City Council retreats to reflect on past year, set new priorities

Focus on quality of life, land use

By Nathaniel Smith

The Times-Independent

Moab City Council held an all-day retreat on Saturday, Feb. 9 to reflect on what was accomplished this past year and what its priorities are moving forward. The wide-ranging discussion covered topics such as affordable housing, sustainability efforts, planning and zoning goals, management of water resources and how to maximize the efficiency and transparency of city government.

Most of the retreat was spent going over the administrative work plan, which gives direction to city staff for where their efforts should be focused in the coming year. At the meeting’s outset, City Manager David Everitt asked the council to provide a “clear direction on priorities for staff work.” During the review of the work plan, the council determined which items had been accomplished and could be removed, which efforts are in progress and what should be added to the plan.

The first impactful decision the council made was to rearrange some sections of the plan. While that may seem to be a superficial change, it has practical implications. The order of the work plan determines priority, which in turn is reflected in how the budget is allocated, said Mayor Emily Niehaus. The council agreed to move Quality of Life up to section one, moving it ahead of housing and water resources protection.

The Quality of Life section includes a variety of initiatives, all of which were listed as “ongoing” or “in progress.” Listed first is the goal for the city to “support a high-level community-driven visioning process.” Council Member Karen Guzman-Newton suggested involving both Grand and San Juan counties in the process. A major part of it is developing a future land use plan, which Guzman-Newton said would be “driven by residents.” The main purpose of such a plan would be to determine which areas of the city are best suited for high-density development.

The city has brought on LandMark Consultants to assist with developing a future land use plan. Niehaus requested a workshop be scheduled with LandMark before the end of February to decide on the scope and goals of the plan. Everitt noted it would be important to make code changes before the expiration of the city’s recently implemented moratorium on overnight rentals. Following the workshop with LandMark, the council will seek input from the community. This could change Tuesday night. Check with editorial before placing.

Another ongoing effort in the Quality of Life section of the work plan is developing a 10-year sustainability plan. City Sustainability Director Rosemarie Russo said an obstacle has been creating a community inventory that would establish baselines for things such as Co2 emission levels. She noted that Moab is “trending in the wrong direction” when it comes to energy use goals. In light of the recent public outcry against increased utility bills to pay for recycling, Russo worried more ambitious sustainability goals might be a tough sell to the community if they require a sizeable investment. Russo said that without resources, a plan alone would never lead to goals being achieved.

Other programs the city will continue pursuing include implementing a dark skies initiative, addressing ATV/UTV noise issues and supporting the construction of a Utah State University campus.

Housing is now the second priority in the city’s administrative work plan. After the passage of the Workforce Assured Housing Opportunities Ordinance in November, the council was able to remove assured housing from the list of goals. Everitt said that the city’s senior projects manager will continue working to identify and reduce barriers to affordable housing in the city code, which will likely involve further discussions regarding the Planned Affordable Development ordinance that has been in the works for months.

Council Member Kalen Jones suggested creating a way to fast-track “bona fide” affordable housing developments. He also said the council needs to figure out a way to protect existing housing stock from becoming second homes or overnight rentals. The council decided to add the development of the city’s recently acquired Walnut Lane property to the work plan to replace assured housing. Another measure the council considered was paying the impact fees for people who want to build an accessory dwelling unit on their property.

The council spent a lot of time discussing land use and infrastructure. With numerous interconnecting plans in the works, much thought is being put into the future of Moab. Niehaus asked for a timeline for the various plans. Everitt estimated that the General Plan would be completed first, sometime in the spring. The Downtown Master Plan is next, with a completion date in late spring or early summer and the closely related citywide parking plan will follow later in the summer. Smaller-scale, neighborhood specific plans that are primarily “citizen-driven” are also in progress, said Everitt.

The biggest goal accomplished in the land use and infrastructure section was the removal of conditional uses from the city code. Sewer, culinary water and stormwater master plans were also finished in the last year. Jones suggested adding a traffic plan to the to-do list.

City staff accomplished several goals in the Open and Better Government section of the work plan. Implementing an online agenda management system, creating a communication plan, updating the city’s website and revising non-land use sections of the city code regarding GRAMA requests, business licensing and alcohol regulation were all completed goals. Furthermore, the process of creating an online public records archive is “approximately 80 percent complete.”

The council also looked at the structure of its meetings and brainstormed ways to expedite the process to keep them from running late and make it easier for citizens to get involved. Council members debated how best to organize the agenda so people waiting to present aren’t kept in anticipation during a long discussion.

One particularly contentious issue was how to handle the citizens to be heard section of meetings. Some council members expressed interest in emulating the county council’s method, which allows citizens to comment during specific agenda items. Niehaus was adamant about keeping all citizen comments contained in one portion of the meeting. She said it prevents the meeting from being “cluttered” and gives people a better idea of when they will be able to speak.

“I think that’s better management of time, personally,” said Niehaus. The council did not unanimously agree to change how comments are handled so it will remain the same for the time being. Though the council may try experimenting some with the agendas, like including presentations in the Administrative Reports section of meetings so people have more information when they make their comments.

Near the end of the retreat, the council discussed the organizational structure of the planning department, which has undergone significant personnel changes in recent weeks.

Assistant City Manager Joel Linares spoke about how busy the department is and the need for more planning staff. Linares said that if the council wants to accomplish the planning goals they spent the whole day discussing, then the planning department will need to be strengthened.