Under the city's current development standards, the system that governs height limits could best be described as challenging and subjective.
But proposed changes to the city's tiering guidelines and comprehensive plan aim to clear up the ambiguity.
"It was a pretty cumbersome process to work through," Community Development Director Ken Gallander told The Log Monday. "It's been said on the record that the current standards were blackmail."
Based on guidance from the city council, Gallander and city staff were charged with revamping the tier system, which guides the intensity and density of developments in the city of Destin.
"We have to allow a certain level of development, based on their (property owners) rights," Gallander said. "So the tier system helps regulate and manage that level of development. If you go higher, you are going to have to pay, and it's quantifiably figured out."
As is stands now, when a developer wants to build a project, they must provide some type of "public benefit" to the city, which can range from establishing view corridors to the water, beach accesses and sidewalk improvements.
When it comes to negotiating this benefit, it's a three-stage process that begins with the community development department, then moves on to the city manager, before ultimately going before the city council.
A potential project could get a pass in the first two stages of the negotiation process before failing to get the approval of the council. By the time a project reaches the city council, developers have more than likely spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, Gallander said.
As part of any development project in the city, impact fees are also collected. These fees can be used for improvements in very specific areas.
Under the new proposal, impact fees would still exist but the much-maligned “public benefit” negotiations would be eliminated. Instead, any developer that desires to build a Tier III project would also be subject to a "fee contribution.” This fee would be based on a formula that takes into account an appraisal process and percentage differences between Tier II and Tier III and intensity/density.
The fee contributions are directly linked to the city's capital improvement plan.
"This could jump start some really needed projects," Gallander said.
The changes are expected to be a "catalyst" for re-development throughout the city, which should help increase property values and contribute to a higher ad valorem tax base.
As part of the proposed changes, no heights were increased in any of the city's future land use map designations that currently allow Tier III developments, except where a two-story parking structure is proposed. Densities were only adjusted in two areas — the East Harbor Planning Area and the Bay Resort Mixed Use — which was done to "allow the tier system process to work."
Looking at the landscape of Destin, which has more than 20 future land use designations, there are currently 10 land use areas that can accommodate a Tier III project.
These land uses include the Gulf Resort Mixed Use; Bay Resort Mixed Use; High Density Residential (East Harbor Planning Area); South Harbor Mixed Use; North Harbor Mixed Use; Town Center Mixed Use; Holiday Isle Mixed Use; Calhoun Mixed Use; Crystal Beach Resort; and Henderson Beach Resort, which is a new future land use.
Heights on Tier III projects can range in size from 60 feet and five stories to 200 feet and 19 stories. Also, as part of the new changes, a developer has the ability to construct a parking garage as part of their project, which would allow them to build up to two additional floors.
Debates surrounding large-scale development in the city are almost as common as sunny beach days.
One of the main concerns raised to city officials is what to do about increased traffic that accompanies large scale development.
"Yeah, Highway 98, early in the morning, late in the evening, and when it's raining, is going to be clogged with cars," Gallander said. "But there are also plans to improve the transportation network. If Tier III development comes though, it has to meet all levels of development concurrency. There has to be available utilities and the transportation has to be able to handle it."
Other concerns have been raised along Holiday Isle and throughout Crystal Beach, but Ustick told The Log that the concerns in Crystal Beach had been resolved after a series of meetings between residents, developers and the city.
As for Holiday Isle, Gallander said there is a unique situation, given that the Holiday Isle Improvement Association has its own covenants and restrictions for development.
Building heights are restricted to 75 feet between Harbor Landing and just before the old Pointe One property at the base of Norriego Point, compared to the city's regulations that would allow for a 110-foot Tier II structure.
The Way Forward
Given that development and re-development are inevitable after the real estate crash, the city's goal was to create a system that simply made sense.
The tier system is just one component of the city's comprehensive plan, which must be approved by city leaders and the state. As part of the comprehensive planning process, the city also discussed items such as recreation, economic development and conservation.
Gallander told The Log he has heard people say "we shouldn't adopt this," but if the city doesn't approve the comprehensive plan, it "holds up a whole litany of policy directives" the city has to put through.
"If the council chooses not to adopt this quantifiable approach, they revert back to the subjective," he said. "Or, the council could say to get rid of that too, then we go back to compatibility, and you'd have to develop a whole new standard."
Ustick said that if city leaders were to delay approval of the comprehensive plan on Tuesday, "everything stops."
Once the city's comprehensive plan is submitted to the state, it will come back to city leaders for a second reading and final approval. Once approved, the comp plan can be amended as needed.
"This is the city's roadmap," she said. "This is about more than just Tier III, it's about the entire plan for the city."
Although the idea of development standards can be confusing sometimes, Gallander told The Log that this new system is definitely the best way forward.
"Development has always been a contentious issue," he said. "Change can be difficult to embrace, accept and understand."
WANT TO GO
City leaders will meet Tuesday night at 6 p.m. at the City Hall Annex for their regular meeting. They will discuss the comprehensive plan, which includes the changes to the tier system.