GOVERNMENT - CITY INFORMATION
The commissioner's corner is where you can find information that your Council wants you to know so that you can participate in your city government.
December 28, 2019 - Commissioner Nielsen
Proposed Right-of-Way Fund
There is something happening in City Council meetings that may directly affect you and your neighborhood.
In April 2019 a plan was presented to Council to fund the regular maintenance and improvements of Belle Isle’s roads and right-of-ways. This plan would place a franchise fee on electrical accounts and create a separate fund to be used to cover costs for regular maintenance of our streets and sidewalks. Eventually, this fund would also be used for other improvements such as putting power lines underground and installing new sidewalks where currently there are none. Franchise fees on electricity would provide the money for this fund. Franchise fees are a way of charging companies like Duke Energy for their use of our right-of-ways. (Of course, the charge is passed on to customers by the power company but for most residential customers, the cost is minimal.) In April 2019, the council appeared to agree to follow the example of virtually all other Florida cities and begin to charge electric franchise fees, starting at a 6% rate. This translates to an extra charge of $6 on a power bill of $100. The city budget for 2019-2020 was developed using the franchise fees and Right-of-Way Fund to pay for street and sidewalk improvements beginning with this budget year.
This new Right-of-Way Fund represents a major breakthrough for Belle Isle. In the past, the city has either built a reserve fund for emergencies, or performed routine maintenance on streets, but never did both at once. As most residents know, our city has not kept up well with street maintenance over the years (at times issuing bonds or dipping into reserves to pay for this routine maintenance) and we need to do much better. At this time we are still planning to resurface streets that have not been touched in well over 30 years. Those streets are to be done using the revenues in the new Right-of-Way Fund. The new revenues can also allow the city to continue the maintenance of sidewalks. The new fund would be a dedicated resource to put all of our streets in good condition and then to institute a maintenance schedule that would keep them in good condition. And last but not least, new projects like putting power lines underground and new sidewalks where we have none could be funded.
Recently a few vocal citizens have been objecting to the franchise fees, and they have gained support from some council members and other residents. The problem as I see it is: if this new revenue source is not put in place, then there is no money in the budget to pay for those streets that are scheduled to be paved this year. Some say that now we have the FEMA money, so we have plenty of money to do everything. Except that we don’t. The Council already agreed to use FEMA money to replace the reserve funds that were used in the Hurricane Irma clean-up. The FEMA money designated for the drainage improvements at Gene Polk Park cannot be used for anything else. I believe that the Council was right to pledge FEMA reimbursement to replace our reserve funds. As difficult as it was to build our reserve, we need to keep it for actual emergencies. It should not be depleted for anything else.
The following is a list of streets that are scheduled to be milled and resurfaced in 2020:
Nevada, Swann, Idaho, Lake (from Swann to Perkins),
Part of Gondola, Gibson, Cay, Stockbridge, and Delia
The people who live on these streets already paid their fair share to have others’ streets repaired. Now it is their turn to have smooth resurfaced streets in their neighborhoods. It is only fair that we all contribute to have these streets resurfaced as well. The Right-of Way Fund will make sure that there will always be money available to maintain our streets and right-of-ways in good condition without taking money from reserves or taking on long-term debt.
October 2016 - Commissioner Nielsen
October 2016 - Commissioner Nielsen
October 2018 - Commissioner Gold
Lot Splits, Variances, and Zoning, oh my!
We need to talk.
Our city has a number of challenging issues before us, and your opinions have never been more important or more valued. If these issues were simply good versus evil, solving them would be trivial. Unfortunately, most of the more complex issues pit the interests of one neighbor against his or her neighbors, one neighborhood against another, or a property owner’s rights against neighbors’ rights. In this article, I’ll run through some of the dilemmas our city must resolve, and I’ll ask you to get involved by voicing any insights, angles we’ve not considered, and opinions.
Perhaps because there isn’t much undeveloped land in Belle Isle, the available properties have become a battleground for opposing objectives and visions. Property owners have every right to want to maximize their return on investment while neighbors seek to preserve the character and harmony of the existing community. Residents are concerned that higher density leads to more traffic, less traffic safety, a worsening of lake water quality, more noise, and a reduction in overall quality of life.
