One of the key arguments for building a light rail system in Pinellas County is that it would kick start urban renewal. People could live closer together, walk to buy their morning coffee and take the train to work.
But for any of that to happen, the county's antiquated land use and zoning policies need to be rewritten, a process county officials have already begun.
Pinellas' land codes, which tell developers what they can build where, still read as though the county was full of open territory with for sale signs sunk into the grass. But there's little of that land left — less than 6 percent of the unincorporated area is vacant — and what does remain is often untouched for a reason.
To promote redevelopment, county officials are planning to tweak the codes to make Florida's most densely populated county feel that way.
Developers would be encouraged to build commercial properties next door to or on the ground floor of residential buildings. New buildings could sit closer to the street instead of placing vast parking lots between their front doors and foot traffic. And, if commissioners approve, the county might increase the number of units allowed per acre.
Many of these proposed changes — and the proposals are in their infancy — are modeled on St. Petersburg's land use codes, said Gordon Beardslee, the county's planning department administrator.
That's because most of the mixed-use development in Pinellas is in St. Petersburg, said John Cuevas, the county's zoning manager.
"We don't really have it right now" in the unincorporated area, he said, so county officials are looking to recent developments on Central Avenue, where it's not unusual to find an apartment building near a bar or restaurant.
It could take two years before the proposals are fully vetted and approved, Beardslee said. But eventually, new zoning and development codes could be applied to the areas around the proposed light rail stations. That time line would allow residents to vote on a proposed sales tax increase to pay for light rail and other transit improvements in 2014 before the county solidifies land use changes.
Only one of the 16 planned stations is fully on unincorporated land, in the area near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. But three others are partially on county land, or are near areas where the county owns a lot of land.
"When you're trying to support transit … and support pedestrian activity and having residences close to jobs, looking at these higher densities is important," Beardslee said.
Currently, Pinellas allows a maximum of 12.5 units to be built per acre, but many cities within the county have an upper limit of 30 units, the new standard the County Commission will debate. The board is meeting Thursday to review the proposed land use changes.
County officials are also hoping that new land use codes will encourage developers to buy up and revive vacant strip malls and shopping centers
Other proposals are aimed at making the county more pedestrian-friendly. They include encouraging developers to install windows on the ground floor of buildings — an attempt to prevent boxy, anonymous architecture — and regulations calling for better sidewalk design.
Contact Anna M. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.