State wants Gainesville to shelve zoning changes

Woman protests zoning changes
A woman protests proposed zoning changes as the City Commission considers the issue at City Hall last month. (Photo by Megan V. Winslow)
Photo by Megan V. Winslow

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) recommended Thursday that Gainesville withdraw its proposed zoning changes, describing the city’s current approach as “scattered, unplanned, unfocused and untenable.” 

The City Commission approved changes to its land use and zoning regulations in early August, amidst widespread citizen opposition. The commission split 4-3, passing changes that would allow small-scale multifamily housing in traditionally single-family neighborhoods throughout the city. 

At-large Commissioner Reina Saco joined three other term-limited members – Mayor Lauren Poe, Commissioner Adrian Hayes Santos and Commissioner David Arreola – to pass a series of three related ordinances.  

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The three ordinances were then forwarded to Alachua County and the state DEO for comment. The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners voiced its opposition to the plan last month.  

The DEO’s Thursday letter warned the city that while it had the option to pass the ordinances on a second reading, failing to resolve the state’s comments could open the city’s planned changes to an official challenge. 

The changes, which would collapse the existing single-family zoning categories into one residential neighborhood category and increase the land use density throughout the city, are “internally inconsistent with the city’s comprehensive plan,” according to the letter the DEO sent Poe on Thursday. 

The city has argued that increasing the number of homes that can be built per acre and allowing more multifamily housing would in turn increase the amount and availability of affordable housing throughout the city. 

However, the state challenged that argument in its letter, saying instead that the city’s approach would “adversely impact the provision of affordable housing.” 

According to the DEO, the city is assuming that scattered locations of denser development would result in more affordable housing, but that’s not a guaranteed outcome of the new zoning regulations. The state pointed to the city’s own data that UF students have been the primary beneficiaries of new rental housing in Gainesville. 

“Solely increasing the amount of land available for additional density and multifamily housing does not ensure that the ever-increasing student population does not absorb the newly created rental housing rather than providing affordable housing for the city’s workforce,” the state wrote. 

In its comments, the DEO said the city’s planned changes also could create problems with the city’s infrastructure – including transportation, drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems. 

It said the city hasn’t done enough in the run-up to the changes to address potential effects on neighborhood character, stability and safety, and historic resources. 

In its summary recommendation, the DEO wrote the proposed alterations to the comprehensive plan “must be withdrawn,” saying the city instead needs to provide “access to affordable housing in a manner that will be strategic and focused, and based upon sound planning principles that will actually provide guaranteed affordable housing that is accessible from the city’s employment centers and not in such a careless way that will result in the opposite effect.” 

Gainesville Neighborhood Voices, a group formed to fight this and similar land use policy changes, said in a press release it was “gratified” by the DEO’s comments and position. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. 

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Sonny A. V. Franklin

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