A Pasco County Commission proposal to halt the use of commercial land for multifamily development has met resistance from the Pasco County Planning Commission.
The county board directed its staff on Feb. 9 to pursue modification of the county’s land development code to remove the consideration of multifamily development as a conditional use on land zoned for commercial use.
A majority of the county board members said they wanted to preserve commercial land for commercial use.
County planners drafted a proposed amendment, to meet that directive, and took it to the planning commission’s March 4 meeting.
Planning commissioners, however — as well as a county staff member and two private attorneys — raised questions about the proposed change.
Planning commissioner Jaime Girardi said, “I understand what the board’s direction here is, and the way they’re trying to go, but I’m just worried if there’s any other unintended consequences here, by moving forward with this ordinance.”
Planning Commissioner Charles Grey asked: “What is the real purpose for doing this, out of curiosity?”
County zoning administrator Denise Hernandez responded: “Based on the conversations that were had, I think the board of county commissioners want to see commercial on commercial uses. And, they also want to see an integration of uses.”
Private attorney Barbara Wilhite often appears before the county board and the planning commission on land use and zoning issues.
Wilhite told planning commissioners: “I’m not speaking on behalf of any client. I just want to make sure there’s no unintended consequences here.
“So, I raise the concern. It has to do with affordable housing,” she said.
Typically, when conditional uses comes in for a multifamily development on commercial property, it’s for affordable housing, Wilhite said.
A pending controversial request in Wesley Chapel is an exception to that general rule, she said.
“I raise the concern. I certainly don’t want to see us make it harder for us to have some of these affordable projects,” Wilhite said.
It also could make it more difficult for the county to compete for state funding for those kinds of developments, Wilhite added.
“When we apply for the lottery, we’re competing statewide for money to bring these projects to Pasco, to help our residents,” she said.
Marcy Esbjerg, director of community development for Pasco County, echoed those concerns.
“Perhaps because of (the) pandemic, because of just growth in Florida — housing costs and rental costs are all exorbitant. Right now, under the eviction moratorium and foreclosure moratorium, our markets have become extremely strained.
“Houses are selling in a day. People are having a really hard time finding housing,” she said.
Even with rental assistance funding available, it has been very difficult to find housing, to help people get out of homelessness, she added.
She urged planning commissioners to retain any tool the county has in its toolbox to increase the supply of the housing.
That is critical, she said, to create a balanced community.
“It concerns me, No. 1, that the county would be going against what would be an Urban Land Institute best practice, or a best practice, again, all over the country. But we decide to go in another direction.
She added: “It’s critical for the county, to always consider any changes in policy, how it’s going to affect affordable housing — either the amount of affordable housing or the cost of affordable housing.
“The need has exacerbated just in the 2 ½ years that I’ve been here, and to put a policy like this in place, would only exacerbate it even more,” Esbjerg said.
Private attorney Joel Tew raised numerous concerns about the proposed amendment.
“I think the commissioner who made the motion was very well-intentioned, but I think, with respect, I think we’re getting in a little bit too big of a hurry to try to do something in a knee-jerk fashion, dealing with this multifamily apartment issue,” Tew said.
“I don’t know if any of you, commissioners, had a chance to review the industry expert presentation that was made by the private industry at the commissioner workshop, but, if not, I would suggest, if you have time, pull that up and look at the presentation about the market demand.
“It’s not only the Class A market demand, which is substantial, but also the changing demographic in Pasco County and the realities of the marketplace,” he said.
Tew also pointed out that online shopping has caused a seismic shift in America, relating to commercial retail.
“Why would you take away one tool that you have? Just because you can apply for conditional use certainly doesn’t mean that this board is obligated to approve it,” Tew said.
Planning commission Chris Poole reiterated Girardi’s concerns about potential unintended consequences.
Grey added: “My only concern was, why would you want to limit yourself in terms of what you can do?
“Are they taking away tools that we should be using in the future that can benefit the county? Is this a knee-jerk reaction to something that we don’t like?” Grey added.
Girardi added: “I think there’s a lot more commercial out there, a lot more commercially zoned properties, in light of what’s going on in the market today — a lot more commercial than there is ever going to be demand for commercial uses.”
David Goldstein, who is the chief assistant county attorney, told planning commissioners if they recommend against the change, they need to do so based on inconsistencies with the county’s comprehensive plan policies.
Tew told planning commissioners that he would be happy to provide “a litany of policies that it’s inconsistent with,” including those relating to the county’s urban service area, affordable housing and density.
Poole said he wanted time to review the board’s workshop, and made a motion to continue the issue until April, which the planning commission approved.
Published March 17, 2021