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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Dec. 5, 201905:10 AM EST

Mendenhall Report: Renew Arlington revision coming in early 2020

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Business owners and city officials are working on an agreement to provide full reimbursement for the cost of complying with new zoning rules.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

Commercial property owners in Arlington are close to a deal with the city to reimburse all costs associated with compliance with recently adopted zoning rules.

Mike Anania, owner of CAM Automotive at 5921 Arlington Road and president of the Arlington Business Society, said Monday he and other property owners are reviewing draft legislation that would revise the Renew Arlington Zoning Overlay to lift most of its financial impact.

Draft legislation proposed by the city Office of Economic Development and provided by Anania proposes creating a building permitting and administrative deviation process exclusive to existing businesses working toward compliance with the new overlay standards.

District 1 City Council member Joyce Morgan, who represents Arlington, said she intends to file the legislation in early 2020. 

Arlington is one of the city’s earliest suburbs. It developed in the 1950s, after the Mathews Bridge opened over the St. Johns River from Downtown.

Office of Economic Development Director Kirk Wendland said during an Oct. 31 Renew Arlington workshop that the goal is to give existing commercial property owners “a more user-friendly way” of working through the permitting process. 

“We really weren’t necessarily looking for a way to be able to make a phone call and move it to the top of the list. What we were looking for was a modified permitting process limited to the Renew Arlington CRA boundary, being limited to those things outlined in the overlay,” Wendland said during the Oct. 31 meeting.

Council passed Ordinance 2019-0239-E on June 25 approving the overlay that included commercial property requirements for landscaping buffers, building and signage height and fencing materials on existing buildings, as well as building setback, finishes and frontage design standards for new commercial development.

Targeting blight

The updated zoning is designed to combat blight in Arlington and create uniformity in the building codes to attract new development.

Three major business corridors will be impacted by the overlay changes: University Boulevard from the Arlington Expressway to Fort Caroline Road; Merrill Road from University Boulevard to Interstate 295; and a section of Arlington Road from University Boulevard to Rogero Road.

The requirements can vary among the five “character areas” outlined in the overlay.

If approved by Council and Mayor Lenny Curry, the latest overlay revision would create a Renew Arlington Design Review team to ensure all property redesigns meet the mandatory overlay compliance standards for commercial signage, property fencing, landscaping, buffering and off-street parking.

The draft bill addresses what property owners in the overlay have argued is a problem since final details were released in May —  compliance improvements on many properties would trigger a 10-set review with the city. 

Under the existing building code, if a commercial property undergoes a major renovation greater than or equal to 50% of its assessed value, the buildings on the property would be subject to compliance regulations. 

In the Renew Arlington revision, city officials are proposing to keep compliance updates in the overlay separate from the standard building codes. 

“Because the sites within the Renew Arlington Zoning Overlay boundaries are generally smaller in size and present a unique challenge to meet mandatory compliance elements … due to the history of road widening and in some instances a change of use in the area from single family residential to office, retail and service establishment, a select group of Planning and Development Department staff professionals have been chosen to review proposed site designs without triggering a 10-set review,” the bill states.

The bill gives the power to appoint the review team to city Planning and Development Director Bill Killingsworth. Its members would include a:

• City landscape architect.

• Planning services manager.

• Zoning administrator.

• Senior traffic technician.

• Other officials as deemed necessary by the director.

Anania said landscape architect, engineering and design services necessary to determine compliance will cost more than materials and labor.

The bill also would authorize the economic development office to provide site schematic design assistance to overlay property owners at no cost. The program would allow applicants to use a designer contracted by the Renew Arlington CRA or hire their own design professional.

The review team also will consider any administrative deviations requested in the overlay to bring the majority of a property into compliance. 

Compliance grant

Missing are the compliance grant program’s final parameters.

City officials first outlined an effort in an Oct. 8 workshop to alter the proposed grant to reimburse all costs related to compliance and again Oct. 31.

Although the final grant numbers are not included in the draft legislation, a full reimbursement program appears to be gaining traction.

According to the city Office of Economic Development, the most recent estimated cost to bring the estimated 125 Arlington commercial properties into compliance is $7.33 million. That’s including the cost to update signage, fencing and landscaping, plus architectural design fees. 

The grant would pull the money from the Renew Arlington Community Redevelopment Area Fund over the next six fiscal years.

The city projects 5% revenue growth in the fund through fiscal year 2024-25, which would bring its balance to an estimated $8.96 million. 

Wendland said the fund should be able to handle all the compliance claims, but it would leave fewer dollars for other improvements in the Renew Arlington CRA.

This is a change in position by the economic development office since September when Wendland said it would not be feasible for the CRA to pay the total cost for every business needing improvements.

The level of assistance that will be offered to property owners has evolved along with the negotiations. The name of the assistance program has been rebranded from a facade grant to a compliance grant.

When Council approved the overlay, Morgan and Office of Economic Development officials said the program could provide a 2-to-1 match, allowing business owners to apply for up to $20,000 if they invest $10,000 to comply with the standards. 

A 3-to-1 match later was floated as a possible compromise. 

Wendland said Oct. 31 that if the grant covers all improvement costs, it would only reimburse materials, design and labor to help the property owner reach the minimum compliance standard. 

For example, if property owners decide to install vinyl as opposed to wood fencing — the minimum quality called for in the overlay — they would be responsible for the additional costs.  

The bill leaves the window unchanged for property owners to reach compliance: Dec. 31, 2024, or five years plus 90 days from the day the grant program becomes effective.

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