County restricts rural affordable housing
Aspen Times Staff Writer
The Pitkin County commissioners agreed this week that it is time to put an end to the prospect of publicly subsidized affordable housing being built in rural areas.
The commissioners decision comes on the heels of Lowe W/J Inc.’s unsuccessful application to nearly double the number of homes on the W/J Ranch near Woody Creek.
The developer used the county’s AH3/PUD zoning rules to propose building more than two dozen affordable housing units in exchange for the right to build several large homes on open meadows that previous owners had promised to sterilize from future development.
Although the application failed, it highlighted the philosophical Catch-22 that arises whenever the county’s desire to build affordable housing runs up against its longstanding effort to limit sprawl and preserve the environment.
At one point during the hearings on the Lowe W/J application, it appeared as if Lowe’s proposal would pass 3-2, primarily because of its affordable housing element. In the end, however, it failed on a 4-1 vote that seemed based on the need to preserve open meadows that serve as an important wildlife corridor and that previous owners of the ranch had agreed to sterilize.
On Tuesday, the commissioners directed Lance Clarke, deputy director of the county’s community development department, to rewrite the land-use code so large affordable housing projects can never be built outside designated urban growth boundaries.
Urban growth boundaries surround cities and towns like Aspen and Basalt and their immediate vicinities. Local planners and elected officials have long espoused the need to direct development into areas that already have the infrastructure – water, sewer, electricity, roads, transit services – necessary to support it.
If the amendments to the land-use code are adopted, projects such as the Aspen Valley Ranch, the green houses near Snowmass Canyon that house teachers, and Pitkin Iron, a mixed free-market, affordable housing project near the turnoff for the county dump, would no longer be allowed. Clarke pointed out that those are the only two affordable housing projects ever built in rural areas under the AH3/PUD zoning.
Clarke also noted that former W/J Ranch owner John Musick used the AH zoning to propose a massive 778-unit affordable housing project on the ranch.
“There’s a standing recommendation from staff to eliminate the AH3/PUD and rewrite AH to preclude its use outside urban growth boundaries,” Clarke said.
Three of the four commissioners present Tuesday – Patti Clapper was not at the meeting – were wholeheartedly in favor of eliminating the zoning rules that allow the type of applications that have come from owners of the W/J Ranch.
“If we say you can’t build high-density projects outside the urban growth boundary, we should find ways to encourage it within the UGB,” said Commissioner Mick Ireland.
Commissioner Dorothea Farris agreed, but she also wanted a provision that requires the county to review and potentially adjust the urban growth boundaries once every 10 years.
Only Shellie Roy expressed doubts about a wholesale elimination of allowances for rural affordable housing, although she agreed that the more intense development allowed under AH and AH3/PUD should not be permitted.
Roy proposed that staff look into the possibility of allowing developers and land owners to build more homes than permitted under county and state rules, as long as they are modest in size and clustered in one area of the property. In exchange for the greater density, the developer would have to agree to deed-restrict the homes so they could not be sold on the free market.
Roy discussed the possibility of allowing developers to build modest homes on five-acre lots instead of one monster home on a 30-acre lot.
“I would like to give people motivation to do something besides build a mansion on a 35-acre lot,” she said.
“I don’t know if we want to encourage pods of development in rural areas,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.
In addition to eliminating the zoning that allows large affordable housing projects in rural areas, the commissioners also directed Clarke to draft a staff opinion on the feasibility of Roy’s proposal.
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