DUNEDIN — In the next few months, the city will take steps to preserve the quaint character of single-family neighborhoods south of downtown to Beltrees Street, with a voluntary rezoning campaign and possible adoption of a Compatibility Overlay District.

The fear is that for the last almost 40 years the area has been zoned to permit multifamily housing and 5-story-tall structures, but few if any have been built. The city now wants to preserve the character of district by asking residents to voluntarily agree to rezone their property to single-family.

During a Dec. 9 work session Jared Schneider, a transportation and urban planner with Kimley Horn and Associates, told commissioners the biggest concern of residents living in the area is the possibility that three- to five-story multifamily structures could be built just south of downtown.

The question raised at those town hall meetings by residents was, “How do we maintain the character of neighborhoods, with the potential that you can have three- to five-story multifamily that doesn’t fit the beautiful neighborhoods in this area?” he said.

Their consultant’s study, called South Dunedin Zoning Strategies, identified multifamily zoning as a threat to neighborhood residents, “with smaller-scaled buildings of one to three stories preferred.” There was also an overall concern that new developments will negatively impact the current character of the neighborhood.

When asked what they liked about their neighborhood, residents said the variety of home styles, because everything shouldn’t look alike; street trees and landscaping; accessibility of the area for bicyclists and walkers; bungalow homes and small homes on small lots; and proximity to downtown and the Pinellas Trail.

Greg Rice, city planning and zoning director, explained that multifamily zoning was adopted in that area during the 1980s. At that time zoning of the downtown had zero lot lines, with 30 units per acre, and a portion of the downtown allowed for 8-story buildings.

“We can only presume that multifamily zoning was adopted between the CRA (downtown) and Beltrees to act like a buffer between high-intensity and large height in a downtown that was envisioned and single-family residential zoning that is south of Beltrees to Union.”

The multifamily zoning between the downtown and Beltrees allows a height of three to five stories and a density between 7.5 and 15 units per acre.

“The downtown did not quite turn out how it was envisioned in the ’80s. City staff believes we have a similar issue with the multifamily zoning just south of the CRA. It didn’t come to pass when a lot of it was developed,” Rice said.

“Over the past 30 years, elected officials gradually downsized the planned height and intensity of the downtown envisioned in 1988. For example, maximum height is down to three stories, with a few streets allowed to be four stories with City Commission approval.”

The 1980s multifamily zoning does not match the current character of the historic single-family homes between the CRA and Beltrees Street, the planning director noted.

“We believe the residents have revitalized and brought back many of the older homes in the area; they’ve rehabbed them and they are beautiful, a lot of them are historic. Now we are left with an incongruity — the multifamily zoning doesn’t match what’s on the ground. There is a concern about how future development might impact this area of Dunedin,” Rice told commissioners.

The city hired Kimley Horn to study how the character of existing neighborhoods can be protected.

Philip DiMaria, a planning consultant for the firm, showed commissioners photos of vacant parcels, where 15, 18 or 12 multifamily units per acre could be built.

He said one way to address the problem is to ask residents to voluntarily rezone their properties from multifamily to single family R-60.

City Attorney Tom Trask cautioned that while a plan to voluntarily rezone could work, the city must avoid spot zoning, or creating an enclave in the middle of a larger zoning category.

Officials suggested that discussions can begin with residents of the area about voluntary rezoning, while at the same time the city adopts a compatibility overlay district.

A compatibility overlay district enacts housing standards that supersede the zoning district. New construction would have to be compatible with existing properties; items such as setbacks, building height and types can be regulated.

City commissioners liked the idea. City Manager Jennifer Bramley said staff will report on the progress of that plan and present specifics on an overlay district for commissioners to ratify.