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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Oct. 11, 201805:10 AM EST

Signs of concern in Arlington amid plans to improve neighborhood

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Business owners say new sign rules and other changes could cost them thousands.
by: David Cawton Staff Writer

A plan to improve Arlington that would create new rules for road signs and landscaping isn’t sitting well with a group of property and business owners.

If approved by City Council, a new zoning overlay would create a set of standards for properties in the Renew Arlington Community Redevelopment Area.

The city has five CRAs, which are special funding districts created to spur economic development in blighted areas of cities or counties.

In 2015, council members approved the creation of the Renew Arlington CRA that includes property along three corridors in Arlington: 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 city Planning and Development Department, council members, business organizations and property owners are working on a final zoning overlay.  

When adopted, about 1,300 properties will be affected.

According to the proposed changes for Arlington, properties less than 5 acres can’t have road signs taller than 6 feet, and pole-mounted signs, billboards, animated and other digital signage would be prohibited.

Bill Cesery owns two strip malls along Merrill Road. He said he believes provisions tied to landscaping, signage and other standards will create unnecessary financial hardship for property owners.  

“We support this 100 percent, but we feel like they didn’t take any of our advice into consideration when they put this draft together,” said Cesery of the CRA advisory board.

He said the latest draft, updated Sept. 12, addressed only a few of the two dozen recommendations he and other stakeholders offered the Renew Arlington Advisory Board.

“The draft of the overlay was a shock to the business community,” he said.

One of Cesery’s sticking points is the change to signage.

According to the draft, properties less than 5 acres can’t have road signs taller than 6 feet.

Pole-mounted signs, billboards, animated and other digital signage also would be prohibited.

“There’s not a single sign in view that would meet that standard,” said Cesery of Merrill Road.

While there is some property signage that could comply, most signs are taller than 6 feet and feature some of the elements banned in the new zoning overlay.

Another proposed change concerns fencing and landscaping requirements.

According to the proposed new standards, woven metal fencing – a material often used to contain or hide large dumpsters – would be banned and replaced with whatever building material matches the shopping center that is using the dumpsters.

Those dumpsters also would need to be 25 feet from residential properties, which Cesery said isn’t possible because of the area’s tightly developed neighborhoods.

Landscaping is another issue. Cesery said he’ll lose a row of parking at his Lake Lucina Shopping Center at 6132 Merrill Road because the standards require a 4-foot landscaping buffer on properties fronting the main corridors like Merrill Road and University Boulevard.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think we need some consistent landscaping, but that’s a lot of parking to lose and a lot of money to spend just to create room for what will be shrubs,” he said.

Lake Lucina Shopping Center also would need a new 6-foot wall and additional landscape buffering at the back of the property because it abuts homes.

Under the proposed overlay, property owners like Cesery would have five years to make those changes or face penalties or fines.

“If they keep this document the way it is now, it’s going to cost me at least $120,000 and that’s without getting formal bids,” he said.

While there are provisions that allow for administrative deviations or exceptions, Cesery said those should be used sparingly.

“If the result is every property needs an exception to stay in business, then what’s the point?” he said.

Impact on business owners

Individual business owners also fear they will be affected.

Mike Anania owns Cam Automotive along Arlington Road. As the head of the Arlington Business Society, he represents 56 business owners

He echoed Cesery’s concerns over signage, landscaping and fencing requirements that would need to be addressed within five years.

The Jacksonville City Council created the Renew Arlington Community Redevelopment Area in 2015.

“For some folks within the business community, it’s not quite as cost-prohibitive, but I know others who won’t survive if they have to make these changes because the landlords are going to pass that cost along in some way,” he said.

Anania said he believes people will close their shops or sell their properties instead.

“That will create an area with more blight, in my opinion,” he said.

To comply with signage, landscaping and other requirements within the five-year deadline, Anania said he’ll need to spend at least $50,000.

His automotive repair business also could be subject to more changes.

The new overlay would ban shops from having open bay doors that provide access to work or storage areas from facing Merrill and Arlington roads and University Boulevard.

