Sunday, November 29, 2015

The difference between a statement of "public purpose" and a "pitch", the trivializing of the land use regulatory process in Lake Worth, and so much more

Our current beat reporter from The Palm Beach Post, or one of his editors, uses the word "pitch" in describing a zoning/land use attorney's presentation before the Lake Worth Historic Resource Preservation Board (HRPB) on November 18th. You can watch attorney Bonnie Miskel's presentation for yourself here. Wikipedia defines the word "pitch" in this manner, related to a trip in an elevator (refer to the link for footnotes):
     An elevator pitch, elevator speech or elevator statement is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a process, product, service, organization, or event and its value proposition.
     The name 'elevator pitch' reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver the summary in the time span of an elevator ride, or approximately thirty seconds to two minutes and is widely credited to Ilene Rosenzweig and Michael Caruso (while he was editor for Vanity Fair) for its origin.
To reduce a justification of a zoning change to calling it a "pitch" trivializes the land use regulatory process. It also assumes that the entity who is the target of the pitch, the HRPB, are just a group of unsuspecting people that are being sold something. That something, you see, wouldn't have been on their radar were it not for the person standing in front of them giving the "pitch." I use the word pitch now and then to make a point and note that it's not used in the most flattering of ways.

If you own a piece of real property (land) it is your right to petition for a rezoning of that land. This is a common practice that happens all the time across our great state and nation. There is a lot that goes into an analysis of whether a rezoning would be consistent with a city's Comprehensive Plan and whether or not it would be considered "spot zoning". Again, from Wikipedia, this is part of what goes into the analysis of a rezoning request (refer to link for footnotes and references):
     Spot zoning is the application of zoning to a specific parcel or parcels of land within a larger zoned area when the rezoning is usually at odds with a city's master plan and current zoning restrictions. Spot zoning may be ruled invalid as an "arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable treatment" of a limited parcel of land by a local zoning ordinance. While zoning regulates the land use in whole districts, spot zoning makes unjustified exceptions for a parcel or parcels within a district. The small size of the parcel is not the sole defining characteristic of a spot zone. Rather, the defining characteristic is the narrowness and unjustified nature of the benefit to the particular property owner, to the detriment of a general land use plan or public goals. 
     For example, a small zone allowing limited commercial uses such as a corner store within a residential area may not be a spot zone, but a carve-out for an industrial use or a night club might be considered a case of spot zoning. In the first case, the differing land uses are mutually compatible and supportive. In the latter case, the residential nature of the area would be harmed by a conflicting land use. When the change in zoning does not advance a general public purpose in land use, courts may rule certain instances of spot zoning as illegal.
So, in order to be a valid request and one worth considering, a rezoning request must advance a public purpose that is greater than any potential impact and the possible granting of such a request to the property owner. In her presentation before the HRPB, Bonnie Miskel, Esq. talked for approximately 27 minutes about this zoning requestmuch longer than an elevator ride. She emphasized how the rezoning request was consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. There are also characteristics of the property, its history and the surrounding built environment, which she explained make such a rezoning both compatible with the area and also one that furthers a public purpose.

Note that the "dollars and cents" referenced in the Post article was a small part of the larger presentation and was only mentioned towards the end.

What is that public purpose you ask? That public purpose is the City's need to have an active and vibrant hotel on one of its main downtown streets that's next to a large waterfront park for tourists and visitors. There are no more prime locations than the one occupied by the Gulf Stream hotel. And that structure at this prominent location is on the National Register of Historic Places. Beyond the use of this building as a hotel, both the building and property have played important roles in the history of our city and region. It has had a troubled past, being closed eight of its first ten years of existence as a result of the Great Depression and damage done by the hurricane of 1928. It has been closed for the past ten years, mostly under other ownership, and is not serving its intended purpose for the community.

What led to its current closure are a series of events which developed over a long period of time. One of those, from the early 1970s onward, is the combination of changing needs and desires of tourists, visitors, and business travelers that made the hotel not competitive in the market and unable to be an economic success. Remember, the hotel was originally built to accommodate visitors arriving by train, well before the domination of the automobile. Another reason is the small room sizes compared to newer tourist destinations and venues. To address this room sizes in the existing hotel need to be made larger.
Original floor plan of the Gulf Stream Hotel. 
Larger rooms mean a smaller room count in the historic hotelin order to maintain its established footprint that would mean going from the original 130 to around 87 according to the presentation given at the HRPB. We also learned that a hotel with that number of rooms isn't economically desirable to hoteliers in this day and age and that additional rooms are needed, along with other hospitality amenities like conference rooms and ample/accessible parking spaces. What is very compelling is that these changes will fix the property's current economic obsolescence and also boost the City's downtown which has lagged due to a structure that is now serving no public purpose at all. That, ladies and gentlemen, is further proof that a broader public purpose exists beyond the interests of any particular property owner.

What we need to hear from our leaders is why a functioning, historic hotel in Lake Worth's downtown hotel is a compelling public purpose. It is one that goes far beyond past, current or any future owner(s) of the property. In the end this property is emblematic of Lake Worth. As its fate rises and falls, so does the City's. In my experience this case is one of the more obvious cases where this public purpose exists.

Faced with such a compelling public purpose, many local governments choose to originate their own rezoning of a property. This would have been what is called a "city-initiated" request and it would have been entirely appropriate to handle this process in such a manner. Doing so would underscore how the public would benefit from the rezoning. It is already consistent with the City's future land use map in its Comprehensive Plan. In many ways it can be seen as addressing an apparent inconsistency.

For that to have happened we would have had to hear this public purpose being enunciated from our City leadership, its staff and elected officials. To a large degree, we have not heard this and it places the onus on making the case on the current owner of the property. The property owner gets the slings and arrows which is just fine with politicians but that's not leadership. It's time to change this going forward. I am hopeful that when this request appears before the City Commission we will hear more about the public purpose behind this proposal and that The Palm Beach Post takes a more professional approach to this very serious matter before the City.

On the last point I don't have much hope we'll ever see much better from the Post. If the past election cycle is any indication we're certain to see many more "pitches" to come, especially from their editorial board.