Will county trip up housing with new zoning policies? | AspenTimes.com

Will county trip up housing with new zoning policies?

Allyn Harvey

Is Pitkin County in the process of abdicating all responsibility for building affordable housing?The answer depends on whom you ask. But for three planning commissioners and five or so people at the most recent county Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, it appeared so.The county planning staff came to the P&Z on Tuesday with three proposals to radically alter the zoning rules for affordable housing in the upper valley. The options included a new zoning overlay that would make development of affordable housing more expensive, and the rezoning of two parcels from “affordable housing” to a more restrictive zone that allows only one unit per 20 acres.The P&Z recommended denial of two of the proposals by a margin of 3-1 and split, 2-2, on the third – a recommendation to downzone W/J Ranch.Regardless of what the planning commissioners think, however, the fate of all three proposals will ultimately be decided by the county commissioners, who will vote on them on March 10 (first reading) and March 24 (public hearing and second reading).”It seems to me,” said P&Z Chairman Peter Martin, “people run for office on a platform to provide affordable housing, then pass laws to prevent it. That seems to me to be the pinnacle of hypocrisy.”Specifically, Martin was referring to the proposed affordable housing overlay, and it consumed much of the Tuesday night’s debate.”The net effect of this proposal is to deny affordable housing in this area,” said Basalt architect Ted Guy. “From what I can tell, that is its purpose – to continue exporting the affordable housing problem downvalley to Basalt, Carbondale and, yes, even Silt.”The overlay proposal (known in planning parlance as “Rural Cluster Affordable Housing Overlay Zone/Planned Unit Development”) would give developers the opportunity to build up 45 units of affordable housing as long as they meet certain conditions – ones that most people at the meeting found burdensome.One condition is lot size: A minimum of 100 acres is needed to participate. Another is location. Qualifying lots must be within a half-mile of Highway 82, a quarter-mile of a transit stop and at least partly within the boundaries of the “extended metro area,” a creation of the Aspen Area Community Plan which runs downvalley from Aspen to the Aspen Village trailer park.The quarter-mile requirement can be waived, however, if the developer is willing to provide “peak hour” transportation between the development and the nearest transit stop.Only two 100-acre lots meet all the location requirements, but Assistant County Attorney Marcella Larsen told the P&Z that the proposal allows smaller, separately owned parcels to be combined to qualify. The overlay zone would allow up to 45 units, but they must be built in three separate clusters of 15 units on just 15 percent of the parcel – the remainder would be reserved for open space.If adopted, the overlay would deviate sharply from existing county policy, because it does not offer any incentives to those who participate.Most affordable housing programs offer developers exemptions from growth management controls or bonuses that allow extra units for sale on the free market. But the proposed overlay zone not only lacks incentives, it actually penalizes developers in the opinion of everyone at Tuesday’s meeting – including the planner who devised it. If, for instance, a developer built all 45 units allowed on a 100-acre parcel, he would be prohibited from building anything else, including a home for himself.David Schoenberger, who sat through two P&Z meetings on the subject, urged P&Z members to reject the overlay zone. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with the affordable housing zone district right now,” he said.”We’re designing zones,” visibly frustrated P&Z member Charlie Tarver said, before pausing and changing tack. “Do we want something built out there, or are we trying to keep 778 units from being built at the W/J?”County commissioners rejected W/J developer John Musick’s application for 778 affordable units on the property.The overlay proposal has been packaged with proposals to cut development rights at W/J Ranch from hundreds of affordable housing units to just five free-market homes, and downzone a county-owned parcel that was acquired in exchange for the right to develop large homes at Wildcat Ranch between Snowmass Village and Aspen Village.The 35-acre Wildcat lot is now zoned for affordable housing; under the staff’s proposal, it would rezoned to RS-20, which would allow just one home on the lot.Tarver and fellow planning commissioner Martin struggled with the same philosophical issues that cropped up at a P&Z discussion last month on the topic. Neither want the county to downzone the last large parcel in the upper valley – W/J – that is zoned for affordable housing. And both are opposed to the overlay district on the grounds that it is a disincentive for affordable housing.In February, county planner Lance Clarke said the new zoning rules were being written with the idea that affordable housing requires a certain willingness on the part of the developer to sacrifice financial gain. “I think for anyone, anywhere to build affordable housing, there has to be commitment,” he said.The one vote in favor of the overlay came from P&Z member Steve Whipple, who has been consistently opposed to further development at W/J. Whipple said he thought that affordable housing should be the city of Aspen’s responsibility, not the county’s.Whipple unsuccessfully urged his fellow commissioners to overcome their fear of losing one parcel from the affordable housing stock and vote for a zoning change that would put affordable housing along the transit corridor where it belongs.Commissioner Sheri Sanzone joined Tarver and Martin in recommending denial on the overlay district and downzoning the Wildcat parcel; she voted with Whipple to recommend downzoning 115 acres at W/J.

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