Commissioners Voice Concerns About Affordable Housing Bill

A bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that creates new land development regulations to encourage creation of affordable housing raised as many questions as answers for St. Johns County commissioners.

Senior Assistant County Attorney Christine Valliere briefed commissioners on Senate Bill 102, which goes into effect July 1. The bill includes provisions that preempt local government authority on zoning, density and height requirements for some multi-family developments. Valliere said the new law, known as the Live Local Act, invests $811 million in several initiatives to expand housing availability, as well as down payment assistance programs, local government infrastructure grants and tax exemption benefits.

But the regulations also keep local governments from exercising land development authority for mixed-use residential projects in areas zoned commercial, industrial or mixed-use if 40% of the planned units are considered affordable under state law for at least 30 years, and as long as 65% of the development is residential in mixed-use developments.

In addition, affordable housing projects built under the rules are entitled to the highest density allowed in the county, currently 13 units per acre and at a height that is equal to the highest permitted for a commercial or residential development within one mile of the subject property or three stories, whichever is higher. All other state and local laws will apply.

While acknowledging the need for affordable and workforce housing in the county, commissioners and residents expressed concerns about the potential impact of the bill.

Commissioner Krista Joseph asked if the commercial property across from her home could have planned unit development with three-story residential units built there without commission approval.

“The statute doesn’t address PUD’s,” Valliere said. “We’re in conversations with the attorney for the Florida Housing Coalition. At this point the county’s position is PUDs are not part of this option.”

Valliere said an additional option for housing under the Live Local Act allows residential development on any parcel zoned commercial or industrial if at least 10% of the units are reserved for affordable housing. The option does not require a local land-use amendment; however, county commissioners can limit the circumstances in which it applies.

The loss of local control did not sit well with resident Doris Taylor.

“I’m stunned by this,” she said during the public comment period. “I think there’s going to be some major fallout; I think there’s going to be a lot of challenges. It is wrong on so many levels.”

Commission Chair Christian Whitehurst was also concerned with the implications of the bill.

“I think the residents expressed something I’ve been grappling with myself,” he said, but added the loss of local control was less desirable.

At Whitehurst’s prompting, commissioners instructed staff to research the issues and come back with more information.

“I just think I need to wrap my head around this a little more,” he said.