A proposed housing development on Mill Creek Drive was the focus of a lengthy public hearing during the Moab City Council meeting on Tuesday night. Several residents took the public hearing as an opportunity to voice their opposition to the 6.3-acre project located at 1780 E. Mill Creek Drive, which includes 10 buildings that will be 40-feet in height, and a total of 196 units.
Mike Toninelli owns just under an acre of land on Spanish Valley Drive adjacent to the proposed development site.
“I’ve scratched out a living on this land for 35 years. It’s all I’ve got, and this would just wipe it out,” he said. “It scares me.”
Toninelli had raised concerns about the project during the city council’s Dec. 20 meeting, saying he had just learned about the size and scope of the project, adding that it would drastically impact his property. He also said the city did not adequately notify nearby land owners about the annexation of the property in 2012 or the subsequent planning commission meetings at which the project was discussed.
“I wasn’t notified,” he said at that time.
Toninelli said none of his other neighbors had been notified of the project either.
“I went door to door and talked to them,” he said. “I spoke to 10 people, and none of them knew this was happening prior to hearing it from me.”
The purpose of this week’s public hearing was to gather input on a proposed conditional use permit that would allow residential units on the ground floor of the buildings, a use that normally would not be allowed in the property’s C-4 commercial zone. However, residents brought up a number of other issues, including concerns about the high density of the project, the height of the buildings, and the potential impact of the increased traffic in the area.
Toninelli said the first condition stated in applicable city code is that the conditional use be compatible with adjacent uses in architectural scale, features and scope.
“I don’t know how they can even get past that,” he said. “How can you look at this and think that it fits?”
Moab City Planning Director Jeff Reinhart said if the conditional use permit is not approved other commercial uses could go on the ground floor, including overnight rentals, which are an allowed use in that zone.
When Toninelli bought his lot 35 years ago, it was zoned large lot residential.
“That means the most you can do is one house on half an acre,” he said. In 2009, the county applied an overlay zone that allowed multi-family residential to be built on empty lots in the zone, he said. Three years later, Moab city annexed the adjacent lot where the housing development is now planned as part of a south-end annexation that was done, in part, to incorporate land where the proposed Utah State University campus will be built into city limits.
Toninelli said he and his neighbors were unaware of the annexation.
“Not one of us knew that the city had become our neighbor,” he said.
“I care deeply about our community,” resident Sharon Brussell told city council members. “Why would the city approve a development that allows this intense of a density? Is that part of the city’s master plan?”
Moab resident Robyn Johnson agreed.
“I don’t think any of us are against low-income housing,” she told the council. “I don’t think we’re against growth. We’re all supportive of that ... But all of us are concerned about a project of this density in that neighborhood.”
Residents also questioned whether the housing would be truly affordable.
During a December council meeting, Kara Dohrenwend, who owns Wildland Scapes Nursery on Mill Creek Drive, told the council that she was “surprised” to find herself opposed to “a high-density project claiming to be aimed [at] filling a significant gap in our affordable housing.”
“I am in favor of higher density housing proposals that help fill our housing gaps,” Dohrenwend, who previously served on the Moab City Planning Commission, wrote in a letter delivered to the city council. “A significant part of the rationale for asking for the conditional use permit in 2015 was that the project was to be affordable housing. Without deed restrictions for at least 30 years for at least 1/2 of the units being built, this is not an affordable housing project, but rather a high-density housing project.”
Local developer and business owner Mike Bynum spoke on behalf of the developer, and said part of the impetus behind the development stemmed from the removal of a trailer court on Walnut Lane that made way for the Hoodoo Hotel, which is currently being built.
“I offered to try and replace that housing,” Bynum said.
He said employee housing has been built in tandem with the Hoodoo Hotel, and the developers have committed 20 percent of the units in the Mill Creek project to be deed restricted to 80 to 100 percent of area median income in an effort to keep them affordable.
Bynum said he hopes the other 80 percent of the units will be used to house employees in the Moab area that may make too much to qualify for federally subsidized low-income housing, but still struggle to find affordable housing.
“I’d like it to be moderate or attainable housing,” he said, adding that he has reached out to several organizations, including Moab Regional Hospital, the Grand County School District and Moab city to discuss the possibility of leasing units to those entities for their employees.
During a meeting with the Moab City Planning Commission, Bynum said projects like the Mill Creek development are difficult to build due to high costs of land and construction.
“If you want to put something like this in for working people, you have to do a large number of units,” he said. “Not everyone in this town has the ability to provide employee housing.”
He added that he hopes the project will help ease some of that burden.
Bynum said he has spoken with Toninelli, and adjusted the plans for the development in order to lessen the impact on Toninelli’s property.
“I care about the community,” he said. “I’m sympathetic to the public comments, many of which I hadn’t heard before tonight ... I just want to do something positive for the community.”
Toninelli said that while he “may not be up for Citizen of the Year,” he believes he is an asset to the community, and if this project goes through as planned, he will leave Moab.
“I planned on dying in this house,” he said. “I’m not asking them not to do this project. I’m just asking them to do it in a way that doesn’t destroy what I’ve worked so hard for.”
Toninelli said two of his neighbors also told him they plan on selling if the development goes through.
“I always hated that saying about the fabric of a community,” he said. “But it’s true. I’m just one thread. And these two neighbors are another two threads. Start pulling threads out of that fabric, and see what you have left.”
“Growth hurts,” said Christina Sloan, a Moab attorney representing Bynum, adding that projects such as the Mill Creek development always cause some discomfort. However, she said, with the college campus planned for a nearby property, there is no doubt the area near Mill Creek and South U.S. 191 will have to grow with it.
“This project is about housing for locals,” she said, adding that Bynum and his partners could make more money by putting overnight rentals on the ground floor.
Toninelli said several city officials had reiterated that point, even pointing out that the developer could choose to build a hotel on the property instead of housing.
“They said I should feel lucky,” he said. “I don’t feel lucky.”
The city council will continue to accept written comments on the conditional use permit through Jan. 23. Comments may be submitted by email to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or mailed to: Moab City Council, 217 E. Center St., Moab, Utah, 84532.