By Mary Hladky
The Boca Raton City Council has endorsed changes that would make it simpler and less time-consuming for small-business owners to get approvals for their projects in the downtown.
Council members have long talked about the need to streamline the process for reviewing downtown building and renovation projects, and the issue was highlighted earlier this year by the saga of an entrepreneur who wanted to open an ice cream shop on Palmetto Park Road.
Rick Felberbaum said it took nearly two years to get City Council approval to change the allowable use of his building from office space to a 971-square-foot ice cream shop. But when Felberbaum still needed to jump through more hoops to launch his business, he gave up and opened his shop in June in Delray Beach.
“The city took such a long time to approve my plans, I had to make other plans,” he told The Coastal Star in March. “I had no other choice.”
Council member Andrea O’Rourke, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency chair, brought up the city’s loss of Felberbaum’s small business on Aug. 20 as CRA commissioners discussed city staff-recommended changes to the ordinance governing downtown development and CRA rules.
A potential buyer of Felberbaum’s building wants to open a retail shop but fears going through a cumbersome process, she said.
“How can we encourage this business to prosper … on Palmetto Park Road so we have vitality in our downtown, but we don’t have to put the potential buyer through that type of long-term process?” she asked.
Development Services Director Brandon Schaad said the changes likely would shorten the length of time to complete approvals, which now can take 18 to 24 months, to just a few months for that potential buyer.
The changes would benefit small projects or when a business owner or developer wants to make minor changes to projects that already have completed the approval process.
The new rules, which must be finalized and formally approved by the City Council at a future meeting, in effect would make a distinction between a major condominium, apartment or hotel project, and smaller projects such as a retail shop or restaurant in the downtown.
The rules would allow City Manager Leif Ahnell, who also serves as CRA executive director, to approve a project that includes a new building or addition to an existing building that is 5,000 square feet or less, and to approve minor changes to landscaping and parking on land parcels of one-half acre or less.
Changes to paint color, roofing material, window trims and the like would go to the Community Appearance Board for approval after city staff recommends in favor, and then placed on the CRA consent agenda for final approval without debate unless a council member asks for discussion or more information.
Another proposal would allow 10 percent of trees and plants in an already approved landscape plan to be changed if the CAB approves.
The long list of proposed changes includes establishing valet parking standards and electric vehicle parking standards in the downtown. Such standards already exist outside downtown.
If a building project causes the loss of on-street parking, the developer would be required to replace it at another on-street location. Currently, the developer can provide for the parking in the project’s parking garage, but drivers don’t necessarily know they have access to it.
The changes also clarify existing rules, such as to explicitly state that industrial uses are not allowed in the downtown and to more clearly specify when electricity, telephone and other distribution lines must be placed underground.
Council members supported the changes.
“I think these are all really good clarifications and modifications,” said council member Monica Mayotte.
Architect Derek Vander Ploeg, who has long advocated streamlining the development approval process, also voiced his support.
“I think this is great. Long overdue,” he said.