Q & A with attorney Harvey Oyer

The lawyer and former archaeologist talks about McMansions, the new Worth Avenue facelift and Palm Beach’s future

Harvey Oyer

Harvey Oyer is an attorney, lecturer, historian, former archaeologist and former Marine. Oyer’s law practice centers on land use, zoning and transactional work, and whenever there is a question about issues in historic and architectural preservation in Palm Beach County, Oyer’s name tends to come up.  Oyer talked to The Real Deal about his real estate practice, what he sees as the negative consequences of the controversial new “anti-McMansion” ordinance in West Palm Beach, and how Palm Beach’s historic preservation is an exemplar for the state of Florida.  

What are some of the projects you’ve been working on lately?
I was hired by all of the property owners on Worth Avenue in the Town of Palm Beach, maybe the most valuable retail street in America. They wanted to upgrade their streetscaping, and the town was not in a position to do it. So they wanted to create a special taxing district so they could effectively assess themselves for the improvement. It is under construction right now, and it will be the first time in the history of Worth Avenue that it’s had a comprehensive, infrastructure, streetscape and landscape plan.

What do you think of the new West Palm Beach ordinance that limits house dimensions in historic districts?
I fundamentally disagree with the method that they’re using to try to accomplish a goal. I think almost everyone can agree that the goal is to prevent the so-called McMansion — oversized homes being built in historically designated neighborhoods. That’s a laudable goal. The issue becomes, What do you do to prevent that? They took what I think is too simplistic of an approach — which was simply to limit the lot coverage and floor area ratio of what could be built or added on to a historic home. The reason it doesn’t work is many of the homes that are there, that everyone would agree are beautiful homes, and integral part of the neighborhoods, would violate the new ordinance. You can also find examples of homes that are not good architecturally, that most people could agree are not helpful to the neighborhood, that were within the guidelines. A better way of going about it would be architectural review guidelines, to ensure the architectural quality of the building, not necessarily the size of the building.

What will be the effect of the ordinance?
Take this limitation on how big of an addition you can put on your house. You’re a professional and you have three children, and your house does not have enough bedrooms for three children, if you go to the city and make an application to add on to a historic house, and you are not permitted to do it, that family is going to pick up and move and go to a gated community. They’ll go to somewhere they can have a house that accommodates their lifestyle. And it’s going to put these neighborhoods right back to where they were before — empty. And if you do not allow a historic building or a historic neighborhood to evolve, it dies.  

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Has zoning become more liberal in the downturn?
[The West Palm Beach ordinance] of course is not a liberalization of the zoning code, this is a narrowing of the zoning code. It’s not what you would typically expect to see in a recession. Typically, if a recession lasts long enough, you see a liberalization of the zoning code, and this is not one. One of the things they could easily do to help themselves without changing the rules, so to speak, would be simply expedite the approval processes.

How is the town of Palm Beach’s historic preservation ordinance a model for other cities?
The town of Palm Beach has a well-regulated historic preservation ordinance. It’s a good thing, that’s why everyone wants to live in Palm Beach, because it’s beautiful. Their historic structures are beautiful, and even their new structures are beautiful. I think they have a very healthy, vibrant historic preservation ordinance and enforcement of that ordinance. It’s not even difficult to create one of these codes, because the U.S. Secretary of the Interior has a set of historic preservation guidelines, that almost every historic district in America follows. In Palm Beach, they have a landmarks preservation commission appointed by the town council. These are lay people, but lay people with knowledge of historic architecture and preservation, so they are competent to review the application sand apply the standards.   

What do you think Palm Beach and West Palm Beach will look like in a few decades?
Property values continue to rise in Palm Beach at a constant rate, more or less-they seem to be more insulated from the cyclical nature of real estate in the rest of Florida. But I don’t think you’re ever going to see a wave of development. My prediction for the city of West Palm Beach is that it will change even more dramatically over the next fifty years. It will become more urban, more dense, with more public transportation, and more height on the buildings. We’re going to be a big city, and we need to plan it as if we’re going to be a big, urban city.  

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