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All eyes on Romney Rogers in church’s zoning fight with neighbors

 UPDATE: May 19: Fort Lauderdale’s zoning board voted this evening to hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. on May 27 to decide whether to approve  First Presbyterian Church’s controversial expansion plans.   

UPDATE, MAY 18: Wednesday’s expected vote by the Fort Lauderdale zoning board on First Presbyterian Church’s controversial expansion plans has been delayed. The reason: city officials have learned there won’t be enough board members on hand to make a quorum. The board’s next regular meeting is June 16, but a special meeting could be convened before then, said city spokesman Chaz Adams. Broward Bulldog will post the date and time when it’s announced.

 

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

 Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Romney Rogers has been on the job little more than a year, but today he’s the man to watch in a high-profile zoning fight between expansion-minded First Presbyterian Church and its angry neighbors.

Romney Rogers

Romney Rogers

Rogers’s district includes historic Colee Hammock – home to the church and hundreds of nearby homeowners.

Church leaders argue $20 million in new buildings are desperately needed to fulfill the church’s ministry. The Colee Hammock Homeowners Association says the buildings are too massive and will disrupt the neighborhood and depress property values. They also fear that the church wants to use the buildings to open a school – something the church has denied.

The zoning board is expected to decide whether to recommend the project to the commission at its May 19 meeting. The board postponed a decision last month when an overflow crowd of speakers for and against caused a meeting to run past 1 a.m.

People on both sides want to know whose side Rogers is on. That’s because he’ll likely account for two of the five votes that will ultimately decide who wins — his own and Mayor Jack Seiler’s. Seiler’s general policy is to follow the lead of district commissioners on votes in their backyard.

But Rogers, caught between two influential voting blocs, is playing it carefully. “I always want to be sure I don’t prejudge anything while it’s still before the planning and zoning board. Our duty is to hear the evidence and make a ruling based on what we hear,” he said.

The church is proposing to build a pair of large, Spanish Mission-style buildings on church-owned land south of Las Olas Boulevard between Tarpon Drive and Southeast 15th Avenue:

  • A five-story commercial office building and parking garage fronting Las Olas Boulevard. Four upper levels would include 264 parking spaces, with retail, restaurant and office space on the first floor.
  • A two-story Family Center along Southeast Fourth Street with administrative offices, classrooms, a kitchen, gymnasium lockers and showers, meeting rooms and an activity center.

To make it happen, the 2,000 member church is asking the city to rezone 5.52 aces it owns as a planned unit development district. Such districts allow for “unique or innovative development” not allowed under traditional zoning districts, according to the city’s PUD ordinance.

While Rogers won’t be pinned down about his vote, his comments about the architectural plans appeared to offer encouragement to the church.

“I’m not an architect or a planner, but my impression is the design at least fits the street. We’ve got a vacant corner there now,” Rogers said.

Residents, including Brady, say that their dealings with city staff lead them to believe that City Manager George Gretsas is siding with the church.

But Gretsas spokesman Chaz Adams denied it.

“When it comes to city processes, he tries to focus on what’s the right thing to do. The process is let the planning board do their job,” Adams said.

Mayor Seiler said he’s been bombarded with “dozens and dozens” of emails, mostly from homeowners association members and running about 70 percent against the expansion and 30 percent in favor.

But Seiler said the Las Olas business community strongly supports the church’s plans, believing it will help revitalize a neglected stretch of East Las Olas.

“They want to see this happen,” he said.

Seiler said his “biggest concern” is the height of the buildings. Plans call for a proposed tower on the parking garage to top out at 66 feet – considerably higher than surrounding buildings.

The mayor has encouraged both sides to work out a mutually acceptable deal, and efforts to do that are underway.

Broward land use attorney James C. Brady, a Colee Hammock resident, said he’s talked with a representative of the church’s builder, the Stiles Group, about a number of possible changes, including a plan that would reduce the height of proposed parking garage by putting its bottom floor below street level.