Those changes are triggered when a business decides to undertake major renovations.

He said he didn’t have an estimate for those alterations, other than “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“There is not the economic climate in Arlington to afford that kind of outlay,” Anania said. “In business, you pass along your costs to your customers in either higher prices or higher rent.”

Anania said he supports the CRA and the investments it could mean for roads and other infrastructure needs. He just wants to see some changes to the zoning overlay.

“There are parts of this overlay that we love, that we need to have in order to get rid of the blight, but some of the punitive items in here need to go,” he said.

Impact of a CRA

Revenue generated from increased property values within the Renew Arlington CRA boundary will be dedicated to economic development, housing, infrastructure and other projects that benefit the area.

According to the 2015 Renew Arlington CRA Redevelopment Plan, $59 million in additional funding could be generated to improve roadways, bury utilities and improve stormwater infrastructure.

The idea is that those improvements will entice new businesses to open, and generate additional revenue for the area.

The 19-member City Council comprises a board of directors with oversight over the CRAs, with the council president serving as chair.

Two of Jacksonville’s five CRAs are under the purview of the Downtown Investment Authority.

Results vary.

This year, the Renew Arlington CRA will have a $755,000 budget. The KingSoutel Crossing CRA has a budget of $702,000.

The most successful CRA in Duval County continues to be the Jacksonville International Airport CRA, which has a budget of $11.65 million this year.

The area has benefited from companies like Amazon.com Inc. and Mercedes-Benz USA, which have opened or expanded facilities in the area.

What’s next?

The Renew Arlington CRA Advisory Board began working with the Planning and Development Department and other stakeholders soon after the CRA was established in 2015.

The advisory board comprises seven members with ties to the Arlington area. Matt Tuohy is the chair. He also is the director of aeronautics for the Jacksonville University Davis College of Business.

Revenue generated from the Renew Arlington Community Redevelopment Area could be used to bury power lines, like these along Merrill Road.

He said Wednesday that the advisory board does a lot of the leg work for the actual CRA board, especially when it comes to creating the zoning overlay.

In September, the advisory board adopted a resolution recommending the CRA board pass it as is.  

He said he’s aware of some of the issues.

“The public has had input the entire time and they’ve offered their recommendations and concerns at those public meetings,” he said.  “We’ve tried to incorporate those recommendations into this document.”

Tuohy said the provisions outlined in the overlay are there to make Arlington more aesthetically pleasing.

“We understand the financial concerns and that’s why we’re going to have a facade grant program to help,” Tuohy said.

“I’m not sure what the final dollar figure will be, but it will be a 50 percent match up to a certain amount,” he said.

He said that grant program should incentivize business and property owners to make the necessary changes.

“Some of the bigger changes, like the open bays, aren’t triggered unless these businesses decide to undertake major renovations,” he said. “If they keep doing business as they have been, then they don’t need to make those changes.”

He said the five-year requirement for signage, landscaping and fencing changed because the CRA sunsets in 20 years, which is a decade less than most CRAs in Florida.

“We’re already four years in now, so by the time these changes need to be made permanent, we’re halfway through.”

District 1 council member Joyce Morgan said she’s been close to the project since being elected to council in 2015.

“As you know, every area in Jacksonville is unique, and Arlington is unique to itself,” she said.

“I’ve tried to just be there for everyone, to hear their concerns and to offer solutions” she said.

She said that change is hard for some, especially when that change comes with financial burden.

“I don’t want our community to get so set in their ways that we can’t make any progress,” she said. “We’ve already come a mighty long way and we can’t stop now.”

She said the Renew Arlington CRA board will take its time in finalizing the zoning overlay.

“This isn’t a done deal,” she said. “We want our community to continue speaking up so we have something that’s right for Arlington.”

Cesery said he and other Arlington stakeholders will continue to push for changes, “hopefully, before it gets approved.

“We just want something that is inclusive and something that’s going to promote businesses in the area, not scare them away,” he said.


 

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