Don’t build it and still they’ll come
by Nathaniel Smith
The Times-Independent
Feb 07, 2019 | 3354 views | 0 0 comments | 133 133 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Laborers work on a hotel project in Moab on a wintry Tuesday, Feb. 5. The Grand County Council put an immediate and temporary halt to construction of overnight lodging at Tuesday’s meeting that saw more than a dozen people address members. 			Photo by Charlie Bruce
Laborers work on a hotel project in Moab on a wintry Tuesday, Feb. 5. The Grand County Council put an immediate and temporary halt to construction of overnight lodging at Tuesday’s meeting that saw more than a dozen people address members. Photo by Charlie Bruce

For the next six months, Grand County will impose a moratorium on the construction of any new overnight accommodations. The Grand County Council made the decision to impose a moratorium before a full house during its regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 5. County residents filled every seat in the chamber, some even had to sit on the floor or stand in the hallway.

The moratorium, which goes into effect immediately following its passage, was approved by the council with a unanimous 6-0 vote. Council Member Rory Paxman was absent and did not vote while Vice Chair Terry Morse called into the meeting and voted by phone. It will last for the maximum amount of time allowed under Utah law and includes hotels, motels, campgrounds, bed and breakfasts, condominiums and townhomes, plus “any other uses associated with overnight accommodations,” according to the draft ordinance. Any persons or entities that have already “procured land use entitlements” or filed complete applications are exempt from the moratorium.

Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine said there are projects totaling "approximately 500 units" of overnight accommodations that have vested with the county and will not be included in the moratorium.

Of the 15 people who addressed the council, 14 spoke in favor of the measure. Reed Pendleton, a local campground owner, was the one person to argue against the moratorium. He said campgrounds should not be included in the ordinance, citing the smaller profit margin when compared to hotels and the high number of RVs that visit Moab and need a place to camp.

Those who expressed support for the moratorium did so for a variety of reasons. Some, such as research scientist Travis Nauman, talked about water and drought, saying the county needs to better assess what water resources are available before allowing more unfettered growth. Carol Mayer focused on the need to “put on the brakes” so the council can figure out what is best for locals.

Three members of the Grand County Planning Commission spoke as private citizens in favor of the moratorium.

Bob O’Brien spoke about “the need to do something,” saying the moratorium will provide the time needed to figure out what that something is. He noted that approximately 39 percent of housing in the county is “non-primary,” meaning a sizeable portion of the housing stock is taken up by second homes and overnight rentals.

Kevin Walker expressed surprise that the moratorium has received bipartisan support, calling the unity “refreshing.” He said that a vote for the moratorium is “the easy one” and that it will lead to more difficult decisions down the road.

Gerrish Willis, chair of the planning commission, said he is in favor of the moratorium since he thinks the county needs to work on a long-term plan for commercial development. He said if all the commercial space was taken up by overnight accommodations, it would leave little room for other businesses “that pay the taxes that are going to keep this county afloat.”

Former planning commissioner for the City of Moab Wayne Hoskisson said the moratorium is “a great idea” though he wishes it could last for a longer time period. “Six months is not enough time to get the things done that you need to do, but it’s a time to start,” he said.

Cali Bulmash described the struggle to find housing in Moab, noting how the volume of overnight rentals negatively affects housing availability. “The amount of overnight rentals and hotels compared to the regular housing we have is not a model for a sustainable community,” Bulmash said.

Bob Greenberg noted that Moab is dealing with a “boom problem,” which is better than a bust, but is nonetheless a real problem. “I wish the moratorium was a real solution, but it’s not. It’s a chance to take a breath and look for a real solution, a chance to involve as many people as possible in devising it,” he said.

Council Chair Evan Clapper said the idea for the moratorium came up during discussions about the county’s proposed high-density housing overlay. “It seemed relevant to pump the brakes for a minute and take a look at our planning in the county,” he said. Clapper noted that in his time as a council member, the most common question he is asked is: “What are we going to do about all these hotels?”

Following the period of public comment, Clapper read some of the reasoning for the moratorium from the ordinance. Reasons included the nexus study that showed a connection between new lodging-related development and the demand for below market rate housing; the large increase in the cost of all housing types in Grand County; the recently conducted groundwater study that showed a lower yield than previously estimated; the rapidly increasing budgets of emergency medical services, search and rescue and law enforcement; and the high number of complaints from residents about the impacts of overnight rentals.

Notably, the council’s packet for the meeting included a petition for a moratorium that was signed by 99 county residents back in 2016.

Council Member Mary McGann made a motion to approve the moratorium and Jaylyn Hawks seconded. Before the vote, Council Member Curtis Wells asked, “How do we amend the land use code to address these issues?” No council member had any specific changes in mind. For the next six months, the county council and planning commission will work to devise zoning changes they hope will alleviate the impacts of overnight rentals.

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