Guest: Don’t allow Commission to ignore Code, Comp Plan and PZB

Guest: Don’t allow Commission to ignore Code, Comp Plan and PZB

Lee Geanuleas
St Augustine, FL

On June 4, 2017, Historic City News published a guest column titled, “Impact of San Marco Hotel will be felt forever” by Planning and Zoning Board (PZB) member Sue Agresta. She explained in her column how she reached her decision to vote to deny developer Kanti Patel’s request to rezone three parcels on West Castillo Drive from Historic Preservation 5 (HP-5) to a Planned Unit Development (PUD) for a hotel parking lot.

Ms. Agresta also questioned the City Commission’s May 22nd, 4-1 vote finding that the PZB had “erred” in denying Mr. Patel’s request.

Commissioners Freeman, Neville, Sikes-Kline and Horvath voted to overturn the Planning Board’s decision, Mayor Shaver voted to support it. I believe that Agresta and the other members of the PZB got it right and that the rezoning should not be approved.

But, while much of the testimony and controversy associated with the rezoning has centered on traffic and parking, they are not the most important concerns — history is. Our brand is our history. It is what makes St Augustine special and it’ is why people visit. We must protect our history. One of the more important ways we do that is through HP zoning.

Decades ago, city leaders understood that if they did not institutionalize strong protections for certain parts of the city, then time and “progress” would eventually destroy our history.

So, in 1974, they created five Historic Preservation districts to protect historic parts of the city. The property now subject to this rezoning request was originally part of the HP-3 district that ran north from Hypolita Street and included the Castillo de San Marcos and portions of the Cubo line. In 1979 the part of HP-3 along West Castillo was spun off into its own HP district that we now know as HP-5.

Zoning Board and City Commission minutes from the time make clear that HP-5 was not, as some would like us to believe, a district of little value. It was created and maintained for primarily two reasons;

1) It gave the city control of development along Castillo Drive, a downtown entry corridor, and,

2) it protected the Grove Avenue neighborhood, buffering it from what one Zoning Board member in 1979 called “creeping commercialism.”

In the minutes, you see repeated references to “wonderful old houses” on Grove Avenue and also concern about Castillo Drive becoming “another San Marco Avenue” (and that wasn’t meant as a good thing). Many residents of Grove Avenue and nearby streets testified in 1979 that they wanted strong protections and worried about continued commercial expansion on Castillo Drive.

Mr. Patel already has 15 percent of HP-5 for a hotel and he now wants another 6 percent. He also owns a large parcel at the west end of the block and has made purchase offers on properties in between. Soon he could own 40 percent of HP-5. At that point HP-5 will be worthless and we won’t have to worry about commercialism creeping into North City, it will be raging at full speed.

Should the Commission approve this request, they will sound the death knell for HP-5. After ignoring code, Comp Plan and our PZB, how could the city say “no” to the next developer who wants a piece of HP-5?

Some will say this is a hypothetical “slippery slope” argument, but there is nothing hypothetical about commercial intrusion into our residential neighborhoods. If we don’t stop it when the law allows, it will continue.

Is that what city residents want?

The HP districts are the foundation upon which rests our city’s claim to historical significance. They should not be carved up like a turkey for a developer’s benefit. Rezoning from HP should be done only for the most compelling of reasons.

Sorry, hotel parking just doesn’t cut it.