Changing Building Heights In Cocoa Beach- Yay or Nay?

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

24 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Gary Rubin December 1, 2017

    Time to move on, grow up and say “Yes”

    Just keep it limited.

  2. Apollo Corapi December 1, 2017

    I think that you are absolutely wrong. You want high rise buildings? Move to Miami. Cocoa Beach has maintained its character by being what it is. A low density area. I think it is perfectly wonderful the way it is. Let us not spoil it by the desire of money. That is the way most things get spoiled, greed.

    • Cecilia December 1, 2017

      Very well said.

    • Tom H December 1, 2017

      Apollo; No one – me included – is advocating for high-rise development in CB. The informed discussion pertains to allowing some sensible relaxation of the current restrictions that have resulted in Zero redevelopment, of any kind, for 15 years (i.e. since the restrictions were put in place). The discussion that needs to be had is; since we have had zero redevelopment and the City is not generating any additional revenue for millions in needed infrastructure projects, do we allow some relief under height restrictions (say 20 or so more feet) in specific areas of town, if it results in some redevelopment that generates millions of dollars to the city in new tax revenues.

  3. Sarah December 1, 2017

    Does Tom Hermansen live in Cocoa Beach ?? I believe he is the Hermansen that owns hotels here. Whos interest is he concerned with ?

    • Barb December 1, 2017

      Looked him up and he is described as a hotelier.. Special interests should have been part of his comments.

    • Tom H December 1, 2017

      Yes; my family and I have enjoyed living on Surf Drive for over 14 years. I both work and live here and am passionate about seeing Cocoa Beach achieve its potential.

      • DaveB December 3, 2017

        I assume you didn’t answer the second question in Sarah’s post because it’s true? You are in the business and have a vested interest in relaxing the height restriction?

        The irony is thick that you’re arguing for higher buildings, while you live on Surf drive… which if I’m not mistaken, is the only street left East of A1A, between 520 and 1st st South, that has single family dwellings on it.

  4. Francis Reardon December 1, 2017

    I absolutely agree with Apollo. Let these greedy developers go somewhere else.

  5. Kurt Tezel December 1, 2017

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with responsible development. The city should review each case by it’s merits and not establish arbitrary restrictions. Cocoa Beach is in absolutely no danger of turning into Miami beach or Las Vegas. We have many properties that fit the definition of urban blight. Re-developing these properties is only possible if we have a little latitude in the height restrictions.

    Cocoa Beach City Hall and the Police Department are in dire need of new facilities. Those that flatly oppose the lessening of the current building restrictions should consider where else the revenue can come from to address these and many other issues facing the city.

  6. Brian Costleigh December 1, 2017

    Do you want to live in a somewhat quaint Cocoa Beach or do you want to live in Metropolis Beach. I choose Cocoa Beach. Cocoa Beach is basically maxed out on development. There is only so much land available. When the land is fully used, you can’t expand. Unless you build up and if you say ok to 5-7 stories, it won’t be long before the same people cry foul and say your limiting us and we now want 7-9 stories, then 15 stories, then 30 and then we live in Miami. I am not knocking Miami because I personally like Miami Beach. But I live here in Cocoa Beach for a reason. I am against and will likely always be against changing the character of our town. And yes I said town because even though CB is a city, it still has the town feel which most people still enjoy and prefer. There are other ways to raise capital for the city rather than building building building. I personally would rather pay more taxes then allow skyscrapers to “increase revenues”. There are also, many many ways to get more people to visit cocoa beach without changing the character. I agree that Mr. Hermansen is self interest motivated and is not motivated by what is good for the people. And I will refer to him as Mr. Hermansen not out of respect but because I can’t call him Tom since referring to others on a first name basis conotates friendliness and I don’t believe he is town friendly. He wants to be friendly to his pocket book at the expense of the town residents. If the town council decides to allow higher and higher buildings, make sure it is allowed in the residential neighborhoods so I can build a 7 story house. Then I will sell it, make some really good money and move.

