Town of Snowmass looking at land use code changes to mitigate exemption misuse
Town officials are proposing an amendment to the Snowmass land-use code that would change the way basement and mechanical space exemptions are measured and determined.
The changes are in response to a years-long trend of misuse of these exemptions in some redevelopment and new home projects, which community development officials feel impact public safety and the residential character of the village.
“What we’re seeing is people using what should be exempt space for mechanical for a different use that wasn’t included in the calculation of the floor area,” said Julie Ann Woods, town community development director.
“What we get real concerned about is when someone converts this space into a bedroom and it doesn’t meet the egress requirements, then it can become a real life safety issue.”
According to the current Snowmass land-use code, a developer building a new home or renovating an existing one is bound to the floor area ratio and limit of the lot they’re constructing on.
However, there are exceptions to and ways around this floor area allowance. Homeowners can opt to purchase Floor Area Excise Tax space, if eligible, or pursue garage, deck, mechanical and basement exemptions, according to town documents.
To qualify for a basement exemption, developers need to demonstrate that at least 50% of the outside walls of a home’s lowest level, or basement level, are subgrade, community development department officials explained.
If a project meets this exemption, developers can add as much as 15% of the allowable floor area to the upper or lower levels of the home as exempt space and have an unlimited mechanical space area in the basement, officials said. If a home doesn’t qualify for a basement exemption, mechanical space is limited to an additional 5% of the allowable floor area, but is still exempt space.
But instead of using the unlimited mechanical space as intended to house utilities and boilers, town officials often see these spaces as finished rooms used for various other living purposes. And if a home doesn’t qualify for a basement exemption, town officials have seen fill added around the home so that it does qualify and is granted the extra exempt space.
These manipulations of town standards to maximize floor area create potentially dangerous situations and can be difficult to navigate, town staff said.
“We don’t have much traction because even if someone has an 800-square-foot-plus room dedicated to mechanical and the mechanical is only taking up a small fraction of the room, the way our code reads right now we don’t really have any recourse,” said Brian McNellis, town senior planner.
On a recent morning in Town Hall, McNellis and Woods walked through some of the basement exemption misuses their department has run into.
The community development officials explained that they often don’t see this misuse until they are called to complete a final review and issue a certificate of completion or of occupancy, depending on the project; or years later when an owner goes to sell their home, realtors ask town planners to do a review and planners find space marked as exempt to be non-conforming.
“It’s always kind of an after the fact thing that we have to deal with,” Woods said, but noting it’s often remedied in a number of ways depending on the situation. “There are some options they have, but it comes back as ‘Oh, now we have to fix this because somebody didn’t follow the rules.’”
Woods and McNellis said this problem isn’t new to Snowmass — exemptions have been misused to maximize floor space area since 2013, which is when the current land use code language was approved to help lessen building permit review time and the mass and scale of structures, according to town documents.
Community development officials have been talking about bringing forth changes to the code to mitigate this misuse and better align with the 2013 intentions as a post-2018 town comprehensive plan initiative.
However, Woods said a few “more egregious” examples recently prompted the department to get the ball rolling and propose a few code changes:
Amend the way subgrade is measured so that’s from either existing or proposed finished grade, whichever is more restrictive
Eliminate the unlimited mechanical space within qualifying basement exemptions, determining the general mechanical space exemption as 5% of the allowable floor area
Clarify the code definitions of existing and finished grades.
“The goal of the proposed amendments would be to contribute to an improved environment and to the orderly development of the town by discouraging disturbance to sites and reducing above-grade mass and scale,” the town staff report and analysis of these changes states.
At the regular Town Council meeting March 2, Woods and McNellis presented these proposed land-use code changes and showed examples of exemption misuses.
After a lengthy discussion about if these changes would detract redevelopment and construction of new homes, or keep people from pursuing green energy alternatives — as both clean and new technology equipment can take up more mechanical space—council approved the first reading of the code-change ordinance.
But for architects like Michael Manchester, who submitted a detailed letter to the town evaluating the land-use code changes, the amendment won’t do much to impact residential mass and scale in the village and deters homeowners from pursuing clean energy options.
“The technology we put in homes today is very significant the 5% limit is nowhere near enough space,” Manchester said March 9. “Higher level technology takes up a lot more space, and if you ask someone to give up square footage to put it in, it won’t happen. We’re creating a situation that discriminates against alternate energy systems.”
Manchester has worked as an architect in Snowmass for 36 years and was a part of the committee that crafted the current land-use code language. He said he thinks some of the proposed changes are warranted and that the town’s concerns are valid.
But Manchester also feels focusing on floor area within a home is not going to affect the mass and density of the village and may not be the best way to tackle the exemption misuse issues.
For some time now, Manchester said he’s proposed the town enact height and building footprint limits to help control mass and density, and feels that may be a way to address the town’s concerns.
“I think trying to use (floor area ratios) to fix this problem doesn’t really relate to mass and scale,” Manchester said. “I actually think we’ve seen a reduction in people converting these spaces illegally because you can’t sell homes with illegal spaces.”
Manchester plans to attend the Monday council meeting, where elected officials will vote on the second reading of the ordinance enacting these land-use code changes. He said he wants council to understand how the changes will impact how homes are built and how much they cost, and hopes council does not take the decision lightly.
Mark Kittle, the town’s chief building official, said he’s weighed in on the code changes as well, agreeing that unlimited mechanical spaces in exempt basements have caused problems, but also that it’s important for these mechanical spaces to be large enough for maintenance workers to access the equipment inside safely. He sees that percentage aligning more with a 7.5% cap than 5%.
“Square footage is very valuable up here, that’s what it’s all about and that’s why you see these things happen,” Kittle said. “From a building standpoint, I’d rather see larger mechanical spaces to protect the workers.”
Woods and McNellis said they fully expect architects and other stakeholders to turn out for the council meeting Monday to express their opinions. They feel overall the town has a great working relationship with the design community, and agree that this is an important conversation to have with council and the community.
“Everyone isn’t doing this. … We just wanted to bring it to council’s attention, make them understand these sorts of things are happening,” McNellis said.
“We felt it was our obligation to bring this to Town Council to see if they could make a determination if they want to continue on with these regulations.”
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