New ground rules on horizon for hotel development

Smaller, prettier, solar-powered

File photo by Carter Pape

Within the next two months, the City of Moab will likely have new ground rules for local hoteliers and other lodging developers seeking to partake in the large and growing economic pie that is Utah tourism.

The new rules may well mark the beginning of a new era in Moab, one in which lodging operations are more environmentally sustainable, smaller in size, more aesthetically pleasing, and less strenuous for Moab’s ailing infrastructure.

The new era could begin as early as Jan. 14, when the City Council is scheduled to vote on the new set of rules. The vote could be earlier if the city protracts its already months-long timeline for writing the rules; it could be later if they hit any bumps in the final stretch.

What are the new rules?

In the northern corridor of the Moab Valley – between the Colorado River and Rubicon Trail, which is one mile south of Lion’s Park and the bridge – lies the Resort Commercial zone, the designated area for the city’s largest lodging projects.

The Resort Commercial zone is the subject of the city’s first stab at new regulations for lodging development in the valley. Draft plans for the area call for a slew of changes to the existing rules for the area, including mandates for smaller buildings, projects that generate or buy as much renewable energy as they consume, projects that minimize the need for tourists to drive around downtown, and more.

Environmental concerns

In the area of building performance, new lodging developments in the Resort Commercial zone would, if the draft rules are passed as written, be required to generate 80 percent of the energy they use onsite. That will likely mean new hotels end up using solar panels for most of their electricity needs, geothermal heating, highly insulated windows and building design, and other strategies for reducing energy usage.

As for the remaining 20 percent of a project’s energy usage, building operators would have to either purchase the balance as renewable energy credits from Rocky Mountain Power or generate it on-site. The alternative to those requirements is for the developer to have the building LEED certified or obtain a similar certification for building efficiency.

Water would be another major area where lodging developments will be regulated, with new developments allowed to use no more than 10 percent of their project space for “sod or non-native grass,” according to the draft ordinance, and a rainwater catchment system to be required on all new sites.

New hotels would also have to allocate space for a shuttle stop so that, in the event that Moab finds itself with a transit system in the future, visitors would use their cars less in the downtown area (and possibly nearby parks and recreation areas) and use public transit more.

Building size, structure

City staff have drafted plans to limit the total size of buildings to three stories, 20,000 square feet and 40 feet in height. Maxing out on the size requirements, however, would come with strict standards on how the building gets used.

Building three stories high instead of two, for example, would only be allowed if the developer also dedicates project space for and or builds employee housing. The developer could also opt to build at least 20,000 square feet of commercial uses onsite besides lodging, with possible uses including public markets, pharmacies, day care or “similar uses” to those, according to the draft ordinances.

Overall, new lodging projects in the Resort Commercial zone would be allowed to use no more than 40,000 square feet of building space for lodging. Space dedicated for commercial uses besides lodging or for housing would not count toward this maximum.

Beyond these structural and size requirements, developers would also be made to adhere to certain aesthetic requirements, such as setbacks and façade variations, used in other municipalities to ensure the buildings have an interesting look rather than looking like a big, grey box.

The rules would limit primary building materials to high-quality stucco, adobe-type materials, stone, brick, metal siding, glass, wood lap siding and other materials, and “earth tone colors” would have to be used to complement the surroundings.

Will the state get in the way?

Regarding the process, the rules-drafting began in February, when the city and county each passed six-month moratoria on new lodging developments, allowing certain plans that the city and county had already begun reviewing to continue, but preempting the possibility of any new hotel developments getting started.

Those bans have since turned into indefinite moratoria with both councils passing ordinances to remove lodging development as a protected use in areas in the valley where new developments were previously eligible to be built.

Now, the start of the state’s general legislative session is on the horizon, scheduled to begin Jan. 27, presenting to Moab officials the possibility that state lawmakers will convene in Salt Lake City and vote to preempt the valley’s lodging moratoria.

State lawmakers, however, have been largely mum about this concern. For the past week, a spokesperson for the Utah House of Representatives has not responded to multiple calls and emails requesting for comment on the matter.

The concerns of local officials might, in the end, prove to be moot. The city and county each have over a month to pass draft ordinances to restore lodging as a protected use in the valley, reviving developers’ opportunities to realize their hotel or other projects, but on much different terms than they have had in the past.