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Pitco wrestles with cost of growth

Allyn Harvey

With just eight weeks to go before the development moratorium is scheduled to end, Pitkin County’s planning staff and elected officials are working overtime to create a new section of the land-use code and recreate another.

As the work gets into the nitty-gritty details, there remain several “big picture” issues to be decided that could have profound effects on homeowners from Redstone to Mountain Valley.

For instance, how is the county going to figure out exactly how big a house really is? Is it livable space? Or should the total include garages, basements and outbuildings like barns and storage sheds?

Perhaps to the relief of some developers, there remains considerable give and take in the debate over such questions.

The issue came up in a big way last Thursday, when of the Board of County Commissioners and the Planning and Zoning Commission were discussing details of the brand new section of code known as “Fair Share.”

The two boards have been meeting jointly since the end of April to provide the planning office and county attorney’s office with the direction they need to craft the new rules.

The term “fair share” was coined out of a study prepared by county planner Gabe Preston that indicates only 12 percent of residential construction fully pays the county’s affordable housing mitigation fees. The remaining 88 percent pays just part of the affordable housing mitigation, or none at all.

Using two studies conducted earlier this year, the county has developed new regulations to require residential developers to pay into the affordable housing pot and cover at least some of the costs of expanding and maintaining county roads.

As the commissioners tried to decide last week how to deal with additions – should they be subject to the same fees as new homes, should small additions be treated differently than large ones – the question of how to calculate house size took front and center in the debate.

Most of the commissioners on both boards thought the county should exempt small additions, between 1,000 and 1,500 square feet, with larger additions having to mitigate for roads and affordable housing. But Planning Commissioner Steve Whipple said there should be exemptions for up to 3,000 square feet.

Whipple said he was willing to consider a smaller exemption if the county dropped a new method under consideration for calculating a home’s total square footage.

He pointed out that the new method would make it impossible for homeowners in several neighborhoods to do something simple like remodel a kitchen, much less add 1,000 square feet.

“I’m worried about existing homeowners, not second-home owners, being thrown into nonconforming-use status and being unable to make changes to their houses,” he said. “You’re talking about millions of dollars in real estate that’ll be nonconforming under this new system.”

Before Whipple spoke up, the county commissioners were well on their way to revising the method for calculating a house size by including basements and garages in the square footage calculation. Both are currently exempt to one degree or another.

The ensuing discussion saw Whipple’s colleagues and county commissioners alter their positions at least partly.

County Commissioners Leslie Lamont and Patti Clapper agreed that garage space may need to retain at least some of its exempt status. Currently, the county does not count the first 750 square feet of garage space into the overall house size.

Lamont and Clapper asked the county staff to bring back language that would exempt a 500- to 550-square-foot garage – the size of a typical two-car garage. Commissioner Shellie Roy Harper was in favor of keeping the exemption for 750 square feet, which she recalled was a difficult number to arrive at 10 years ago.

County Commissioner Mick Ireland was one who wasn’t willing to bend on the garage exemption. “My thing is you give people a package of square footage and they can do what they want with it,” he said.

But none of the commissioners were willing to continue exempting basements. The original exemption was granted to try to discourage large, sprawling homes. “I don’t think we should exempt basements anymore. The idea backfired,” Clapper said.

The county commissioners and planning commissioners are scheduled to meet twice this week, tonight and Thursday night, to discuss revisions to the growth management section of the county code.

The meetings run from 5:30 to 9 p.m. The public is welcome to attend, and time is usually set aside at the end of the meeting for public comment.


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