-speed train, reviled by many in the area.

“I understand the push-back,” city Planning and Development Director Tim McGarry said. “What I don’t understand are the false statements. It does not take away home rule; it doesn’t increase density or building height.”

McGarry said claims about “outside influences” are also false. He was the primary author of the documents. He did not consult with the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council and he significantly changed Jupiter-based consultant Nilsa Zacarias’ drafts; Zacarias was paid $30,000 to create a technical document.

McGarry admitted relying on the 12-year-old visioning process as evidence of community consensus “is a fair criticism.” But he defended the idea of mixed use, “which was made to sound like a dirty word” during the two readings.

“Mixed use is good planning practice,” McGarry said. “It helps reduce vehicle transmissions and reliance on cars, it connects neighborhoods and promotes community.”

Home rule is ensured by the rule-making process that follows the adoption of the plan, McGarry said. “Putting something in the comp plan and implementing it are two different things – it’s always in the details. After the comp plan is passed, a whole regulation process to implement it must take place. New ordinances and zoning regulations will be revised. They’ll first be heard at the P&Z level and then the city council will hold a first reading and then a public hearing.”

“Overlay zones, special districts and planned unit developments are a few of the concepts that are being introduced – to protect, not change – existing neighborhoods,” McGarry said, “which will all go through a rule-making process.”

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