ocal leaders continue to wrestle with the tough question of how to protect quality of life for everyone in the single-family home district as larger homes with more bedrooms, more occupants, more cars, more everything continue to replace small original Mackle homes.
A variety of views were on display at the Village Council’s Tuesday, November 12, meeting, and local leaders promised to continue working on the issue:
Council member Jim Taintor presented specific proposals for requiring additional on-property parking and moving pools, air conditioners and other potentially disruptive features further away from neighbors – while at the same time Council member Ed London questioned designing laws centered on small Mackles that will soon be extinct.
Meanwhile, Mayor Frank Caplan stressed the problem isn’t just one of “Mackles vs. Mansions,” and wondered if there are simply some problems zoning laws aren’t going to be able to fix.
“It may be there’s not a solution for every problem,” Caplan remarked. “You can’t always solve all the problems.”
But Taintor noted residents spoke loud and clear during a pair of workshops – telling the Council their main concerns are the scale of homes and how that impacts privacy, parking shortages and run-off from adjacent elevated lots – and therefore local leaders owe it to residents to try to make improvements. “We have to try, and we have to solve the problems,” he said.
Council members said they have every intention of doing so, and the process got underway on the 12th as local leaders shared their thoughts and also heard from Building, Zoning and Planning Director Jud Kurlancheek and three local architects.
Mackles vs. Mansions
One new fundamental question emerged courtesy of London: should the Village be focusing so much on how zoning rules impact small Mackles when those homes will likely go the way of the dinosaurs in the near future? “We’re worrying about Mackles that aren’t going to be here,” he said. “What’s the future of this island? It’s not the Mackles.”
Kurlancheek confirmed Mackles are being demolished and replaced by large homes at a steady rate, and two local architects agreed new construction, not remodeling, is the wave of the future:
Deborah DeLeon of Village Architects noted, “We have to move toward the future and what our houses are going to be very soon;” while Willy Borroto from Borroto Architects said, “We should be more involved in finding out the relationship between the new houses. We are making everyone bend over backwards to satisfy things that are not going to be there in five or 10 years.
“Take into consideration the new Key Biscayne. Let’s address the future.”
But as Caplan pointed out, the major concern – privacy – will linger whether the local leaders are talking “Mackles verses Mansions or Mansions verses Mansions.”
To that end, the Council discussed a variety of suggestions aimed at protecting the basic privacy a homeowner should enjoy in their own house or backyard.
Proposed setback changes
A few of Taintor’s suggestions deal with setbacks, including those for swimming pools and pool equipment, decks and screened rooms, and heating/ventilation/air conditioning systems.
Taintor said his ideas are based on not only privacy, but noise and aesthetic nuisance concerns. “The problem with those side setbacks, they’ve cluttered them up with everything,” he remarked.
But Kurlancheek recommended against most of the items, telling the Council they wouldn’t help with the concerns and would make it harder to design houses on the island’s smallest lots.
“I get very few complaints about this,” he added.
He said going from the current 6.5-foot to Taintor’s proposed 7.5-foot setback for pools, decks and screened enclosures would “not make one bit of difference” for adjacent property owners, but would cut deeply into the space available for such structures on 75-by-100-square-foot lots.
Kurlancheek also opposed requiring HVAC equipment to be set back 7.5 feet, rather than the current 4. Again, he determined the change would not help neighbors and would cut into small lots; furthermore, it could force architects to design homes with an indent to accommodate the equipment, creating unusual floor plans and increasing costs of columns and tie beams.
The indented space could also cause noise from the equipment to reverberate, actually making noise issues worse, he added; or the regulation could force equipment into the rear or front yard, where it would be unsightly for everyone.
He added the Village already requires all HVAC equipment to be screened, which does provide a buffer in terms of noise and aesthetics; and said he’ll look into requiring additional sound deadening. However, when London suggested requiring noise from the equipment be measured at under 60 decibels, Kurlancheek said most new systems are already rated at that level.
