Gainesville residents divided on exclusionary zoning elimination

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Faced with the opportunity to make thousands of dollars on a land sale, a Gainesville resident says he will not seize the opportunity. If he did, he fears he would be run out of the neighborhood where he has lived for 33 years.

Jeffrey Montgomery, 73, owns the only empty lot remaining in Raintree, a single-family housing neighborhood in Gainesville. It is approximately a six-minute drive from the University of Florida.

Raintree stands as an example of many neighborhoods throughout the city where residents are anxious and vocal in their opposition to a proposal to eliminate zoning that makes some communities only for single-family homes.

With such widespread and building opposition, it is questionable if the Gainesville City Commission will enact such a change. Even so, city commissioners initially approved the measure Aug. 4 in a close 4-3 vote. It now faces a final vote by the commission on Oct. 17 at 3 p.m.

Jeffrey Montgomery holds up the sign he made in secret to get his neighbors’ attention. “I am a businessman, and I wouldn’t do that to my neighbors,” he said. (Sophie Collongette/ WUFT News)

If approved, it would be the most far-reaching zoning proposal in recent history but one homeowners fear would hurt their property values. And it would set Gainesville apart as the first Florida city to ever eliminate single-family zoning.

Despite the fears of homeowners, the proposal  aims to increase housing diversity and help solve Gainesville’s affordable housing crisis by allowing limited multi-family homes in existing single-family neighborhoods.

The fierce opposition has spurred protestors to stand with signs and megaphones at City Hall before and after the Aug. 4 meeting.

According to Mayor Lauren Poe, officials will review plan development codes to add the new legislation if the policy is passed. He said people would have more freedom to decide what type of property they want on their lot.

Montgomery said he is firmly against the proposal.

“I think it’s a horrible idea,” he said. “I hope that it gets recalled.”

Montgomery’s concerns focus on increased road congestion, inefficiency in solving affordable housing issues, decreased property values and lack of community atmosphere.

With all that in mind, Montgomery decided to get creative with his opposition.

Feeling like his neighbors were complacent about the issue, he created a fictious sign that read “COMING SOON!” at the top, with text underneath promoting a new but make-believe two-story quadruplex on the empty lot.

Shortly after posting the sign, he said his tactic was successful. The sign was found tossed in the bushes multiple times as discontent grew among neighbors.

Montgomery did not stop there and stepped-up his campaign.

He created a second sign as a call to action and placed it next to the sign that advertised the quadruplex. At the bottom, the new sign read, “City Hall 5 p.m. Wed. July 13. Neighbors, BE THERE!” His actions sparked conversations and grabbed his community’s attention.

As the owner of the empty lot in Raintree, Montgomery could profit substantially from building a quadruplex on the land. He said if he were to follow through with this business idea, it would cause a lot more unnecessary congestion with eight extra cars on the curbside parking.

“I wouldn’t do that to my neighbors,” he said.

Montgomery’s neighbor, Deejay Hellrung, said she shares the same sentiment about this policy affecting her neighborhood and hometown.

“I’ve watched this neighborhood literally grow,” she said. “I feel like its Mom.”

Hellrung owns the second home ever built in Raintree and has lived there for more than 40 years. She said eliminating single-family zoning is unfair, given her contract outlined it would be a single-family neighborhood. Now, that may not be the case.

“There goes our community,” she sighed while packing the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies she made for some new neighbors.

She was also gifting Raintree’s directory to the new neighbors. The brochure includes all the information about the neighborhood, even the pets’ names.

“This is the kind of neighborhood this is,” she said.

Hellrung said she predicts many people will move out of Raintree if the commission passes this act, and that’s the last thing she wants.

“I just don’t think it’s fair to people who bought a contract into this single-family neighborhood to just yank it away,” she said.

Poe, who voted in favor of the new zoning policy, said this change is meant to assist lower-income families who have different living circumstances than people who live in neighborhoods like Raintree.

“Well, of course, all due respect to their voices and their opinion, but we also have to remember that our neighbors who are already comfortably housed are not facing the same pressures that this crisis has created,” he said.

Poe said the underrepresented voices could no longer be ignored.

Data analysis and research arguments are being used by opposing sides. Policy proponents say the data provided by California universities shows that zoning policy changes alleviated the state’s affordable housing crisis.

Policy opponents say that Gainesville lacks concrete data and research studies to prove Gainesville will have similar economic results to those in California. Opponents argue that Gainesville commissioners have not created a thoughtful plan specific to the city.

Thomas Hawkins, a UF urban and regional planning professor who serves on the City Plan Board, an advisory board to the city commission, agrees.

“I think it’s a mixed bag,” he said.

Hawkins said that at a big-picture level, allowing more infrastructure in currently developed areas in the city could reduce urban sprawl. But since the commission has not analyzed the impacts of this potential zoning change, Hawkins said the changes would apply blanketly across the entire city.

“The steps toward implementation should be incremental and thoughtful, and not every area that’s currently zoned single-family is appropriate for this kind of change,” he said.

Richard Lutz, a UF marketing professor and Raintree resident, shares a similar perspective.

“It seems to me that it’s been rushed in terms of moving from concept to actual vote,” he said.

Lutz said he anticipates low-income neighborhoods would be the first affected. He said low-income families fear this potential change because more people are likely to come in and out of their communities, given their lower property values compared to neighborhoods like Raintree.

Richard Lutz, standing in his home in Raintree, says, “It seems to me that it’s been rushed in terms of moving from concept to actual vote.” (Sophie Collongette/ WUFT News)

On the other hand, Commissioner David Arreola said he is confident academic studies will be done on Gainesville once this policy is implemented. He argued that policy opponents equally lack data when claiming that zoning changes will be ineffective in Gainesville.

“Honestly, we are seeing a watershed moment for housing in not just Gainesville, but in the whole country,” he said. “Folks who want to see the data on this are going to get their wish.”

Increasing environmental protection is another leading cause for the elimination of single-family zoning.

According to Emre Tepe, a UF urban and regional planning professor, expanding multi-family housing units is a healthy approach to solving the affordable housing issue and utilizing land more effectively.

Tepe explained that if Gainesville continues single-family zoning, the city will lose valuable agricultural lands that are highly sensitive when considering food security and climate change.

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said the new zoning policy would help stabilize neighborhoods and reduce urban overconsumption of land.

“I would like to protect the areas around our city, the natural environmental areas and not have them turned into suburban sprawl development,” he said. “And that’s what’s happening now because you can’t build inside the city to meet demand.”

This zoning proposal has even caused voters to change their minds about the mayoral elections.

Linda Bensen, a local Raintree resident, said this policy cost Arreola her vote after he publicly advocated for the new zoning changes.

Bensen has lived in Raintree for over 20 years and said she feels ambivalent about this policy. She said this approach would not benefit anyone more than the landlords, who she believes are exploiting tenants and overcharging for rent.

Although she was not the first resident who openly expressed her voting change, the commissioner remains firm in his support for the policy.

As a Gainesville native, Arreola claims this zoning act is a means to transform Florida’s political and economic narrative.

“We are a city that wants to try to tackle the biggest problems in society, instead of just waiting for gifts from the federal government or international action,” he said.

About Sophie Collongette

Sophie is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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