Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said the City Commission is moving forward to schedule a second reading of three zoning-related ordinances a day after the state recommended Gainesville withdraw its planned changes.
“We are thankful we got the responses back from the state and the county because that means we can go ahead and move forward with the second and final reading of these ordinances and the commission can take action,” Poe said in a Friday phone interview. “Our housing crisis is not going away, and it’s certainly not going to improve with inaction.”
The city is eliminating its four current classifications of single-family zoning and replacing it with a neighborhood residential category. Under the neighbor residential classification, property owners can build duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes on land that currently only allows single-family homes.
The ordinances also allow for greater housing density so more homes can be built on an acre of land than under existing single-family classifications.
The goal of these changes is to encourage the building of more “missing middle” housing aimed at workforce and low-income residents, Poe said.
The city voted 4-3 to approve the changes in early August but was required to send changes to its comprehensive plan to Alachua County and to the state Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) for comment before proceeding with a second reading.
The DEO got back to the city Thursday and in its comments criticized Gainesville’s planned changes as being “scattered, unplanned, unfocused and untenable.” The letter from the state said the city’s ordinances are inconsistent with Gainesville existing comprehensive plan and “must be withdrawn” while Gainesville considers other ways to address affordable housing.
However, the state’s comments don’t bar the city from continuing.
Gainesville has three choices as outlined by the state: pass the ordinances on second reading without changes, amend the ordinances, or withdraw the ordinances. The state warned the city that if it did not address the county and state comments that the new regulations could be open to official challenge.
Poe said the commission would work with staff and each other to address the comments, but the city didn’t intend to withdraw the planned ordinance.
“I think everything in there can be addressed,” Poe said. “We’ll work on clarifying responses, and point out how it is not only consistent with our comp plan, but is a really necessary step to ensure that we provide an adequate supply of affordable housing.”
The mayor said Friday that the state’s comments had several inconsistencies and that the letter indicated the DEO was not familiar with city’s comprehensive plan, pointing out that one of the state recommendations was for the city to look at allowing accessory dwelling units as a way to increase affordable housing.
But the city already allows property owners to build accessory dwelling units, a type of small housing unit that shares a lot with a larger home, such as garage apartments and mother-in-law suites.
“[The letter] shows a real lack of understanding or knowledge of our existing comprehensive plan,” Poe said. “I am not surprised. It’s very consistent with what we’ve seen out of [Gov. Ron] DeSantis’ administration, really wanting to take over local responsibilities.”
Poe said because they had just received the letter, he hasn’t talked yet with city staff and the commissioners haven’t discussed it among themselves because they would have to do that in a publicly noticed meeting.
“I’ll be working with staff to make sure we’re able to professionally and fully respond to the comments,” Poe said. “That’s the purpose of doing this – to get feedback. So we’ll incorporate that feedback into our decision-making process. Whether or not that leads to some modifications or not, I just don’t know at this point.”
Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, who was one of the three commissioners who voted against the ordinances, said she was “delighted” by the state’s response.
“It’s a victory for the people,” she said in a Friday phone interview, referring to the significant community opposition to the changes. “Had we not had the public engagement in this issue, I’m not sure we would have been victorious.”
However, Chestnut said she was “somewhat disappointed” after hearing that Poe planned to move forward to a second vote.
“I think we need to direct our energies – the entire commission – to inclusionary housing,” Chestnut said. “I think it’s time to work together and look at something that’s going to address the needs of our neighbors.”
She said the comments from the state captured several of the problems with eliminating exclusionary zoning: that affordable housing has primarily gone to UF students and that existing infrastructure is not there to support the more intensive density.
“As far as I’m concerned, [the plan] does not meet the needs of the community,” Chestnut said.
But the second reading, like the first, may come down to the number of votes. Chestnut and commissioners Harvey Ward and Desmon Duncan-Walker have voted against the zoning changes, but Poe and commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos, David Arreola and Reina Saco have provided the necessary majority to pass the ordinances on first reading.
Poe, Hayes-Santos and Arreola are term-limited and will leave the commission in January, but it’s unclear whether the new commission would be able to unwind the zoning changes. If the effort is successful, Gainesville would become the first city in the state to eliminate exclusionary/single-family zoning.
—J.C. Derrick contributed to this report