Friday, April 01, 2016

Record Buries SAB Conflict of Interest? Mayor O'BRIEN''s Demand to Build Two McMansions on F Street

On Monday, April 4, 2016 at 7 PM, St. Augustine Beach Mayor RICHARD O'BRIEN et ux are planning to ask Commissioners to reverse a 4-2 vote of the St. Augustine Beach Planning and Zoning Board March 22, 2016 to DENY their demand to build two illegal McMansions on F Street, likely to be tourist rentals. O'BRIEN has not yet declared whether he is running for re-election. It's time for Commissioners to say NO to too-big, too-tall developers, starting with the Mayor himself.
This will be the first meeting where new City Attorney James Patrick Wilson will be giving legal advice to Commissioners.
The St. Augustine Beach Planning and Zoning Board (PZB) March 22nd rejected by vote of 4-2 a thinly-documented proposal by Mayor RICHArD BURTT O'BRIEN, et ux. to build two oversize houses on F Street on commercial-zoned property.
The mass, scale and lack of plans led to the rejection after nearly two hours' discussion.
The St. Augustine Record, while running an article quoting O'BRIEN on SAB's "growing pains," has not covered this story.
Once upon a time, lugubrious gooberish good-ole-boys and their bad projects were rotely and routinely rubber-stamped by hick hack local officials in this corrupt County, now the gimlet eye of board volunteers routinely rejects lame-brained projects.
In this instance a bad project pushed by Mayor RICH O'BRIEN was rejected.
A red-faced O'BRIEN was called out by PZB member Karen Zander, who pointed out the legal inconsistencies of seeking a use by exception instead of a zoning change. Citizens Craig Thomson and Ed Slavin (that would be me) opposed the special kid gloves treatment sought by Mayor O'BRIEN. O'BRIEN's wife, LAUREN CHRISTINE RINGHAVER, called out imprecations from the audience (she was ignored, but O'BRIEN was given extra time with the clock stopped, standing challengingly at the podium while making dopey arguments lacking in legal merit.
O'BRIEN is a hotelier whose administrative appeal is now to the same City Commission that elected him as Mayor -- reckon the large cribs are destined for vacation rentals if he wins?
(Ms. RINGHAVER was the person who once pushed her husband, Mayor O"BRIEN, to complain about the lack of lighting in Anastasia State Park on the way into the north end of St. Augustine Beach at the end of SR 312. The expense and threat to wildlife led to that idea being rejected.)
Speak out and oppose this special privilege sought by the Mayor of St. Augustine Beach, RICHARD BURRT O'BRIEN, from his four colleagues, after a 4-2 vote DENYING his application by the PZB.

Ten (10) days late and some twenty-eight (28) paragraphs in, the WRecKord reports that Mayor RICHARD BURRT O'BRIEN demands to build two (2) McMansions on F Street, that the request was defeated 4-2 on March 22, and that this is on the agenda for the Monday April 4, 2016 meeting (7PM).  

Let that sink in -- an appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest, the Mayor asking his colleagues for special favors to build two currently illegal McMansions on commercial property on F Street.

The Record hides the real story on an inside page, while quoting Mayor O'BRIEN with self-serving fluff and flummery.  

Pitiful excuse for a daily newspaper -- story buried, ten (10) days after it occurred.  If you want to keep a secret in St. Augustine, tell The St. Augustine WRecKOrd

Journalistic malpractice?


Beach residents worried about larger homes cropping up in their neighborhoods

Beach residents worried about larger homes cropping up in their neighborhoods
Posted: April 2, 2016 - 12:17am | Updated: April 2, 2016 - 12:21am

Craig Thomson says it was more than a year ago when he started noticing larger homes being built on small residential lots in St. Augustine Beach, and it was a trend that disturbed him.

Now, after he and group of others in the community looked into the issue and began speaking at public meetings, the City Commission is taking a look at the city’s land development regulations with the help of newly hired land planning consultants.

“I spoke early on with a neighbor when I first realized there was a residence being built on C Street,” Thomson said Thursday. The home appeared larger than others nearby and he started asking around about it.

“That’s when I first realized that the basic zoning regulations had been changed dramatically,” he said.

The changes, he said, were in an ordinance passed in November 2013 that, among other things, changed setbacks on residential lots. The changes — passed unanimously by the City Commission as Ordinance 13-14 — reduced side setbacks from 10 to 7 1/2 feet and cut front and back setbacks from 25 to 20 feet.

The ordinance, according to minutes from that meeting, also made changes to land development regulations having to do with building height and “accessory structures.”

That “blew the doors open for ‘McMansions,’” Beach resident Joe Foster told The Record in March.

Lured to Northeast Florida from California by the promise of warm-water surfing in his retirement, Foster said he lives in a small “beach cottage” and doesn’t want to see his neighborhood overrun with larger homes. He’s lived on C Street for about 7 years, he said.

Foster, Thomson and others fear the larger homes are changing the character of the neighborhoods they enjoy. Thomson said some of the new houses, with numerous bedrooms, are being used as vacation rental properties.

While others have voiced similar concerns, Thomson, who has lived on D Street for about 20 years, said he doesn’t think it is right that newer homes are being built to a different standard.

“As a longtime resident, I built and landscaped my property 20 years ago according to the regulations and consider it unjust that the old setbacks which were in existence for more than 50 years were substantially changed in 2013 to allow larger homes to be built on the older 50 x 100 ft lots which were platted in the 1920s,” he said in an email Thursday.

