By Doug McMurdo
Two weeks after the Grand County Council seemingly allowed the long-anticipated High-Density Housing Overlay ordinance to die an ignoble death without so much as offering a eulogy, members resuscitated the controversial zoning plan at their Jan. 2 meeting.
With new Chair Evan Clapper taking over for Mary McGann and Terry Morse assuming the title of vice chair formerly held by Curtis Wells, council members listened to several citizens who urged them to keep working on the zoning overlay changes that would allow for denser neighborhoods.
Native Moabite and Realtor LuDean Merritt brought her 40 years of experience to the table when she implored the council to “make the overlay zone work for everyone. There’s no inventory out there.”
Merritt said homes that sold for $245,000 a short time ago now go for $300,000 to $325,000 – and in any event, most of the workforce couldn’t afford one at the lower price. “Employers need to pay more money,” she said. “We’re still 1,000 homes short.”
“Change is hard,” said Glen Lent, president of Alpine Development in Park City. “The fear of the unknown is scary.”
Lent said he has “chased dirt” in Moab for nine months. He said he has experience in developing affordable housing and mentioned Summit County, where the housing ordinance was zoned for very low density in Park City before “a lot of available land was bought up.” The Summit County government also encouraged affordable housing, he said, but didn’t pursue that type of development. “The council wasn’t willing to have the necessary backbone,” he said.
The bureaucratic red tape stalled Lent’s Park City project for more than a decade. “It took 11 years to get approval,” he said. “From 2007 to 2018. Looking back it literally took years off my life. The council wanted affordable housing, but when push came to shove they were not willing to do it.”
Lent said the big difference between Summit and Grand counties is affordability. While Moab’s median home prices have passed the $300,000 threshold, the cost of homes in Summit County has skyrocketed. He said he sold his “modest” 2,800-square-foot Park City home for $550,000 a couple of years ago and it just resold for $1 million. “Obviously there’s an affordability gap,” and Park City is now a second home locale for the wealthy, he said.
The workforce largely commutes from less expensive areas around Park City and that in turn has created traffic congestion issues.
Lent assured the council the zoning ordinance does not provide “a windfall” for developers. Here in Moab, he said he recently purchased a four-acre parcel on which he intends to subdivide into 34 lots.
He corroborated Merritt’s concerns about the low pay offered by most local employers, because of lenders’ worries over a return on investment.
“I would love to do apartments,” he said. “HUD [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] will finance, but they’re not particularly interested … the fear is that incomes are still too low to risk a $10 or $20 million investment.”
Council Member McGann said, “I wanted to bring this back up because we need to so something…We’ve been working on this since 2016.” She noted the council has had 20 meeting discussions and a few open houses, as did the Grand County Planning Commission, along with workshops and other public outreach. “We owe it to our citizens,” she said. “People who oppose [the ordinance] aren’t struggling to find a place to live.”
She said some critics of the overlay zone cite concerns over water supply. McGann’s response was she would rather people who work and live here to get that water than “hotels, motels and second homes.” McGann also noted local governments, including the school district, law enforcement and Moab Regional Hospital all struggle with recruiting due to the housing issue. She asked: “What needs to change to make it palatable?”
Council Member Wells said the plan’s pluses are that it’s incentive driven and that a local employee requirement is in play to be eligible.
His concerns are that he’d like to see the plan be phased in with an emphasis on helping landowners who want to see denser housing. He said the plan as it now stands is “too far-reaching.”
Wells said he appreciated the effort put into the overlay, “but we are the governing body and the buck stops with us.” Wells also said he would prefer if the plan removed the highway commercial zone from the overlay.
Vice Chair Morse said the council was not obliged to make a decision “just because we spent a lot of time on it. The most important thing is we do it right.”
Council Member Jaylyn Hawks raised the concerns that the zone was “Too much too soon and too much in terms of density.”
Chair Clapper, who made the unsuccessful motion to approve the overlay at the council’s Dec. 18 meeting, didn’t leave any doubts where he stands.
“It’s so frustrating to bring it up and we can’t even get a second,” he said, referring to December’s meeting. “If it’s too much too fast … let’s figure this out and approve this thing.”
Clapper said critics of the plan should be “straight up and say, ‘I got mine, I don’t really care.”
“Talk is cheap,” said resident Joe Kingsley. “We need housing and the overlay opens the book for people to say, ‘this piece might work.’ Every one of these [proposed developments] comes to you. In the 1990s the county restricted growth and now we’re suffering. It’s up to you.”
Grand County Community and Economic Development Director Zacharia Levine, whose department has been the driving force behind the overlay, said there are no current rules that would prohibit mixed use zoning in the commercial corridor. He also said current zoning provides for 18 units per acre by right.
He indicated there is a “false sense of strength in the land use code that just isn’t there.”
Voting on land use policy, he said, “often boils down to political will.” But Levine also reassured council members that the issues that remain could be ironed out.
Said Wells, “I think we’re getting close.”
Clapper said the overlay would remain a standing agenda item for the foreseeable future, with another discussion scheduled for the council’s Jan. 15 meeting.