In 2002, the voters of Cocoa Beach passed by referendum several changes to the City Charter. Building heights throughout the City were reduced to 45 feet, and significantly, how building height is measure was changed to the “crown of the abutting road.” Allowable density for transient accommodations and residential housing were also reduced to 28 units per acre and 10 units per acre respectively.
One could sum up the sentiment of the supporters of these changes as one of concern of over-development and change in character of Cocoa Beach to something else. Miami Beach is often used as the possible undesirable outcome of unrestricted development.
Looking back over the last 15 years we can confidently say that this anti-development campaign was successful; new development and re-development came to a screeching halt. In fact, there has not been a single structure of any meaningful taxable value added to the tax rolls of Cocoa Beach since 2001.
Half a generation later, the residents of Cocoa Beach need to assess what the unintended consequences of the development restrictions were and if these consequences are still an acceptable trade off to limiting development or redevelopment of any kind.
While areas very similar to Cocoa Beach, such as Cape Canaveral and Avon by the Sea to our North, as well as unincorporated County, Satellite Beach, Indian Harbor Beach and even Melbourne Beach to our South added a many hundreds of millions of dollars of new taxable property to their tax rolls, Cocoa Beach added nothing! Allowing reasonable construction did not change the character of any of our neighboring cities. Ask yourself honestly if the 65 foot Homewood Suites or the buildings at Solana Lakes & Shores in Cape Canaveral or the condos south of 16th street make you feel like you are on Miami Beach.
We all know that the cost of services increase every year. All infrastructure deteriorates. Much of our municipal, and much of our privately owned infrastructure, dates from the 1950s and 1960s – it is at the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced. For municipal infrastructure, it takes tax revenues to pay for these things. Cocoa Beach’s budget – recently published – has a list of approximately $45 million in needed capital projects (budgeted) and deferred capital projects (i.e. things we really need but don’t have funds to pay for).
Simply put, there are two ways to pay for these things; either increase tax rates (which the Commission has had to do the last two years) or encourage some new/re development, which generates an immediate boost to City coffers and reduces, and can potentially eliminate, the need to raise tax rates (and possibly even reduce tax rates).
The proposed Ocean Dunes project in downtown Cocoa Beach is a great example. The empty dirt lot that has been used for parking and as a toilet for rowdy visitors from Central Florida since the storm damaged property there was demolished in 2004 is on the tax rolls for $720,000. For the approximate 0.5% that the City generates in property tax it gets $3,500; per year. Along comes a local Cocoa Beach developer that wants to build a low/mid-rise condominium; 4 habitable floors over a parking area; just like so many other mid-rise buildings throughout Cocoa Beach and our area North and South. (Note: high-rise is defined as buildings over 85 feet by many standards). In order to build a flood safe development per FEMA requirements by putting living floors over parking (and to not build an unsightly parking garage next to the building maxing out the footprint) the structure would measure to 68 feet (but really only 62 feet from average grade – how 90% of municipalities measure height).
In exchange for allowing 20 more feet of height, the City of Cocoa Beach gets what? Well the 25 proposed units would likely go on tax rolls for an estimated $650,000 per unit, or $16,250,000. At a tax millage of 0.5% that would generate approximately $81,000 per year for the City. But it gets better; that property is in the CRA so the incremental 0.5% tax that would normally go to the County stays in Cocoa Beach, generating another $81,000 per year. Better yet, that $162,000 per year can be bonded by the City to over 20 years to generate $2.5 million today. A single low/mid-rise condominium (that would be 10 feet lower than the building next to it) is enough to make a nearly 40% down-payment on the planned new City hall.
Why are the current development restrictions preventing any new development or re-development? First, the cost of land in Cocoa Beach for redevelopment is very high; anywhere from $1 million to upwards of $3 million per acre.
Second; the height restriction as it is currently measured compounds the challenge presented by land cost because on many properties 45 feet measured from the crown of the abutting road does not allow for the construction even at our very restricted densities. This makes redevelopment economically infeasible. Keep in mind that the Ocean Dunes parking lot has been vacant for 13 years; there is a reason for this.
This gets technical but bear with me. In flood prone areas throughout the US, including all coastal areas in Florida, FEMA sets risk ratings by designating Flood Zones, but also designating Base Flood Elevations (“BFE”). You cannot build anything new below the BFE – FEMA and building Codes won’t allow it. If you have a building with habitable floor below this elevation your flood rates are astronomically high – and FEMA is know to move these lines from time to time creating future uncertainty for any building developed in Flood Zones. Depending on where you are in Cocoa Beach, there can be up to a 10-foot difference in elevation between the FEMA BFE and the crown of the abutting road. Since you have to build above the FEMA BFE, you lose this difference in height in your building envelope; so 45 feet in Cocoa Beach is not 45 feet from average grade; it might be as low as 35 feet on certain sites. The International Palms Site is a good example; BFE for this site is 14 feet, but the crown of A1A is approximately 6 feet. If you need to then build above parking to make the building Flood resistant on the coast, you cannot even build 3 floors above parking; and you cannot even achieve the allowable 10 units per acre that we currently allow. The combination of these factors kills any development; which is perfectly illustrated by the complete lack of any construction in Cocoa Beach in half a generation.
As a City we have a revenue problem that needs to be addressed. As an owner of property in Cocoa Beach not protected by Save Our Homes, this is a concern to me and many others that have been hit by annual 5% to 10% increases in property values. I also want Cocoa Beach to have the resources it needs to continue to improve and pay for needed repairs, without changing the character of the Best Little City on Earth. No one wants Cocoa Beach to look like Miami Beach (not that this even realistically possible under any circumstances). But we have to address the fact that running a City and making needed repairs to 70 year old infrastructure costs money and someone needs to pay for it.
I’m a proponent of generating additional revenues by allowing property owners reasonable use of the property by allowing some sensible low/mid-rise re-development. There are some opportunities for re-development and most of them lie in the Redevelopment Districts designated by the City Commission. These areas, that make up only 13% of the City, are mostly commercial and high-density residential in their character; and separated from our majority residential areas.
After 15 years, it is time again to have a transparent and non-emotional discussion about our Charter imposed restrictions to see if it makes sense to allow some smart low/mid-rise redevelopment in specific areas of our City. In the end, the voters have to decide this issue. Why not give them the chance to do so?
– Tom Hermansen