“It isn’t ruled out,” Brady said.

Stiles executive Douglas Eagon could not be reached for comment.

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  • It’s rotten and stinky of the church to try to get approval for this PUD. They don’t have the money and cannot build it now even if they get approval. They will dray it out for years with extensions and amendments.
    The church revised it’s $20 million number down to $21.5million – $23.5 million. But again, they don’t have the money. Some church leaders are refusing to let the church borrow money so they won’t build for several years. They will go back to congregation and try to raise more. Haha Good Luck!!
    Even though the Commissioners sent out a newsletter that they were against overdevelopment in neighborhoods, Romney will vote the way Rio Vista wants him too because they give him too many campaign contributions.

  • I am a resident of Colee Hammock. The impact of this project on our neighborhood will be catastrophic. The parking garage also has open roof top parking where cars and night florescent lights will be visible from Las Olas Blvd. I don’t understand how any governing body could allow this zoning change and permit these two massive buildings (the actual size of a Home Depot) on and behind the showcase of our city Las Olas Boulevard. This church is not a neighborhood church. The majority of the members drive distances to this church and many of them do not support the expansion but seem to be reluctant to speak against the project. In the case of many churches and schools who started out small but whose needs outgrew their locations, sold their original properties and bought large tracts of land to fill their larger needs. The First Presbyterian Church needs to relocate and not destroy this very historic residential neighborhood.

  • Your Bulldog article on All Eyes On Romney Rogers was fair and accurate.

    The attached is my response to what one of my neighbors sent to me regarding Romney’s “public pledge.” I have been doing this stuff for 36 years, from the dais and from the podium, and I don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows (thank you, Bobby). This is not about architecture; it is about two things: the application of a terrible ordinance to a land use issue that may have a profound effect on the area and the surrounding neighborhood which is east of 15th Avenue. Imagine if a developer solved every zoning problem with architecture; the thought elevates the absurdity. Even Stevie Wonder can see that there is nothing unique or innovative about what the Applicant proposes. The Church has demolished uses that were consistent with the neighborhood and now creates a situation where it is going to rectify the grass and muddy parking lot, where the retirement facility used to be, by building some over-sized, non-neighborhood facility. This is like the fellow who killed his parents and then begged mercy, because he was an orphan. (Does this rationale work for anyone, except those who have adopted the foregone conclusion?) The PUD ordinance is, simply, a tool that let’s someone drive the Titanic through your faucet and into you home. The support of the business community for this project (who or what is that and what identifiable positive impact is the Church traffic going to have on the commercial strip, huh ?) is, at best, ephemeral – heck, even Church members have confided in me that they have no interest in the project and, from what I am told, the apathetic members and members in active opposition are in the majority but, for reasons that are obvious to most, these members are not going to create a schism in the “family” by publically expressing their collective opposition. To which community did Commissioner Romney Rogers make his election pledge, the commercial community or the neighborhood community? I know how I read the words, but let’s assume I am wrong, and his remarks were directed to the retail and office community. Well ,guess what benefit Sushi Rock is going to get out of the increased vehicular traffic. None, zilch, nada, zero …. What Sushi Rock and others may eventually get is choking traffic, dust and debris from construction and, perhaps, a few construction workers, but not enough to replace the neighborhood customers who will just go some place else.

    Let’s try to right Romney’s campaign comments with his actions. When all is said and done, will his vote be consistent with his rhetoric – in terms of what ordinary people hear and understand regarding his words? I knew Dwight Rogers – you could go to any bank on what he told you – and ……………

    Perhaps the same comments are apropos for Mayor Seiler. His campaign promise was “[t]o improve the quality of life. …to stabilize our neighborhoods by… stopping over development and ensuring new projects are compatible with the existing neighborhoods….”. I am not making this up; these are not my words; these are the Mayor’s campaign promises. I trust he will keep them.

