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New building standards could beautify Cape, boost tax base; Ordinance given unanimous OK

By Staff | May 14, 2008

New architectural design standards and upcoming ordinances that would revise landscaping and lighting for commercial projects will help developers gain confidence in dealing with the city and boost Cape Coral’s tax base, supporters of the legislation say.

“I think its going to have a positive impact,” Planning and Zoning Board member Walter Fluegel said of the architectural standards ordinance unanimously passed at Monday’s City Council meeting. “When you couple together the design standards with the forthcoming landscape code revisions, it will add to beautification of the city on a citywide basis.”

Fluegel pointed out that the recently passed boom years were difficult on developers, the Planning and Zoning Board and the City Council because there were no guidelines to use when approving or disapproving a project based on how it looks.

“With all of the growth that was coming at us, I know we struggled with coming up with a logical and coherent set of standards to apply to non-residential projects,” he said.

The new standards give the industry a “sure set of rules to work within” that should make developers confident that their projects will pass muster when using the city code as a framework. Fluegel said many developers spend countless hours designing their projects aesthetic appearance and figuring out how to pitch it to legislators.

“Then they get to planning and zoning and City Council and we say, ‘We don’t like that,'” he added. “All that effort, from their prospective, is in vain.”

Knowing that a new development will not be turned down because of personal taste could also inspire more projects in the future because of the consistent approach that elected officials will take with them.

After members of the Northwest Neighborhood Association took issue with boxy developments in its area of the city several years ago, Councilmember Dolores Bertolini took up the mantle in 2006 to push for new standards for architectural design, lighting and landscaping. The proposal spent months in the city Planning Department and nearly came to a vote last year.

“We really started to hone it down in 2007, and it was slated to come before council in August (of that year),” Bertolini said Tuesday.

But 15 minutes before the session began, the councilwoman pulled the plug after hearing numerous complaints from the building industry.

“It really hurt to do that,” Bertolini said.

Cape Coral Construction Industry Association Director Patti Schnell said Tuesday that some construction firms have been worried about the new standards causing a hardship on their companies, but overall the industry, city staff and elected officials now appear to be on the same page. When she and other industry representatives walked into the first of nine meetings on the ordinance, Schnell said staff and neighborhood groups thought they were there “to water this down.” But as time went along it seemed like the sides all began to agree with one another.

“(New developments) have to have architectural planning and have a theme, not the hodgepodge that we have now in the city,” Bertolini said of the new ordinance’s main provisions.

“We all want nice buildings so the best thing we can do is work with them and develop something that everyone can live with and I think we have done that,” Schnell added.

She credited design professionals and builders from the private sector who donated their time to work on the ordinances with ensuring that the new code does not adversely impact an already highly-stressed sector of the economy.

“They are the real heroes in this situation. The ordinance in its original form would have created undue hardships on the industry,” Schnell said. “When you get the industry involved in this, it is win-win for everyone.”

Fluegel also sees the ordinance as a way to close the property taxation gap, which is heavily reliant on residential properties. He believes that the new standards will raise commercial property values as similar ordinances did in other Florida cities such as Boca Raton and Coral Springs.

“We’ve never built value in our commercial base by making it look better,” Fluegel said. “It is mutually beneficial and both sides are assured positive outcomes.”

Though originally set to be implemented next year, council decided to put the new rules into effect on Dec. 1. Bertolini said she plans to bring the landscaping and lighting ordinances to a vote by the end of the summer or early fall.