    • Tom H December 1, 2017

      Mr. Cosleigh, respecting your opinion I would only address one comment you made with respect to Cocoa Beach being “maxed out.” This missed the point that infrastructure depreciates and has a usefull life. So much of what we have in Cocoa Beach, was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, and much of it to a mediocre standard. Someone I know is fond of saying that Cocoa Beach’s architectural style is “Early Cinderblock.” While there are some vacant parcels in our City, there are numerous areas that are crying for redevelopment because it’s 60 year old and fully depreciated; twice over. Some good examples are the International Palms and the Days Inn. These buildings are “motels” built in the 1950s and crying for redevelopment; to modern standards. In order to encourage some such redevelopment, which can bring in millions of dollars to the City treasury, can we not discuss some “minor” relief to the current height restrictions which don’t even allow for a 3 story structure on some parcels due to the “crown of the abutting road” measurement standard?

  7. Ned Gaetano December 1, 2017

    leave the heigth as it is, the voters already voted for with a large majority. The only winner in raising the height are the developers.

    • Tom H December 1, 2017

      You may have missed my point. The winner in allowing some relaxation in height are all property owners in Cocoa Beach; via reduced need to raise taxes to pay for deferred maintenance – like sewer systems that don’t work. This is not a one dimensional argument – no redevelopment has repercussions. “Some” sensible redevelopment in limited areas can generate many millions of dollars in new taxes to the City, without changing the character of the City.

  8. Jeff Lewis December 1, 2017

    5 to 7 stories, especially with retail on first floor, Yes. We need to continue to get the tax base and hopefully will continue to improve the terrible sewer system running directly to the lagon.

  9. Evelyn December 1, 2017

    Cocoa Beach is one of the few beaches that has maintained its character and kept residents happy that they can walk to the beach. Do we need walkways over the road tor residents to get to the beach. that will be in the future if we allow big developers to buy and build their own private areas to the beach locking us out. Lets keep our beautiful area as is. No amusement parks, no high rise buildings. Keep the regular tourists coming. They love Cocoa Beach as is and will find another area to vacation if we ruin it.

  10. Shuggie December 1, 2017

    So there is no way to update buildings without building higher? Don’t make us a crappy Myrtle Beach. People like it here, only ones complaining are those who will benefit from it. You want a cleaner lagoon, make residents and business accountable and pay more for using pesticides and over watering. Use taxes appropriately instead of just making downtown cocoa beach look fancy. Don’t allow new construction east of A1A, to help with erosion and other environmental factors that come into play when planting new condos on the beach.

    • Oceanray December 2, 2017

      Shuggie, Of course there are many ways to update buildings without height increases….they are just not as profitable for the developer. Simply put, by adding anither 20 feet the developer makes ~$10m instead on ~$6M so they have notionally more incentive to build and more return on risk and investment.

      Also, as I read it, Mr H indicates giving govt millions of new tax dollars is a good thing. I dont agree. There is nothing inherently positive in providing govt millions of additional tax dollars for up front non specific purposes. I dont believe they are not obligated to use it in any specific way. As Mr. H points out he would recomnend they use the possibility of additional money to take out a loan and then pay interest then pay for upgrades rather than earmark money for specific items as it comes in to the accounts.

      Fundamentally this whole thing is a slippery slope argument. Govt has other options to raise revenue. This issue was only included in the city charter as local govt was deemed unreliable by constituents to manage this aspect of growth. They had to have ther hands tied. There is nothing to indicate this has changed. There are probably half a dozen other issues that need to be in charter. Perhaps that should be the next conversation. Having clear cut rules makes it easier for our representatives to do their very difficult jobs.

  11. Cblocal December 1, 2017

    Anyone that thinks the increase in taxes from raising height and density in Cocoa Beach will financially benefit the citizens is deluding themselves, or they have something to gain by this decision (developers). I know that at least two of the previous comments were from developers that don’t LIVE in Cocoa Beach.
    The strain on the infrastructure of the city, the increase in Police, Fire, and various other support services and personnel will overwhelm the small gains from property taxes. A big percentage of the taxes collected from hotels will go directly to the county to be divvied up throughout the county, and DO NOT stay exclusively in Cocoa Beach. This means that we absorb the “people” that visit, but we do not receive the taxes they are paying, further weighing down the police/fire and infrastructure. Crime rates rise as people increase—just a fact!
    I think the reason most people settled in Cocoa Beach instead of Miami Beach, West Palm Beach, Daytona Beach, Clearwater Beach, etc. is from the charm of having direct access to the ocean and actually being able to glimpse the ocean when driving down A1A. Once the land on the beach is developed, the incentive to be in Cocoa Beach lessens and there is no going back.
    The people spoke out strongly in 2002 and I hope they are not silent this time around! If you plan to live, raise children, and retire in Cocoa Beach you must decide if you want to allow it to be taken over by developers and those who stand to reap large financial benefits and then move on. They are trying to sell it as a WIN/WIN situation to the people of Cocoa Beach, but in reality, it is a WIN ONLY for developers as it was prior to 2002. Other cities in Florida have raised tax revenue without increasing height and density and these avenues should be explored. The west coast has been quite successful at doing this in towns in Pinellas County and various other counties.