“The only argument that has been brought up as to why our old setbacks had changed, was that it will increase the resale value for new homes,” he continued. “Many of the larger residences being built under the new ordinance are actually intended as transient rental houses.”

Thomson, who sits on the city’s Tree Board, said he is also concerned about language in the ordinance that applies to swimming pools as well as cantilevered overhangs. Those changes allow encroachment on the overall open space of a given lot and present a danger to the neighborhood’s “tree canopy,” he said.

On a small lot with a home with balconies, a pool and off-street parking “there is just no room for a tree,” he said.

After Thomson and the others started asking questions about the changes, the city’s Planning and Zoning Board held a public workshop in June to discuss the concerns.

At that meeting, according to the minutes, Beach resident Lee Ann Kendall presented two lists of building permits to the PZB. The first list — containing permits issued before the ordinance passed — showed the average size of the homes was 2,111 square feet. The second list — with permits issued after the ordinance’s adoption — put the average at 3,616 square feet. That was a 71 percent increase, she said.

At that same meeting, St. Augustine Beach Building Department Director Gary Larson said the new setbacks didn’t necessarily make for larger homes. Structures were still controlled by a 35 percent floor area ratio, he said. That ratio dictates that the square footage of the concrete on the first floor cannot exceed 35 percent of the of the square footage of the overall lot.

Thomson said Thursday that, while it is true that there is a 35 percent floor area ratio, the new setbacks disproportionately affected the smaller lots, sized roughly 50 by 100 feet. On those lots, he said, building a home within the old 25- and 10-foot setbacks, would only yield a house that took up roughly 27 percent of the lot. The new setbacks open up the lots for bigger homes that can still stay within the 35 percent ratio, he said.

Others say the perceived problem of significantly larger homes cropping up along the beach is not as bad as some suggest.

Cora Johnston, of Generation Homes, told The Record on Thursday that she ran some numbers of her own after the 71 percent figure was introduced at the June PZB workshop. Johnston presented her findings at a PZB meeting later that same month and told members she thought the size of new homes in the Atlantic Beach, Coquina Gables and Chautauqua Beach subdivisions — located between Pope Road and F Street, according to city staff — had only increased by about 30 percent since the passage of Ordinance 13-14.

Johnston said Thursday she has built about 50 homes on Anastasia Island since 2010. Of those, only one is ever used as a vacation rental, and “the owner stays there six months out of the year,” she said.

“We see it a lot more up in Vilano Beach than we do in St. Augustine Beach,” Johnston said of the trend to build homes for vacationers to rent.

As for the fight against the new setbacks, she echoed the concerns of many of the critics.

“They don’t want to see the complexion of their neighborhood change,” she said.

Mayor Rich O’Brien said Thursday he and the city commissioners have heard the concerns over the last year or so. He suggested that the larger homes being built could simply be due to the changing character of the city from “a winter vacation spot” of smaller vacation homes to one of larger family homes.

“People are tearing down smaller places and making them their permanent homes,” he said.

While not necessarily fitting with that suggested trend, the mayor himself is among those seeking to build something new.

O’Brien is scheduled to ask the Commission on Monday night to approve a conditional use permit to build two homes on a couple of lots on F Street that are currently zoned commercial. O’Brien wants to tear down an existing structure that sits across the two lots and build the homes. Both are 3-bedroom, 3 1/2-bathroom homes. One would be about 2,500 square feet and the other would be about 3,050 square feet, he said. If approved, Generation Homes would be the builder. The PZB — with a 4-2 vote — has recommended to the Commission that the permit not be granted.
O’Brien acknowledged Thursday that “there have been a few unintended consequences” with the setback changes, but said he thinks a lot of the concerns have to do with the building of “bigger homes on larger lots.”

Not all of the changes brought about by Ordinance 13-14 have had a negative impact, according to O’Brien.

“I’ve seen some structures that were (built) by the previous setbacks and they were square boxes,” he said.

Since the ordinance passed, he has seen about three homes that were able to add balconies “which added greatly to the appearance of not only the structure but the entire street,” he said.

“Previously, it did just not look good,” he added.

But he and the commissioners want to be responsive to what is perceived to be a problem by some, he said.

“There is a small group of people that are coming to us with these concerns” about the setbacks and want to “return these back to what they were previously,” O’Brien said.
There had been pressure to make the switch back, he said, but commissioners opted instead to hire the Northeast Florida Regional Council to look at the land development regulations for a “complete and total review and revision, with public input.”

That decision was made in February. The process is meant to make sure the regulations are working in concert with city’s comprehensive plan, vision plan and charter. O’Brien has said he thinks it will take about six months.

At a March 23 special meeting, two land planning consultants with the NEFRC met with Commissioners, PZB members and Tree Board members to discuss the setback changes and a number of other items officials and residents feel need to be addressed in the review of the regulations. They put together a long list.

Shortly after that meeting, O’Brien said that — in terms of prioritizing — addressing the setback concerns was probably going to be “one of the items higher on the list.”

That will likely come as a relief to Thomson, who said in his email Thursday that he feels the“regulations serve to protect the sense of privacy and the quality of life of all city residents.”

As new homes go up, the regulations also “help define and ensure the quality of a community’s development,” Thomson said.

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