Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Meeting the Master Planners

Mitchell Lawson, David Hilston, Teri Tubbs and Lisa Hannon
The most recent Citizens Academy session was an introduction to the world of urban design and growth management.  It's a big job to keep Punta Gorda the beautiful place it is -- and not always a popular one.

Department head David Hilston kicked off the morning with an example of the crazy questions they sometimes get.  One resident asked, "How many elephants can we have in our yard?"  They actually had an answer: one. (Note to caller: I understand that Ringling Bros. might have some elephants available for purchase.)

The Department overview was a bit of a whirlwind as we learned about this function in just two hours.  Here are some of the highlights.

Punta Gorda's
Comprehensive Plan 
--The job of the folks in urban design/growth management is to plan for the Punta Gorda of the future. Their focus is 20-30 years out (so I'm sure a crystal ball would come in handy sometimes.) Interestingly, the very popular Punta Gorda Pathways project was first proposed back in 1989.

--Punta Gorda's comprehensive plan establishes guidelines for physical development of the City.  Chief Planner Joan LeBeau calls it "the hub of everything."  Its elements range from infrastructure and community facilities to conservation and transportation.  (The regulations restricting the removal of burrowing owls fall under the area of conservation.)  The comprehensive plan is reviewed every five - seven years, and the process is about to begin.  Public input will be requested, so speak now or plan hold your peace until at least 2020!

--Hilston introduced Teri Tubbs and zoning by saying, "The zoners take the dreamers and smack them back to reality."  While it's easy to picture these people as popping a balloon filled with ideas, the reality is that their input prevents people from expending resources on projects that aren't going to work in the real world.

--Permitted use regulations are not consistent across the City. There are a number of "overlay districts" for which special rules apply.  So, for instance, property owners in the Historical Overlay District must obtain a "certificate of appropriateness" before any exterior work is done or signage installed. One of the ongoing efforts involves creation of a county overlay for south Punta Gorda where there are enclaves of county property that don't have to comply with city regs.

--Development and enforcement of the City's Landscape Code also falls to this Department. Punta Gorda prides itself on being a "tree city" and strives to maintain pre-development levels of a 30% tree canopy.  Hence the rule that new home builders plant one canopy tree -- or two palms -- for each 4,000 feet of building site.  (Homeowners who really don't want to comply with this rule can pay a fee of $750 that the City will use to plant a tree on City property.)  FYI, get in touch with the City if you want some help with plantings for the island in your cul-de-sac. There's a reason they all look so nice!

--Contrary to popular belief, Punta Gorda does not have a "no chain restaurant" ordinance.  Instead, it is the City's architectural requirements--and a prohibition on drive-through restaurants--that have proven an impediment to getting our own golden arches here.  (The Dunkin' Donuts' drive-through was grandfathered in.)

--Nobody likes to see those little code compliance trucks parked in front of their home. But we also don't like to see cars up on blocks or more than one elephant in the neighbor's yard.  More restrictive rules apply in Punta Gorda Isles, Burnt Store Isles and Burnt Store Meadows. Previously, these communities were deed restricted and had to do their own enforcement.  Code compliance is also responsible for the lot mowing program that was in the press recently.

View from Marriage Point
in Laishley Park
--Punta Gorda has 109 acres dedicated to its 19 parks.  Laishley, Gilchrist and Ponce parks have areas available for rent at rates ranging from $5-$20/hour.  In case you're wondering, the guitar army folks who take over Gilchrist Park on Tuesday and Thursday nights don't rent the pavilions. The tradition is treated as a "non-event/event."  Heads up that reconstruction of the sea wall in Gilchrist Park will begin soon.  The park will continue to be open, but it definitely will not be as inviting with construction equipment parked in the open spaces. I suspect the guitar army musicians and fans will persevere.

--Chief Building Official Randy Cole confessed some concern about making his presentation interesting.  So he started off with an explanation of the origin of building codes -- the Code of Hammurabi circa 1772 BC.  Section 229 reads: "If a builder builds a house for someone and has not made his house sound, and the house he built has fallen and caused the death of its owner, the builder shall be put to death."  Whoa!

--Perhaps the most amazing take-away of the morning was the responsiveness of the building division to requests for inspection.  If you call for an inspection by 6:00 in the morning, officials will be out that same day to check out the work.  (Note: They have a recorded line in case you wake up in the middle of night and think, "Rats!  I forgot to schedule that inspection.")

Mr. Hilston had started his comments by saying that Punta Gorda is a "glorious" place to work.  It's also a glorious place to live, thanks in no small part to the folks at Urban Design/Growth Management.

Next up:  a visit to the Punta Gorda Police Department.

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