Kurlancheek also suggested rejecting a proposal to set back pool pumps, heaters, etc. 5 feet, up from 2 feet, for the same reasons.
Other privacy options
London and Taintor had additional suggestions to protect privacy.
Taintor proposed removing the 15-foot rear setback requirement for homes in the center of the Village; Kurlancheek agreed but suggested keeping the setback for the first floor – otherwise, the change could remove up to 500 square feet, or 14 percent, of allowed air conditioned space – but stating that walls facing the rear property line cannot have windows.
London’s suggestions had a similar theme.
He said the main source of privacy complaints is homes that are back-to-back neighbors: people can see into each other’s yards, pools, etc., and that causes unease.
Therefore, he said, moving homes forward on the lot – two 25-foot rear setbacks back-to-back would create a 50-foot buffer, he noted – is the way to go.
Caplan, who remarked, “There is real merit in that,” said the Village could get there either by making the setback mandatory or providing design bonuses – i.e. additional square footage toward reaching the Village’s cap – for homes with larger back yards.
London said he feels making the rule mandatory is the best option.
Meanwhile, London also suggested eliminating windows below 5 feet of elevation, noting that prevents the average person from glimpsing inside a home.
“You’re never going to have a big enough side yard setback to have privacy,” he argued. “The only way is to have windows high enough that you can’t peek in.”
New ideas for parking
Moving from the privacy issue to another frequent complaint – lack of parking – Kurlancheek recommended against Taintor’s suggestion to require one parking spot per bedroom for all single-family homes. He noted most homes on the island’s interior have two-car garages or carports and room for two more cars on their driveway; larger waterfront or canal-front homes have circular driveways that accommodate up to three vehicles.
With most interior homes maxing out at five bedrooms and considering the larger lots for homes on the water, he said, there is already adequate room for parking.
Kurlancheek said he also worries the requirement would force more garages rather than carports, and because garages are enclosed structures, they add to the massive appearance of local houses.
Besides, he noted, the rule wouldn’t be hard to get around: architects would simply label rooms – even those with closets and bathrooms – as something other than a bedroom.
“It will be a computer lab, it will be an office, it will be a study, it will be pixie dust – that’s the game the architects will play, and I can’t say, ‘It’s a bedroom, you’re lying to us,’” he said.
The architects who weighed in also opposed the requirement:
DeLeon, for one, said it would be hard to find room for five spots on a small lot. “These lots are very tight,” she said. “Do you want the front of the house to be a parking lot? That’s what you’d get, no landscaping.”
Caplan said parking may be one issue the Village just can’t fix. “It’s too small and there are too many cars; there is no magic wand on parking,” he remarked.
The final area of focus for Taintor involved retaining walls, and on that aspect, Kurlancheek was onboard with both of his suggestions.
First, the BZP Director agreed it is valuable to require a retaining wall for all construction sites, even if the property is graded to create a swale. He said the measure will do a better job of keeping rainwater onsite, easing a major concern of residents who live next to homes being built.
Kurlancheek also agreed the Village should require retaining walls of at least 6 inches above grade on the rear and sides of all new homes. “A retaining wall will provide a better solution to keeping the water on the property,” he stated.
Along with addressing the individual issues, the architects told the Council to take a big-picture approach to the zoning code.
Tom Weber of The Weber Studio thanked Taintor for bringing up new ideas, noting he agrees they deal with major concerns voiced by residents. However, he said the Council must make sure it is considering the interconnected nature of the zoning code and how changing one regulation can have unintended consequences elsewhere.
“You have to be very careful,” Weber said. “There is a cause and effect, and I think things need to be studied a bit more.”
Weber indicated he does think there are opportunities to make improvements, but urged the Council to study the issues more carefully before making any decisions. “We have to take these buildings and take programming and functionality and skew them together into something that looks better,” he said. “It’s complex.”
DeLeon, meanwhile, pushed for maintaining flexibility in the code.
“I think we want to be able to see flexibility in design and openness in design,” she said. “Just plucking things out of the code could limit that.”