  • I reside in district 4 of Fort Lauderdale and I vote. I support the Church project! Just in case our city leaders are reading. The “tower” is a stair tower not a billboard sign.

  • To the District 4 Voter…Mr Romney campaigned hard on protecting neighborhoods. Many district 4 voters supported him because they believed he would do what he said he would do. I guess you voted for him for other reasons. All of District 4 will be watching and I doubt the grass roots neighborhood folks would want this size development in their back yard…Be aware we are typically SUPER VOTERS!!!

  • My husband and I met Romney Rogers only once, when he stopped by our home while campaigning. He was running on a platform of protecting neighborhoods, and we told him that was our great concern – that he continue the support for neighborhoods that we had seen from Cindi Hutchinson and Mayor Jim Naugle. This is his first chance to fulfill that campaign promise. The neighborhood overwhelmingly thinks this PUD for First Presbyterian Church is a disaster, not just for Colee Hammock, but for all neighborhoods for which this misuse of a PUD sets a dangerous precedent. Victoria Park and the Las Olas Isles, along with the Beach Alliance, should be as alarmed as residents of Colee Hammock are. They will not only feel the traffic from this over sized development, but will be immediately exposed to this device for breaking zoning.

  • Will the church continue to enjoy huge tax breaks as it pursues this neighborhood-changing mega-business project?

  • The application for a proposed PUD rezoning of the First Presbyterian property is inappropriate and an incorrect use of this zoning within an established residential neighborhood as Colee Hammock, Circa 1916.
    Commisioner Rogers wrote . . . “Preserving the character & security of our neighboroods is a priority, since they are the very bedrock and lifeblood of our community…”in the Jan 2009 Las Olas News. That is just 16 months ago!!
    Mayor Seiler campaigned on Preservation of neighborhods, prevention of overdevelopment.
    The City of Ft. Lauderdale FOCUS 2008 states as Priortiyt 3 – Planning for the Future. MAJOR Objective #1 – Charming Neighborhoods. ‘Great neighborhoods are at the heart of any world-class city. That is why the City is working with residents to put in place guidelines that protect the charm of our neighborhoods. This citywide initiative works to ensure a neighborhood’s character, preserve it’s tree canopy, and protect from over development…”

    HOW can either Romney Rogers or Jack Seiler or any City Commisioner, our ELECTED officials, consider that a PUD rezoning is appropriate within Colee Hammock? We must keep in mind that these individuals serve at the will of the people, they work for US – voteres. Our choice can be changed in the next election.
    The real question will be do they live up to their campaign promises or compromise? I pray that these men will vote their word when they asked for our support in their campaigns and at the polls.

  • Thanks for covering this issue. As a community, we should put a moratorium on PUDs so the PUD ordinance can undergo much closer scrutiny because it too loosely written and interpreted by staff.

    The proposed Church PUD project houses worthy endeavors but the structures are not acceptable in an area zoned residential because of the large size of the two massive buildings, including the 5-story parking garage and the impact on traffic on East Las Olas and Southeast 15th Avenue. The demolition of single family residences, the excessive size, bulk, height and density and disproportionate size as compared to the homes in the Colee Hammock residential enclave is not compatible in Colee Hammock or any other residential neighborhood.

    The current PUD proposal is classic example of urban infill spot zoning which is not compatible with the residential neighborhood and will further increase traffic congestion along SE 15th Avenue at Broward Blvd and East Las Olas Blvd. Based on Commissioner Rogers campaign platform of “Preserving the character and security of our neighborhood is a priority” we should expect he him propose an end to the current city-wide PUD option as many neighborhoods are facing similar issues on other PUD proposals.

    The Colee Hammock neighborhood residents do not object to the developer building what is allowed within the existing zoning parameters. All we are asking is a simple adherence to the existing code. Building a development within the existing zoning has always been our position for the 10+ years that discussions have been underway between the developer and the neighborhood. If the developer needs to build such huge structures, the developer should relocate to an area where their plans are compatible with the area, are within the existing code and the area can appropriately handle their expansion plans and increased traffic.