    • Tom H December 5, 2017

      A few items that may need clarification:
      1) I and others that understand the code am raising the issue that 45 feet from measured from the crown of the road isn’t even low rise on some sites. It’s a building standard that gave zero forethought to (i) the contours of properties on the coast (ii) flood risk (iii) architectural design criteria to make something other than ugly flat roof buildings, and a host of other issues. 45 feet from the crown of the road doesn’t give you even a 25 foot building envelope on some properties; that’s not even 2 habitable floors by modern standards. The discussion is about allowing “sensible mid rise buildings” to current standards: i.e. say 5 or 6 stories total with 4 or 5 habitable floors, like the other mid rise structures that were built that are in town. No one is talking about 20+ story high rises found elsewhere.

      2) See the City budget. It has tens of millions in planned capital projects and deferred repairs. This is money for them to splurge, it’s money needed for stuff that is broken.

      3) I nor anyone else is talking about changing density; only reasonable relief to the non-sensical height restriction and how it’s measured. As properties are are redeveloped, replacing the same units with newer units does not change traffic or demand on services, it just increases the taxable value of what is replaced.

      4) you are correct, the people spoke in 2002, and now we see the impact of those results. What’s wrong with having the discussion to let the people revisit this important issue with new information now 15 years later.

  12. Tom Williamson December 2, 2017

    The worst thing that can happen to any town is for it’s citizenry to take the “I’ve got mine” attitude, that once they are here, nothing else should change. No growth, no forward thinking, no open mindedness, no increase in the tax base. It is a death knell
    for any community. If you do nothing, you are doing something, which is fostering decline and decay. For the past twenty years, this attitude has lead to zero growth in our beloved town. Yet, not surprisingly, expenses steadily increase, and the need for infrastructure improvements, both public and private, march on. It’s a downward spiral that must be turned around. The blight is here, and if we are not careful, it will only get worse.
    The immediate comparison to Miami is an old, worn out argument. None of us want that. What we do need however, is thoughtful, careful improvements to our town in the form of mid-size structures where appropriate, and improvement to existing buildings. If we do not increase the tax base, every citizen will pay one way or another, either through drastically increased taxes, or an eventual lack of services and continued decline of our ability to fund needed capital improvements.
    It’s time to take a sensible, measured approach to our growth so we can increase our tax base and fund the basic improvements that enticed you to want to move here in the first place.

  13. PadreDW2018 December 2, 2017

    We have lived in the area (Cape Canaveral & Cocoa Beach) for 25 years. We say high rises ruin the beach front in Kona, Hawaii and parts of the California coast. Keep high rises EAST of A1A. Protect the cute small beach town feel. Allow development but be like Santa Barbara, California, only allow development that blends in with and complements the current beach town look.

  14. DaveB December 3, 2017

    Let’s not forget traffic, which always is forgotten until it needs to be fixed. Traffic congestion isn’t linear with the increase in cars traveling. When we exceed A1A’s capacity to move the volume smoothly, it’ll break badly.
    Many more traffic lights will be needed because there won’t be breaks in traffic and people will be unable to get out of side streets and businesses. Likewise, that center lane for left turns will have to go for safety reasons and a raised median, divided highway will make it necessary to past your destination and do a u turn at the next light.
    Most every significant road in Orlando is like that now, thanks to their “growth”.
    Judge for yourself how close we are to “breaking” A1A.

  15. glomarrone December 15, 2017

    I attended the Charter Review Committee Meeting at City Hall. Most people present were for mid-rise buildings to be built here. Nor one person supported high rise. No developers want to build here because of the current restrictions. Taxes will only go up unless there is more commercial development in our city. there are vacant lots and enpty stores. We need to make some adjustments if we want Cocoa Beach to prosper in the future. I am for allowing mid-rise commercial buildings to be built here. .

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