High Desert Hoofbeats
County should OK overlay zone.
by Sena Taylor Hauer
Oct 04, 2018 | 257 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
For many years we’ve been hearing local planners discuss proposed county code that would allow dense essential housing to be built in areas where it previously hasn’t been permitted. The proposed high-density overlay zone now sits before the Grand County Council for approval. What’s been talked about in meetings and on paper for a long time may soon become tangible for the people in our community who most need housing, and who are the economic backbone that keep our businesses running.

High-density overlay zone is a term that’s about as dry as our desert this year. It’s been difficult to stay interested in the clunky subject whose wording is not anything that would normally pop out of any of our mouths. That’s the thing about civil planning and engineering: We all need it and use it, but we mostly leave it to others to worry about the details.

Last week county planners continued to banter about the shape and use of housing that could be created for people who are “essential” to the body of our community­­–people who can’t afford to buy or rent what little real estate is available. Staff and county planning commissioners have looked for loopholes that second (and third and fourth) homeowners—and people who develop those sorts of accommodations—would be barred from taking advantage of, so that precious spaces are utilized for employees, the elderly, and families who make their livings here.

As we all know, it’s hard for workers to find places to rent and buy in the greater Moab area if their wages are derived from the service economy and related occupations. The challenge is a little less for those employed by the federal government and the education sector, or in city or county governments, all of which offer benefit packages to their workers, and all of which are essential to keep our town running.

Speculative real estate development for the benefit of tourism, retirement and recreation has been in the driver’s seat of Grand County’s expansion for many years. It’s a global fact that it’s way more lucrative to build projects that can be sustained on nightly rents and triple-digit incomes instead of minimum wages. Which is why governmental entities, such as cities, counties and housing authorities throughout our country, have often created codes and incentives to assist the development of affordable housing.

Here in Moab, the time is past due to create incentives. As we watch more and more hotels, outfitters and convention centers get built, most of us wonder where the workers will come from. Is it possible that investors will build new facilities, then tourists will come, but there won’t be enough help to sustain the businesses? Some say it’s already happening.

The fear of that scenario has made me more attentive during these high-density overlay talks, dry as they may be. Our reporters have written numerous stories about the issue and process, quoting the voices of our local leaders to convey the importance of the proposed new code. We have hoped that existing residents would take hard looks at the proposed maps, and tell the county where the zone is a good fit. The dialogue has been happening for a long time, and if there is fault over the impacts of the draft, people need to pipe up soon to air their concerns.

We live in a county that has more than 90 percent public land—land that can’t be built on. That’s good and bad. It makes what little developable area we have even more valuable in terms of cost and community needs. It makes it really difficult to find places to develop most kinds of housing. But on the flip side, we have huge public spaces within arm’s reach to get away from housing and pavement. We have abundant buffers, while some privately owned areas may become more dense.

Planners spent a lot of time last week hashing out the details of who might qualify to live in essential housing that would be built in an overlay zone. They talked about important and tricky conditions. I appreciate the time and thought that numerous people have put into this plan. That includes staff, boards, and people who have attended open-house events to discuss maps and small print. The overlay zone now goes before the county council to be hashed out and hopefully approved. While it may have its faults, this kind of policy is essential to easing our housing crunch.

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