MADEIRA BEACH — Owners of older duplexes and triplexes that no longer conform to zoning rules should be given extra time to maintain their grandfathered status.
That was the consensus of the City Commission on Tuesday as it ordered changes to zoning ordinances to extend the grandfathering time limit from six months to a full year for vacant duplexes and triplexes.
Currently, if six months pass and any unit of a duplex or triplex is not rented and if the owner does not have a current occupational license, the structure must be converted to a single-family home.
"The intent (of the existing ordinance) is that at some point of time in the future all duplexes will be gone and the area will all be single-family homes," said City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr.
During the past three years, owners of two duplexes that remained vacant more than six months were required to convert their properties.
"A third of my district is duplexes and triplexes," said Commissioner Nancy Oakley. "It is the only affordable housing on the beach."
She argued that the poor economy and the rising number of bank foreclosures make it difficult to keep the multifamily units rented.
Higginbotham said he has received complaints from duplex owners who purchased their properties from foreclosing banks that had not kept occupational licenses current. The new owners did not realize the time limit for grandfathered zoning protection had passed, he said.
"This is not the right economy to force people to conform (to single-family zoning)," Oakley said.
She asked the commission to join her in eliminating the limit on grandfathering protection.
The existing code states that "if any nonconforming use, or any portion thereof, ceases for any reason for more than six months, the grandfather status of the nonconforming use shall terminate."
The only exception is if the property is damaged more than 50 percent by a hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster or "involuntary action." In that event, the owner of the property is allowed to rebuild for the same use.
But even that exception disappears if the owner did not have a current occupational license.
Oakley wants the six-month limit extended to two years.
The other commissioners wouldn't go that far, but did agree to extending the limit to a full year.
City Attorney Michael Connolly cautioned that buyers should do their due diligence before purchasing a property.
"Years ago the city and a lot of citizens thought it would be a good idea to get rid of those duplexes," Mayor Pat Shontz said.
She and the other commissioners agreed with that goal, but also agreed the time limit for grandfathering should be extended.
The change won't become official until the commission votes its approval, which may not occur until July. In the meantime, Commissioner Steve Kochick advised duplex owners to keep their occupational licenses current.