    Just say NO PUD ANYWHERE!

  • It is becoming clear that many in the First Presbyterian family are opposed to this PUD, but for obvious reasons are reluctant to stand up. The program is being driven by a small leadership group with egos the size of China. They have accused the Colee Hammock Homeowners Assn. of refusing to negotiate. This is just not true. The neighbors have met with the church leaders for years. It is the church which refuses to scale down its plan. The original proposal was awful. It was a huge slab-sided building. All you needed were a few canon portruding and you would have a Fort Lauderdale. The current one is more attractive, but still massive. As recently as last week church representatives refused to bring the development down to a reasonable size. Mayor Jack Seiler has urged the parties to work things out. The neighborhood agrees to anything permitted by current zoning. It will fight the PUD forever, not just for Colee Hammock, but for all neighborhoods threatened by this developer’s ploy to circumvent zoning.

  • Nobody is saying the church can’t build. We are just asking them to build within the current set backs and zoning available. You know those set backs and zoning, the ones that were attached to the property when they bought it.
    Please, if the City allows this make way in every neighborhood for inappropriate structures and buildings. You’ll never get the lid back on that jar.

  • My husband and I are new homeowners in Colee Hammock. We chose to invest in this neighborhood because of its historic character and its quiet, low traffic residential streets. On any given day, you can see visitors and residents alike walking, biking and jogging along the quiet, tree-lined streets enjoying the unique beauty of this urban oasis. City leaders, too, point to our neighborhood with pride; it is a shining example of what urban preservation can be.

    If the proposed PUD is approved, this beautiful neighborhood will be irrevocably changed and efforts to preserve its unique character will be lost. There is no need to take that risk. If the Church wishes to expand, they can do so successfully by working within existing zoning requirements in much the same way as homeowners do when we take on renovation projects of our homes. This comment is to register my strong opposition to the proposed PUD. JUST SAY NO PUD!!

  • I was born and raised in Ft. Lauderdale as the same of my children. We have been residents of Colee Hammock since 1987, we have had to fight this fight ever since we moved here. When is it going to stop. When are the officials that we elected going to listen to us? Please no more land use changes. NO PUD. SAVE OUR BEAUTIFUL HISTORICAL NEIGHBORHOOD

  • I have great admiration for the 1st Presbyterian Church and if born into a Presbyterian heritage would be honored to be a member. My admiration for the church does not extend to the planned expansion. My observation is that this is an over-expansion and will drastically alter the church and not in a positive way.
    1. The lovely prestigious church will change with the large expansion. It may be forced to become a mega church due to the need to cover the debt. Money will be the overlying concern of the “ministry”
    2. The atmosphere of the church will change. The prestigious and charming members will leave.
    3. The expansion is obviously being driven by financial interests of special interests, ministers, builders and so one. The members at large are being mislead with the spin of hope and dreams which is not the practicality of sound money advice.
    4. There are many other charities which are examples of hope and dreams on the rocks from over-expansion.
    5. Some sound thinking and a miracle might just strike the good church people to see what a dream is and what is practical.
    Best wishes and good fortune. What will be will be!
    Alvan Balent DrAlvan@msn.com

  • PRIORITIES…

    HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS CHURCH EXPANSION VS ONE OF THE GREAT TOURISM DESTINATIONS OF FLORIDA AND MORE SPECIFICALLY BROWARD COUNTY…LAS OLAS BOULEVARD ? HOW IMPORTANT IS THE EXPANSION VS THE SIGNIFICANT TRAFFIC CONGESTION IT WILL CAUSE ?

    JACK SEILER, THAT BLOCK OF LAS OLAS HAS ALWAYS BEEN A WEAK PART OF THE STREET AND ONE OF THE LARGEST CONTRIBUTING FACTORS IS THE CHURCH AND THE HOSPITAL/REIT RUNNING RAMPANT OVER THE NEIGHBORHOOD. TO SAY THE LAS OLAS BUSINESS COMMUNITY SUPPORTS IT IS A FALLACY.