In the Seminole / Nela area, two owners are seeking lot splits for oversized lots, which would allow the development of two homes where one distressed home once stood or stands. This new usage will definitely improve the character of the neighborhood and increase property values. Does the aesthetic improvement justify granting an exemption to our code of ordinances?
Similarly, the old Larkin’s trailer park was purchased by a developer who will turn this distressed property into residential housing. In this situation, the developer bought the property with R-2 zoning in place, which permits single family or multi-family dwellings as outlined in Section Sec. 54-76 of our municipal code. This could add a large number of new homes to the area, significantly impacting traffic safety and density. The enhancement or detriment of lake front aesthetics will be impacted by whatever construction the developer ultimately selects.
Neighbors in the Seminole / Nela area have cited section 10-67 of our Code of Ordinances as supporting their opposition to the two lot splits. This section describes the circumstances under which our Planning and Zoning Board may grant a variance to our noise ordinances detailed in sections 10-63 and 10-65. Specifically, the wording reads, “Any request for a variance from the requirements of this article shall be considered by the planning and zoning board and granted only when it is found that hardship would result from strict compliance with the provision from which a variance is sought. The board shall grant approval of a variance upon the determination that (1) the hardship is not self-imposed; (2) the variance is necessary; and (3) the intent and purposes of this article are achieved in granting the variance.”
This does not constrain the City Council from granting a variance for any reason at all. If Planning and Zoning deny a variance and the requestor appeals to the City Council, they could approve the variance simply because it’s September, or because they think it would look nice. Those would both be extremely poor justifications for circumventing the Planning and Zoning Board’s decision, but I’ve not been able to find any strict restrictions on criteria the City Council might use. And of course, if an applicant or interested party doesn’t like what the City Council decides, one can always, “file a petition for writ of certiorari as authorized in the manner prescribed by the Florida Appellate Rules in the circuit court of the county”. The circuit court would then direct the city to hand over all the relevant records so they could review the Council’s decision.
Perhaps a more applicable section would be Sec. 42-64 which specifically addresses land development code. This section states the conditions under which P&Z may, “approve, conditionally approve or deny applications for variance from the terms of the Land Development Code:
d. It is determined that literal enforcement of the provisions of the zoning ordinances would result in unnecessary hardship and that said hardship is created by special conditions and circumstances peculiar to the land, structure or building involved, including but not limited to dimensions, topography or soil conditions.
e. It has been determined that personal hardship is not being considered as grounds for a variance since the variance will continue to affect the character of the neighborhood after title to the property has passed and that the special conditions and circumstances were not created in order to circumvent the Land Development Code or for the purpose of obtaining a variance.
f. It is determined that the variance is the minimum variance that will make possible the reasonable use of the land, building or structure.
g. It is determined that the granting of the variance will be in harmony with the general purpose and intent of the Land Development Code, will not be injurious to the neighborhood, will not be detrimental to the public welfare, and will not be contrary to the public interest.”
So it’s pretty clear that personal hardships such as profitability should not be considered. Rather, we should be looking at whether unnecessary hardships exist because of the peculiarities of the land itself or the structure being considered. If the lot is unusually or irregularly shaped, this could justify a variance in order to allow development of something that is more in character and harmony with the rest of the area.
We also have a unique situation created because both the Larkin’s property and one of the Seminole / Nela properties are owned by the same developer. This past Tuesday, September 18, 2018, several commissioners brought up the possibility of negotiating with this developer. A suggestion that we grant a variance for the Seminole / Nela lot split in exchange for lower density development at the Larkin’s property was discussed. In many people’s views, this would greatly benefit the city as a whole, but at the detriment of our neighbors on the Nela Island and along Seminole Drive. Should we ask them to, “Take one for the team?”
My questions to you the reader are:
1. Under what conditions do you believe the City Council should overrule the Planning and Zoning Board’s decisions? Planning and Zoning should be our foremost authority on making decisions in land development.
2. What criteria do you believe justify the granting of a variance? What constitutes an unnecessary hardship, a special condition or circumstance peculiar to the land?
3. How do you feel about the “greater good” theory as applied to bargaining for a more desirable development agreement in one part of the city if this requires a sacrifice elsewhere in the city?
Total Square Miles: 5.1
Persons Per Square Mile: 2,573.3
Housing Units: 2,625
Median Home Value: $320,800
Median Household Income: $79,563
Approx. Number of Businesses: 75