The City of Gainesville sent three new land code and zoning ordinances to Tallahassee and Alachua County for comment and approval last week after the commission passed the ordinances 4-3 on first reading on Aug. 4.
The ordinances, which change the zoning for existing residential property in the city, combine the city’s four single-family zoning categories into one neighborhood residential category. The new category allows for small-scale multifamily units and greater housing density in neighborhoods that traditionally have been made up of single-family homes.
After state and county feedback on the ordinances, the Gainesville City Commission can schedule a second reading, and assuming an identical vote, the ordinances could go into effect as early as October.
Mayor Lauren Poe and Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos will leave the commission in January, and Commissioner David Arreola could join them depending on the outcome of the mayoral race. All three voted in favor of the ordinances along with Commissioner Reina Saco.
While opponents have asked that the ordinances be delayed until after the new commission is sworn in, Gainesville should have time to hold its second reading of the ordinances.
However, zoning in Gainesville could remain up in the air depending on the Aug. 23 primaries and Nov. 8 runoffs.
Tallahassee has the ordinances now, but the state review process has turned into a rubber stamp, said Thomas Hawkins, a former commissioner and current City Plan Board member.
Hawkins served as a Gainesville commissioner for six years from 2008-2014. He also specializes in Florida land use, working as an assistant professor and a program director in UF’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning.
Gainesville’s ordinances, along with most plans, qualify for expedited review, giving the state and county 30 days to provide comments. Before 2011, Florida would evaluate local land changes through compliance—ensuring capacity and consistency. The process involved more checks.
“Now, under state law, the only authority that the Department of Economic Opportunity has is to evaluate the proposed plan amendments for impacts on resources of statewide significance,” Hawkins said in a phone interview.
That term, “resources of statewide significance,” lacks a definition within Florida’s statutes, Hawkins said. And since the change, most proposals sent to Tallahassee return without concern.
Hawkins said potential effects to I-75, a local river or state park might trigger the conditions for impacts on resources of statewide significance. But without a clear definition, he said no one really knows.
Missy Daniels, growth management director for Alachua County, said the review process now focuses on the state’s resources, which narrows from the previous system what the review looks for.
“It gives the local government more ability to change its comprehensive plan in some respects,” Daniels said in a phone interview.
Alachua County staff received Gainesville’s ordinance package and has started reviewing it. The county and state both will add comments to the package and then send a copy to Gainesville and each other during the 30-day window.
Daniels said the county only provides comments based on how the change may impact the relationship between the Gainesville and Alachua County, such as effects to the county’s comprehensive plan.
Daniels said these comments form the basis for any challenge that could come later. But she said the comments don’t stop the process because the city has yet to pass the final changes. Instead, the comments can provide recommendations for the city, which could amendment the ordinances during the second reading.
If the city passes the ordinances on second reading, Alachua County or the state could try to show the new ordinances as out of compliance based on the comments they send the city during the review process.
During a town hall meeting earlier this month, Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said the city election on Aug. 23 is important for people opposed to the zoning changes. She said voters need to determine the zoning opinions of candidates for mayor and Districts 2, 3 and 4 then vote for those against the change.
These new commissioners could assist her, along with fellow zoning change opponents Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker and Commissioner Harvey Ward, overturn the ordinances.
The three commissioners voted against the ordinance at first reading and said they would support a repeal come January. Neither Chestnut nor Duncan-Walker are on the ballot this fall. But Ward, like Arreola, is term-limited as a commissioner and also is running for mayor.
The mayoral field consists of seven other candidates. Candidates Ed Bielarski and Gary Gordon have also opposed the zoning changes. You can find campaign videos from Bielarski that focus on zoning here; Gordon also posted his thoughts on the zoning change to YouTube.
Hawkins said the repeal process would run the same course as the current proposed ordinances. The commission would put forth another amendment to the land code that strikes the new language and adds the old wording.
After an advertised first reading, the commission would send it for another state review before advertising and voting during a second reading.
At Chestnut’s town hall, commentors brought up concerns about the repeal process and any legal mines that a repeal could hit.
Hawkins said the potential for legal trouble increases with time. If a new commission can revert to current ordinance by February, he said the chances for legal trouble are lower.
The key is the Bert Harris Act. The act allows property owners to sue if they have an investment-backed expectation that falls through or lowers in value because of a government action.
If the repeal happens within a few months, Hawkins said landowners would have a tough time qualifying under the Bert Harris Act.
“If these rules existed for several years—people get bank loans, people buy property, people hire architects, they start putting development plans together—and then you repeal the ordinance or change the rules, then it’s a much different scenario,” Hawkins said.
During the first reading, Saco asked city staff to study how adding a sunset provision to the ordinances would work. She said three or five years of having the ordinance would give the city the data it needs.
No other city in Florida has eliminated all single-family zoning, so no data is available. However, Minneapolis and other cities have taken similar, but not as comprehensive, steps.
Hawkins said adding a sunset ordinance that would revert the zoning back after several years could cause concerns and might trigger a Bert Harris Act legal claim.