City of Mexico Beach, Florida: Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code

Executive Summary

Mexico Beach is a small, coastal community in Bay County, Florida that has begun to adopt resilience measures following climate-enhanced disasters from hurricanes and flooding. Following Hurricane Michael, Mexico Beach amended its zoning regulations to require that new structures be elevated at least a foot and a half higher than the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s base-level flood predictions in both the city’s 100-year and 500-year floodplains.1 The city also partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to implement specific stormwater management projects, such as bioswales and retention projects, on certain streets.2 Smaller communities, such as in rural areas, and local governments can look to Mexico Beach as an example of how to incorporate resilience measures into zoning ordinances, especially in a post-disaster context. 

 

Background

The City of Mexico Beach is located in northwest Florida on the “handle” of the panhandle, about 25 miles southeast of Panama City. The population is small and estimated at about 1,200 residents.3 Mexico Beach has a median income on par with the national average.4  

In October 2018, over 80 percent of the city’s buildings were demolished by Hurricane Michael.5 Prior to Hurricane Michael, thousands more people would visit Mexico Beach during tourist season.6  

The following summary gives a broad overview of the resilience and conservation policies found in the Mexico Beach Comprehensive Plan and some regulatory provisions in the city’s zoning code. 

 

Environment

Planning

The city has a comprehensive plan to guide future development and land-use decisions. The plan encompasses multiple elements, including future land use, coastal management, conservation, utilities, and open space for recreation. Mexico Beach intends to use the future land-use element to maintain the historic coastal appearance of the city, encourage tourism and residential living, strategize residential development that is close to work spaces, and provide adequate services for permanent and seasonal residents.7 This includes protecting and conserving natural resources like coastal resources and beaches for their ecosystem services and aesthetics.8 

The comprehensive plan promotes this type of development by mapping the city’s municipal areas and designating categories of future land use for each area within it.9 For example, the preservation district is used to protect natural and environmentally sensitive resources, and future development within it is limited to compatible uses.10 The drainage sub-element of the plan, which contemplates stormwater, is intended to reduce damage to properties in the city.11 

In addition, the plan’s conservation element seeks to enhance the quality of environmentally sensitive lands, Federal Emergency Management (FEMA)-designated Special Flood Hazard Areas, wetlands, beaches, and sand dunes, and other types of lands.12  This includes protecting native vegetation and preventing soil erosion, prohibiting the planting of invasive species, and requiring developers to obtain permits before clearing vegetation.13 

Zoning

The city’s land development code builds on the comprehensive plan’s goals and guiding principles through regulation. Mexico Beach’s code outlines requirements for all development in the city and describes its zoning principles. 

Notably, the city now requires that new or rebuilt structures in the 100- and 500-year floodplains be elevated 1.5 feet above base flood elevation based on the best available FEMA maps.14  Many of the homes and businesses that are now covered by this enhanced elevation requirement were impacted by Hurricane Michael, therefore prompting the zoning change. 

In addition the land development code contains measures to preserve the city’s natural features, including district-specific maximums on impervious surface cover, landscape requirements, and protective zones for beaches, dunes, endangered species, wetlands, shorelines, and trees.

Each district in Mexico Beach comes with a maximum permitted ratio of impervious surface area.15  The lowest of these is found in preservation districts, where impervious cover cannot exceed 20 percent.16 In these districts, beach dunes and natural beach areas must be preserved in all cases (beaches and dunes are further protected by their own regulations, outlined below).17  

Regardless of the type of district, all development and redevelopment in the city is subject to landscape requirements.18 The purpose of these requirements is to encourage a holistic design approach that integrates existing vegetation, natural stormwater management systems, and native species to protect environmentally sensitive features and reduce the negative impacts of urbanization.19 One such requirement is that 25 percent of all development and redevelopment be reserved for landscaping.20  For example, developers can avoid or maintain environmental features like dunes to meet landscape requirements.21  

In addition, the code identifies “protection zones” which govern development for environmentally sensitive features. The code includes protection zones for trees, beaches and dunes, wetlands, and wildlife.22 For example:

  • The beach and dune protection zone applies to any beach or dune area marked for “preservation” under the comprehensive plan’s future land-use maps in the comprehensive plan.23  
  • The wetlands protection zone applies to any areas in which dredge and fill activities are regulated under state or federal law. Mexico Beach requires that lands identified as potential wetlands in the city’s comprehensive plan be determined to be non-wetland before development can take place.24  
  • The wildlife protection zone encompasses lands inhabited by any species the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission lists as endangered.25  
  • The canal shoreline protection zone extends from the water’s edge to 15 feet landward, and requires project proponents preserve natural shoreline vegetation for 20 feet landward from the mean high tide line26 . 

With the exception of select activities listed in the code that are presumed to have insignificant impacts on the protected areas, development is generally prohibited in protection zones.27 When special uses are allowed in protected zones, compensatory mitigation measures (such as creating an equivalent volume of similar landscaping elsewhere) are required to offset any reduction or loss of protected features.28 

Further, all land within 500 feet of a protected wetland, wildlife, or canal shoreline  protection zone is designated as a Restricted Development Zone (RDZ), designed to avoid the adverse effects of siting development directly adjacent to these features.29  In the RDZ, the city requires the use of natural buffers between environmentally sensitive areas and development.30 

Trees

Trees are preserved using both street development regulations and a protection zone. All street development must reserve an easement that authorizes the city to plant shade trees within five feet of a right-of-way boundary.31  The tree protection zone applies to certain types and sizes of trees located on development sites, and protects trees and a radius around tree trunks from removal or disturbance.32 

 

Considerations and Lessons Learned

Mexico Beach updated both its comprehensive plan and land development code following Hurricane Michael. Mexico Beach’s future development will reflect greater disaster preparedness and climate change considerations to make the community safer by protecting lives and reducing future property damage. This is seen in how Mexico Beach enhanced freeboard requirements in both the city’s 100- and 500-year floodplains. Even smaller towns and cities affected by hurricanes and flooding can similarly build on climate projections and best available scientific data to consider amendments to their plans and zoning ordinances.

Mexico Beach also provides an example of how a local zoning code can be used to protect a city’s valuable natural assets like the coast, beaches, and wetlands. These types of actions provide community benefits like flood mitigation and tourism, in addition to environmental ones like wildlife habitat. Notably, Mexico Beach applies individualized protective zones, restrictions on development around those zones, and limitations on the use of impervious surface cover, among other requirements. Policymakers can look to the localized nature of planning and zoning in Mexico Beach to preserve rural character, open spaces, and other vulnerable lands. 

 

Publication Date: May 20, 2022

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