Pensacola News Journal – August 27, 2020

Santa Rosa County underwent its most comprehensive and detailed public review yet of the land development code rewrite Wednesday, gathering input from county staff and public stakeholders to beef up the road map for development rules and environmental policy in the county. 

The code has been under review since January 2019, when the county’s planning and zoning director, Shawn Ward, told commissioners it was in serious need of a complete overhaul. The original land development code was adopted Aug. 22, 1991, when Santa Rosa County had a population of around 85,000 people.

Now, it has nearly 180,000 people. Ordinances have been changed, added and deleted since then, but a large-scale rewrite of the code hasn’t been attempted until last year. 

“It’s been modified and ‘Band-Aided’ and kind of cut and pasted over the last 29 years, but it’s never been completely re-written,” Ward said Wednesday. 

The updated code with revisions will go to the zoning board in October and then the new Board of County Commissioners for final approval either in December or January. It will then have a public notice period before it’s officially implemented early next year. 

Ward gave a presentation to commissioners at Wednesday’s workshop detailing the process so far of rewriting the land development code, and private citizens gave presentations of their own as well outlining their wishes for the new code. 

Some of the new changes include: increasing the minimum lot widths in residential subdivisions; removing the family homestead in agriculture districts; adding stormwater and erosion control measures; adding wetlands buffers; clarifying content-neutral sign requirements; modifying fencing and dock height requirements; creating separate borrow pit districts; and eliminating the Heart of Navarre overlay district. 

Below are five additional takeaways from the nearly eight-hour long workshop, including some key changes to the code from the last update. 

1. Environmental concerns: Red clay and sand, heritage tree sizes, land clearing

One of the areas of greatest concerns for members of the public as far as the rewrite goes has to do with the environment, and how to mitigate developments’ negative effects on wetlands, the water and other protected and sensitive ecological areas.

The board discussed the possibility of banning red sand and red clay on build sites, which can get into local waterways and pollute the water. 

They also directed staff to reduce the circumference of trees that could be cut down from the current size of 48 inches to 36 inches in the north end of the county and 24 inches in the south end of the county. That would mean no trees below 36 or 24 inches in circumference could be cut down, an attempt to protect live oaks and other native trees. However, the board could possibly vote to keep the tree size at 48 inches in the north end of the county, based on the zoning board’s recommendation in October.

As far as land clearing goes, the updated code will have stricter language pertaining to the mass cutting of trees that takes place when a developer goes in to build on a new parcel of land. 

“We added major land clearing language,” Ward said. “Right now, we don’t have a land clearing permit. We basically say if you are in a commercial zoning district, and you want to kind of site prep ahead of time, we have a major land clearing process now where you can come in, get a major land clearing permit application. We’ll review it for consistency with stormwater, wetlands and things of that nature, and at that point we’re going to go ahead and issue that permit.”

2. Enforcement: Increasing fines for code violations 

The land development code is virtually useless unless the county’s new code enforcement department has means to enforce it, which is why commissioners said they were in favor of increasing fines and creating harsher penalties for code violations. 

For example, head of the county’s code enforcement office, Chris Phillips, told the commissioners bluntly that “fines do work” and he would advocate for increasing fines in order to deter code violations, particularly when it comes to erosion control issues.

“Our fine structure now has been in place since 2015,” he said. “A breach of your erosion control system is $300. By state law we are not allowed to exceed $500 on the day of the occurrence, but we can go beyond that if the occurrence continues on. I’m looking at that portion of our penalty phase ordinance in order to increase our fines.”

3. Eliminating need for codes with excessive variance requests 

One of the ways that Ward said he was going to tighten up the existing code is by eliminating parts of the code that repeatedly come before and are approved by the zoning board for variance requests. 

“We looked at variance cases. How many variance cases did we have that we were approving over and over, time and time again? And we improved that by if we were continuously granting a variance for something, it needs to be just removed from the land development code,” Ward said. “There’s no sense in having someone press forward with a variance case when we’re doing that.”

Eliminating the need for variance requests is one way to streamline the zoning board operations and allow them to focus on more heavy-hitting issues that come to the county’s attention. 

4. Sidewalk requirements for businesses 

The updated code will have requirements for sidewalks on major roads, which would require developers and businesses to build sidewalks, instead of the county. 

“If you take a look at the other land development codes in this region, Santa Rosa County is the only county that does not require commercial developments to have sidewalks,” Ward said. “U.S. 90 and U.S. 98 could be a walkable facility if we would have implemented this 15, 20, 30 years ago. If you look at a side road, like Pace Lane (where Walmart is), when Walmart would have gone in, it would have required a sidewalk. And we wouldn’t have to go after state and federal grants to try to do that.” 

The sidewalk requirement would put the onus on new businesses to make their properties pedestrian-friendly, and hopefully decrease traffic congestion on major arteries. 

5. Open burning restrictions

A significant, and possibly contentious, change that could be coming to the updated code has to do with burning. The updated code would change standards regulating so-called “environmental nuisances,” such as smoke, dust, odor and burning, based on both Department of Forestry and Florida Department of Environmental Protection requirements. 

The updated code would give the county more control over things like burning of debris, in light of the Five Mile Swamp Fire that in May consumed nearly 2,300 acres at its peak, destroyed 14 homes and caused more than $1.9 million in property damage. 

That fire was caused by a controlled burn that escaped on a dry, windy day and got out of control. The new county ordinance would tackle smaller burns, like developers who burn debris on land clearing sites as opposed to hauling it to a pit, which is more expensive. 

“If someone is setting an approved burn plan or burn permit, they’re supposed to be operating by both (FDEP and Forestry Department) regulations,” Phillips said. “I can’t guarantee you that has been the case, because there are some setback requirements in the forestry regulations that, on a small parcel subdivision of just a few lots, if you’re burning on site there’s no possible way you could be meeting that setback.

“I feel it important for us to reference both of these in our LDC, so that I would have enforcement tools to be able to, if they’re burning and can’t meet that setback, say they need to put the fire out and haul the debris off,” he continued. “I know that’s more expensive, but that’s the state law and they’re supposed to be following that anyways.”

Annie Blanks can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8632.