Much of Tuesday's marathon Planning Commission meeting focused on a public hearing, which considered the application of a property owner who was seeking a number of variances to rebuild on his now-vacant Seagrape Lane lot.
That lot used to contain a 2,319-square-foot duplex, which — after years of neglect and damage attributed to hurricanes Charley (in 2004) and Wilma (in 2005) — was finally demolished in June 2007.
Finally, after submitting applications to rebuild on the parcel, as well as two subsequent one-year extensions to allow the owner to pursue alternative design plans for build-back, the Planning Commission was finally presented with a new application.
Unfortunately, the new plan for the former non-conforming duplex is still non-conforming.
According to the Planning Department's staff report, the owner's current home design fails to comply with the city's Land Development Code build-back requirements in four areas. The submitted duplex plan is:
• Outside its pre-disaster three-dimensional outline
• Beyond its pre-disaster habitable area
• Greater than its pre-disaster gross square footage
• Above the angle-of-light height limitation
The commission agreed with the staff report's conclusion, unanimously voting to reject the application due to its continued non-compliance plans.
However, the six voting members of the panel (with Chuck Ketteman excused from the session) were split over whether the Planning Department should allow the owner more time to make adjustments to his home designs.
Both commissioners Paul Reynolds and Dr. Philip Marks objected to granting any more extensions to the property owner. According to the staff report, last year the owner not only filed a proposal for a single-family residence on the lot, but also had "an understanding that there would be no further extensions of the permit." That extension expired on June 12 of this year.
We understand that rules are created for a reason, and to ignore them can only create chaos. Sanibel Code Section 126-212 stipulates that "applications to build-back a non-conforming structure that was destroyed or substantially damaged by accidental fire or other natural and disastrous force must be filed within 24 months of the date of the destruction or substantial damage to the building that is to be built back." In other words, if the owner is not allowed an extension to submit an alternate and viable conforming structure, that parcel will never be allowed to be built upon again. It will become virtually worthless.
We agree that the owner has dragged his feet in the course of these events, but this is the first build-back case to come before the commission since the City Council adopted new build-back standards in 2006. The commission is entering uncharted territory, as this case will certainly be cited as an example in the years to come. Therefore, they have to make sure every step in this process is both cautious and correct.
As much as we would like to say "enough is enough" and deny yet another extension to the applicant, doing so would render this lot completely unusable, which does no good to the owner, neighboring properties or the city itself. There must be an opportunity — even as little as a six-month extension, as the staff report has requested — to allow this parcel to be built upon.
As Reynolds and Marks noted, to grant another extension may be setting a bad precedent. But to make an example of this case, the first of its kind in Sanibel's history, might be doing more harm than good.
At this point, what harm could come in allowing a bit more time to bring back a conforming structure to this historic neighborhood? As such, we support a final six-month extension.
The final decision of whether or not to grant an extension to the applicant is now in the hands of the city's Director of Planning, Jimmy Jordan. We hope that his years of experience and wisdom will lead his department in the right direction. Even if that leaves a few commissioners unhappy.
— Reporter editorial