Snowmass exempts basements from max floor area for homes
September 24, 2013
Contractors can get back to work on homes in Snowmass Village after the passage Monday of an ordinance amending the town's land-use code.
The biggest change approved by the Town Council was adding a partial exemption for basements or subgrade levels from the calculation of allowable floor area in single-family homes. A working group suggested the exemption because more builders and homeowners are finishing out below-grade crawl spaces illegally in order to increase habitable living space.
That presents health and safety concerns and enforcement difficulties, a memo from the working group said. The former wording of the floor-area ratio regulations also created headaches for planning staff during building-permit application processes, it said.
Much of the discussion Monday night revolved around the definition of basement or subgrade space. Town Manager Gary Suiter was concerned that the exemption would impact revenue from the floor-area excise tax, which is collected from owners who wish to build or expand their homes as much as 550 square feet or 10 percent of the maximum allowed footage for their lots. Suiter and town Finance Director Marianne Rakowski studied revenue for the past 31/2 years and concluded that about half of the tax dollars potentially could have been eliminated if the exemption had existed then.
However, Suiter also pointed out in his memo to the council that many homeowners still would have applied for additional floor area.
"We think they would purchase as much as they can get under the law," said senior planner Jim Wahlstrom.
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Suiter suggested in his memo that subgrade area be qualified as a minimum of 75 percent below grade, rather than the 50 percent proposed, to curb the potential loss of excise tax revenue. Architect Michael Manchester, a member of the Floor Area Working Group, said that would exclude a lot of homes.
"It should be available for most people who are on hillside lots, which is what it was originally created for," Manchester said. "Raising that number would make that more difficult."
Wahlstrom said 50 percent might be "too easy of a standard to meet" and suggested a compromise. However, he also pointed out that a higher standard might encourage more "cut and fill" and unusual landforms around houses.
"Has there been any consideration given to how we might replace the revenue other than this percentage?" Councilman Chris Jacobson asked. "It seems somewhat arbitrary. It also potentially leads to the construction methods you're referring (to), which I think wasn't an intention. It somewhat privileges the very steep-slope house as opposed to any other house."
Manchester said the town might lose excise tax dollars but potentially could gain revenue from building-permit applications for remodels with the change.
Real estate broker Greg Rulon, who also served on the working group, said one of its primary concerns was safety.
"It it doesn't add to the mass and scale, why not make it easier?" Rulon said. "I think what we're discussing is not a major thing. … We're kind of overemphasizing that."
Contractor Shannon Sweeney said he was representing three different clients in the process of applying for a building permit who were waiting for the council's decision on the amendments. The amendments first were proposed to the council at its Aug. 5 meeting.
"We can't make a decision on what to design until this either passes or doesn't," Sweeney said. "I've done dozens of projects here in the village. I've only ever bought the excise tax once. I don't think it's going to affect the excise tax negatively to have the extra square footage."
Councilwoman Markey Butler moved to adopt the ordinance amending the code on second reading, including the exemption for basement or subgrade areas that are a minimum of 50 percent unexposed or below grade. Basements will be excluded from the floor-area calculations at a rate of 15 percent of the maximum allowable area. The maximum exempted amount is 1,000 square feet.
The council voted to approve the ordinance, 3-2. Councilman Jason Haber and Jacobson voted against it. Haber said at the Aug. 19 meeting, when the vote on second reading was tabled and the public hearing continued, that he wanted a more restrictive application of the code "rather than making the (floor-area ratio) give way to accommodate violations that we know are going on around the community."
He also wanted to complete work on a zoning-compliance certificate or process that the Floor Area Working Group and Planning Commission recommended. That would require a zoning-information report at the time of sale of a residence.
At least one other council member, Fred Kucker, said he wanted to return to that at a later date, and it was not included in the ordinance Monday.