GREEN COVE SPRINGS – A new home will be built on Lewis Street in Green Cove Springs whether the neighbors want it there or not.
The council voted 4-0 – with council member Pam Lewis recusing herself – to accept the land use interpretation that a property containing multiple lots can be returned to 50-foot “lots of record” and have homes that conform to R-1 zoning built on the properties.
The bulk of the discussion at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Green Cove Springs City Council centered around an issue placed on the agenda at the request of Lewis at the May 1 meeting.
The issue is that a lot that previously housed a large 50-year-old home had been split up and sold. The R-1 zoning that the city adopted in that area about 40 years ago, however, would not allow a lot that size to have a dwelling placed on the property. What Lewis and her neighbors took issue with, though, is the fact that the smaller, 50-foot wide lot is a lot of record, meaning it is one of the original lots from the original layout of Green Cove Springs. According to City Attorney Jim Arnold this designation also allows the lot to be returned to that lot of record and have a house built as long as that house conforms to all other standards, such as yard size and square footage, spelled out in R-1 zoning.
At the May 1 meeting, Lewis, her husband and a couple of their neighbors spoke against building smaller houses on smaller lots saying it would lower the value of their riverfront properties. Some residents went as far as to say that if this house were to be built it would ruin their neighborhood.
“It’s very upsetting to people that have invested a lot of money in their properties and we’re very concerned about our property values,” Lewis said at that meeting. “I know a lot of people are upset, I’m upset about it, I live in this neighborhood so I have a vested interest in this as well.”
Lewis asked Arnold to look more closely at the situation and determine whether or not the lot of record would actually trump the R-1 zoning that would prohibit building on a 50-foot wide lot and return with that information at Tuesday’s meeting.
Development Services Director Janis Fleet led the discussion citing her own research into the issue and findings locally where homes were being built on 45-foot wide lots. According to Fleet, it is becoming fashionable to build nice homes on smaller lots to keep costs down and eliminate yard maintenance.
“Fortunately, or unfortunately, that’s the trend,” Fleet said.
Fleet said that it was her opinion that properties like the one on Lewis Drive should be allowed to go back to lots of record, as that seems to be the standard for the way things like this are dealt with.
Following Fleet’s introduction, Arnold got into his research. Arnold started by citing his sources, saying that at a recent municipal law conference he inquired into the issue with anyone who would hear him out. He also said he spoke with Brenna Durden, the city attorney for Atlantic Beach who has done work as an outside counsel for the city when they needed third-party legal advice.
From his findings, lots of record are to be upheld unless there is specific code language that specifies otherwise. Durden advised that Atlantic Beach has included a provision to prevent this specific thing from happening, preventing lots that have been combined from being broken back down. Arnold said, though, that while Atlantic Beach and other municipalities have these provisions, Green Cove and most other places do not.
The owner of the lot in question, Steve Santorsola, spoke after Arnold, saying that he bought a property with the understanding that he could put a home there, and doesn’t understand why anyone would want to prevent that.
“We ask that we be granted the ability to build a home, our home, in this neighborhood to become one with this community,” Santorsola said.
Second to speak during public comment was Rosalind Arnold, the realtor who sold the lots and said she understood that a lot of record can be built on as long as the home meets all other R-1 requirements.
“Before I sell anything I go check it out,” she said. “I would never want to sell somebody something that he couldn’t use it for what he intended to buy it for.”
After hearing the report, council members seemed to agree with city staff and Council member Mitch Timberlake made a motion to accept the report and allow the land use interpretation. Council member Van Royal seconded the motion.
Though the council seemed at ease with the issue, Lewis spoke up before a vote could be taken with her comments.
“The issue here is not the size of the homes that are going to be built there,” Lewis said. “The home that was originally built there 50-something years ago was a nice home, and it was spread over a much larger portion of the property and it was that way for 50 years and our codes talk about non-conforming. It’s very concerning to me that you can suddenly go back to a lot of record from 100 years ago when something has been used in a different way for 50 years.”
Lewis continued, having abandoned her argument from the May 1 meeting that building on the 50-foot lot would lower property values in the neighborhood, hers included. She instead focused on her opinion that since the lot of record preceded the large home that the neighbors had gotten used to, it should render smaller homes on smaller lots to be non-conforming uses of the property.
“We were accustomed to a large home, however disheveled it was, being on that property,” Lewis said. “Nobody ever envisioned that there would be 50-foot lots there.”
Lewis said she disagrees with the city attorney, and that she considers the 50-foot lot of record to be non-conforming. She then moved on to her opinions on Royal’s question at the previous meeting as to whether or not Lewis would recuse herself from the vote based on her personal interest in the issue, specifically comments about property values being affected.
“I was, basically, asked to recuse myself because I live in the neighborhood,” she said. “Just because I live in a neighborhood means I can’t represent the people in my neighborhood because I own property there? That would be like Van not being able to vote on any of the redevelopment that we have on Walnut Street because he owns property there.”
Lewis then went on to further push her point that she shouldn’t have to recuse herself by citing that the realtor who sold the properties, Rosalind Arnold, being the wife of the city attorney and business partner of Royal.
“I realize this is a small town and it gets complicated,” she said. “But I’m asking myself, ‘Why am I recusing myself?’ I mean, the whole thing is complicated. I would prefer, even though Jim is probably completely right, I would prefer an opinion from a different legal person.”
Royal responded by asking her to recuse herself not only because she owns property near the lot in question, but because at the last meeting she said that she personally believed that she might see a decrease in her property values because of this. Royal, who recuses himself from at least one agenda item at most meetings, said that recusal is only necessary for a person who stands to gain or lose financially based on the outcome of a vote.
Following more back and forth between Lewis and Royal, with Arnold, again, citing his conversations with outside counsel about the issue in response to Lewis’ request for a second legal opinion.
Eventually, newly-appointed Vice Mayor Steven Kelley spoke up in support of the staff report, saying that it would be irresponsible to deny Santorsola from building before moving on to comments on the future of land use in the growing city.
“There’s not any new land, obviously, but there’s new interest, and more and more interest,” Kelley said. “We’re going to see more of this where there’s nothing to buy, but people are realizing they have multiple lots within a piece of property here.”
Members of council started moving toward the vote with Lewis still mulling over whether or not to recuse herself from the vote.
“The thing that concerns me about recusing myself is I don’t want to set a precedence,” she said. “Think about that, if you live in a neighborhood, every time you vote you may increase or decrease your property values. I thought that’s why we were elected.”
Arnold said the situation she described would be conjecture where the person voting wouldn’t have a specific interest in issues that may or may not change property values. In this case, Lewis had, at the last meeting, expressed specific interest that she thought this would lower property values if passed.
“Well, I have a pretty good idea of where this vote is going anyway so I’m just going to recuse myself,” Lewis said.
After she had made her decision the vote was taken and passed 4-0.