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Tarpon Springs weighs new vision for Sponge Docks, 'SmartCode' zoning

TARPON SPRINGS — After some 18 months of work, Tarpon Springs officials are poised to vote on new land development regulations they hope will open redevelopment opportunities and lead to more attractive, walkable neighborhoods in the city's urban core.

Tuesday night the City Commission is scheduled to cast the first of two required votes on documents with names that may mean little to the general public: a "Special Area Plan" that lays out a future vision for the Sponge Docks and the city's Community Redevelopment Area, and a "SmartCode" that assigns new land development rules to those areas.

A second commission vote is scheduled later this month.

The city has briefed residents and affected property owners about the proposals at prior meetings, but the next two commission meetings may be the last time residents can comment before the changes are made.

The most complicated proposal for people who aren't experts in urban planning to understand may be the SmartCode. A model land development ordinance originally created by a private company, it now is available for any local government to use and adapt to its own needs.

In most places, development of land is governed by zoning and land use laws. Anything built on the land has to match the zoning category — residential, industrial or commercial, for example — assigned to the property.

But over time, planners decided conventional zoning segmented communities and promoted urban sprawl because people had to live at a distance from where they worked. Zoning kept residential areas removed from industrial or commercial areas. The need for highways that could move traffic quickly grew.

The SmartCode, its advocates say, reduces urban sprawl by allowing mixed uses in the same area, so people can live, work, shop and play without leaving their neighborhood. Instead of focusing laser-like on land uses, the SmartCode governs the form a neighborhood takes by regulating lot sizes, building heights, parking lots, road networks and such to create self-contained, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods.

According to Tarpon officials, local governments around the country have utilized the SmartCode or similar land development models for certain neighborhoods, their downtowns or the whole community. In Florida, they include Cape Coral, Davie, Fort Myers Beach and Broward County.

In Tarpon Springs' case, the SmartCode will be the regulatory tool to implement the new Special Area Plan for the Sponge Docks and the Community Redevelopment Area, which includes downtown and stretches along both sides of Pinellas Avenue from the Anclote River to Meres Boulevard — about 248 acres.

That plan will guide development and redevelopment of the docks and downtown areas in the future. The city began crafting the Special Area Plan in 2009 and worked with focus groups, business owners and residents to determine their vision for those areas.

The Special Area Plan city commissioners will vote on Tuesday calls for capital improvements to make the areas pedestrian- and mass transit-friendly. The plan also seeks to make the city's urban center more vibrant by allowing mixed uses and higher densities where possible, and promoting more use of landscaping and better building design.

In addition, the plan calls for a host of other initiatives and amenities, including:

• An architectural gateway feature at Tarpon Avenue and Grosse Avenue.

• Creation of a "public space" downtown for public events.

• Encouraging more tourist accommodations such as inns along Tarpon Avenue and Orange Street.

• Attracting artists, artist studios and shops to the Lemon Street area.

• Connecting the downtown and Sponge Docks with a feeder bus loop.

• Encouraging charter boats and transient boat slips along the Sponge Docks.

More details about the special area plan and the SmartCode can be found on the city's home page at www.ctsfl.us and by clicking on the links on the online agenda for the City Commission's Tuesday meeting. That meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall.

To help residents who are wondering about the plans, the St. Petersburg Times asked Joseph A. DiPasqua, the city's development services director, to answer a few basic questions.

What is the SmartCode?

Briefly, the SmartCode is a "form-based" zoning regulation that ultimately improves the urban form, creates more livable, walkable communities and discourages sprawl.

What will be the new process of moving a proposed development/project through City Hall?

Development projects under the SmartCode will be processed in much the same manner as before. Projects requiring site plan review and conditional use approval will be reviewed by the city's Technical Review Committee and by the Planning and Zoning Board, with final approval by the Board of Commissioners.

Will the current land use and zoning designations change?

Yes. The land use designation will change to Community Redevelopment District and the zoning district will change to Special Area Plan (SAP) for the Sponge Docks and CRA.

Why should residents care about the SmartCode?

We certainly believe that residents who learn about the SmartCode will recognize its value to the city by creating a vibrant, livable and walkable CRA and Sponge Docks area.

Will there be more or less public input on development projects under the new plans?

The opportunity for public input will remain the same as today.

Times staff writer Demorris A. Lee contributed to this report.

Tarpon Springs weighs new vision for Sponge Docks, 'SmartCode' zoning 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 1:58pm]
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