Marco Island Planning Board puts halt on density credit transfers

Lisa Conley; 239-213-5308

The Marco Island Planning Board, during its March 3 meeting, passed an ordinance creating a moratorium on the transfer of density credits.

The Marco Island Planning Board

Density credit transfers became a topic of debate in August when Florida land developer Small Brothers, LLC, announced its plan to build a 165-room hotel at 580 Elkcam Circle and 870 Park Avenue; in order to complete the project, the city needed to sign on as a co-applicant and transfer commercial intensity credits from Veterans Community Park to the developer's PUD.

Plans for a new hotel near Veterans Community Park

It soon came into question whether Veterans Community Park even had commercial intensity credits; at the Sept. 2 Planning Board meeting – which is when the project was officially introduced to the public – some of the board members said they were under the impression that City Council had retired all of the park’s density and intensity credits as part of its decision to include density reduction in the city’s comprehensive plan.

That uncertainty quickly become a rallying cry for those opposed to the hotel, despite the fact that city staff – including former City Manager Roger Hernstadt – confirmed that City Council never passed an ordinance or resolution removing density or intensity from the park.

Marco Island hotel proposal causes controversy

The council ultimately revoked its status as co-applicant, thereby putting a stop to the hotel, but it brought to light some of the issues regarding the city's density credit transfer program.

At its Feb. 6 meeting, City Council passed the moratorium 4-3, with councilors Joe Batte, Bob Brown and Chair Larry Honig dissenting. Those in favor of the moratorium said it will give the Planning Board time to assess the ordinance without fear of a project application involving density credit transfers disrupting the process.

“(The goal is to) simply put a pause on the current density transfer issue and allow the Planning Board, staff and City Council time to sufficiently review (it),” Vice-Chair Grifoni said. “The presumption is to allow breathing room for the Planning Board and allow them the opportunity to lead us.”

Tami Scott, Marco Island’s zoning administrator, resigned effective March 3.

During the Planning Board meeting, Tami Scott, Marco Island's then Zoning Administrator, gave a brief history of the origin of density credit transfers, noting that its original intent was to encourage development in midtown by allowing density credit transfers from waterfront properties to non-waterfront properties.

She also said that although the council passed the ordinance, it was passed during its first reading only, which is why it's now coming before the Planning Board for its recommendation.

Vice-Chair Ed Issler said he fully supports the moratorium, and agrees with Grifoni that its purpose is to give the board time to fully review the matter and decide what's in the best interests of the city.

"I agree that we have to have many, many, many conversations on the subject of density," he said. "(The moratorium will) allow us to freely deal with these issues without the outside influences of someone trying to come to us to try to do something on a subject that needs a lot more definition."

But he also warned that the moratorium may have unintended consequences; namely, developers may start looking for loopholes within the city's code.

"The last two PUD requests that we've had come through the Planning Board have dealt with applicants and co-applicants," he said, "and I see a lot more of that happening in the near future if we pass this moratorium."

Board member Frank Mulligan noted that the island is unique with regards to its density credit transfer program, as well as its differentiation between density and intensity, which is what the board was actually talking about.

"These density credits are misunderstood; we're not increasing density at all," he said, "we're just allowing those commercial lots to be used."

Scott said if the board passes the moratorium, it will want to consider clarifying the definitions of density and intensity during the revision process, if, of course, it decides to continue allowing density credit transfers; most of the board members expressed an interest in completely eradicating the density transfer program, and some wanted to take it one step further and place a moratorium on PUDs, as well.

The board ultimately passed the ordinance 5-1, with Mulligan dissenting and Hector Fernandez absent.