    REMEMBER WHEN FIRST PRESBYTERIAN KICKED ALL OF THEIR SENIOR CITIZENS OUT OF THEIR OWN RETIREMENT HOME ON LAS OLAS BLVD, THEN MOWED THE BUILDING DOWN. NOW YOU AND ROMNEY ROGERS CALL IT AN EMPTY CORNER ??? PLEASE !!!

    AT THE TIME THE CHURCH SAID IT WAS BROKE, AS THEY BROKE THESE PEOPLES’ LIVES. NOW THEY SAY THEY HAVE MILLIONS IN CASH AND ARE WILLING TO BORROW MANY MILLIONS MORE. I FEEL SORRY FOR THEIR PARISHIONERS. KIND OF TOUGH TO GET A STRAIGHT ANSWER.

    CITY LEADERS, YOU SHOULD ASK YOURSELVES: DO YOU THINK LAS OLAS BOULEVARD IS IMPORTANT TO THE ECONOMIC VITALITY OF THE CITY ??? DO YOU THINK IT POSSESSES A DRAW AND A TAX BASE THAT SHOULD BE PROTECTED ? (AND RE TAX BASE, I AM REFERRING TO THE BIGGER PICTURE I.E. NOT JUST SALES TAX BUT HOTEL TAX/BOAT SHOW ETC ETC ETC ETC).

    THERE IS “SO MUCH MORE” AT STAKE THAN JUST A NEIGHBORHOOD, NOT THAT THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF COLLEE HAMMOCK IS NOT ENOUGH IN ITS OWN RIGHT !! “SO MUCH MORE” WILL BE THE TRAFFIC JAMS THAT RESULT NORTH, SOUTH, WEST AND TO A1A (NOT THAT IT IS ANY PICNIC TODAY).

  • I follow this debate with interest, both as a homeowner in Colee Hammock and as a fan of Fort Lauderdale. My wife and I recently bought and are restoring a 70-year old house in the neighborhood. We could have lived anywhere in the County but we chose Colee Hammock for all the obvious reasons: it has healthy diversity of household incomes and cultures; an amazing tree canopy over a mix of low-rise, single and multi-family housing; and an authentic pedestrian-friendly environment where you can walk your dog by the river in the morning, walk to work, and walk to dinner on Las Olas. It’s a classic infill success story and the kind of lifestyle that other cities across the country are trying hard to re-create. We love this neighborhood.

    I am disturbed by what is becoming an increasingly heated argument. This is not about who has the moral high ground. Our discussion should not be about evil developers or doing God’s work. It’s a zoning question. The City has an approved Comprehensive Plan with clearly permissible uses for the First Presbyterian Church’s property south of Las Olas between Tarpon Road and SE 15th Ave. The Church is requesting a zoning change to grant it PUD rights to build structures that would not be permissible under the established rules. One of the many eligibility criteria in the City’s Code for PUD rezoning requires that any proposed development must “be compatible with, and preserve the character and integrity of adjacent neighborhoods ….”

    Anybody even casually familiar with the Colee Hammock neighborhood and the details of the Church’s proposed development must concede that this test has not been, and cannot be, met. The proposed buildings are too high, too massive, and the additional uses will create unavoidable traffic problems for neighborhood streets. I urge the Church leaders to abandon this rezoning request and fulfill their worthy mission in a way that does not destroy the character of a beautiful neighborhood and ruin their relations with their neighbors. Failing that, I ask our elected leaders to deny the PUD rezoning as fundamentally incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood. PRESERVE the character and integrity of Colee Hammock.

  • The Colee Hammock residents and their concerned neighbors and friends do not want the Church to be denied their right to build on their own property. They do not need a PUD to do this. We are only asking them to be a good neighbor and build under the existing code.

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