THE BUZZ: Hey, Are You?

By on September 20, 2016

A modified plan for ARUs, one solution proposed to aid the housing crisis, is hammered out based on revisions and recommendations from an ad hoc committee.

Areas in green indicate where the ARU Working Group supports ARUs . The group is not in support of areas in red.

Areas in green indicate where the ARU Working Group supports ARUs . The group is not in support of areas in red.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When the town’s ARU (Accessory Residential Unit) movement hit a speed bump on August 15 at second reading it was beginning to look like déjà vu. Once again a proposed ordinance concerning land regulations was met with measurable blowback. This time town leaders hit the pause button and immediately scheduled workshops, neighborhood outreach meetings, and ordered a committee be assembled to delve deeper into the issues.

The process began in early April when the town council directed staff to explore allowing ARUs in areas zoned Neighborhood Conservation (NC), Stable (S), and Residential (R). These accessory units could be attached to an existing home or a detached apartment elsewhere on a property. The idea, according to town officials, was to take advantage of “low-hanging fruit” in order to provide additional workforce housing. The difficulty would be preserving neighborhood character in single-family home neighborhoods.

The upside of ARUs is they could provide much needed rentals for the community at no cost to the town or taxpayers. They would also provide an opportunity for some property owners to generate additional income to help pay their mortgages. Some 70 ARUs have been created since 2002 in neighborhoods where they are currently allowed.

Sticking points include tightknit neighborhoods resistant to character changes or perceived reduction in their property values. Parking is also a key concern. And how would the town enforce rules concerning ARUs, given that compliance has been an admitted problem with illegal short-term rentals, for instance.

Public input has been almost evenly split between those wanting a chance at accessory units and those opposed. For the most part, longtime residents in established neighborhoods do not want ARUs.

The majority resistance to ARUs comes from the Gill Addition and residents in neighborhoods designated as “stable.” Town officials justify modifications to stable neighborhoods by saying they are falling victim to second homeowners (an undesirable form of instability).

Longtime resident Patty Ewing is disappointed larger lot owners in suburban zones like hers were not better represented. She said the periphery of town creates “a very important buffer between a busy downtown corridor and the wildlife we all love.”

Ewing said she would “hate to see the chipping away at the kind of values and priorities that we as a community have established in the Comprehensive Plan. We have worked very hard and spent a lot of money as a community trying to establish some priorities and character districts. And when we designated single-family zones, to me, that means just that. But these ARUs, in the guise of helping to take care of the pressing need for affordable housing, in my opinion, doesn’t [get it done].”

East Jackson resident Dave Monroe says he is eyeing an additional space in the future as his kids grow up and would like the opportunity to build a small rental on his property on Simpson Ave, where ARUs are currently prohibited.

“We know that housing pressures are growing ever more extreme here in Jackson, and ARUs are one easy way for private landowners to help mitigate that shortage without costing the town or county much more than basic infrastructure needs,” Monroe wrote town officials. “While I share the concern others have noted over the character of the neighborhood, I feel that the new construction in our neighborhood has been very tastefully done.”

With an ARU plan on the books and set for second reading, the process was halted so an ad hoc advisory board can study the situation. Participants included various residents representing their individual neighborhoods.

The ARU Working Group is comprised of Karen Merrell (Absaroka), Lorie Cahn (Wapiti), Arne Jorgenson (Pioneer), Dennis Gralund (Gill Addition), Katy Niner (Absaroka), Bill Collins (Disconnected end of Pearl), Donna Glen (Vacant lot on Wapiti), and Destin Peters (Upper Cache Creek). They met twice in the last week of August and introduced their recommendations to the council last Monday.

“Having done this many times, I would have to say this was one of the more productive groups I’ve worked with,” said joint town-county planner Tyler Sinclair, who presented the group’s comments to elected officials.

The group examined seven bullet points and made some tweaks that staff was generally in support of.

Council hashes out details

The working group simplified where ARUs would be appropriate and what should be the minimum lot size. Previously, staff proposed a more convoluted set of standards, but residents like Jim Genzer suggested to the council a KISS approach to avoid unnecessary headaches.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” Genzer said. “Don’t complicate the issue any more than it’s already been complicated.”

Setbacks were carefully scrutinized. To protect viewscapes and guard privacy, town officials adopted a five-foot setback rule for buildings less than 14 feet high and 10 feet setbacks for accessory units taller (up to 28 feet max). Lesser setbacks were OKed at the rear of properties bounded by an alley and not a neighbor.

Size of accessory units was also changed slightly. The town had original permitted 800-square-foot units across the board. The adjusted plan is to allow for smaller houses—as little as 500 square feet depending on lot size—in acknowledgment of the “tiny house” movement.

Councilman Don Frank doesn’t care much for 500-square-foot units, believing them to be more expensive to build than larger ones. Matt Faupel, a partner at Jackson Hole Real Estate Associates and member of several local boards including START Bus, said a 500-square-foot unit was too small to even be classified in the Housing Authority’s database.

“You are leaving it to singles or people that are going to roommate up. Solutions that address families are missing,” Faupel said.

The Gill Addition is considered sacred ground by many of the residents who live there. Former state senator Grant Larson has been the vocal leader of the Gill gang, often introducing himself as the “old curmudgeon from the Gill Addition.”

“I don’t think we are trying to be elitists. We’re trying to preserve what we’ve had in the neighborhood [for decades],” Larson told town electeds. “And quite frankly, it’s just not solving a problem. Most people in Gill are there until they die. They are not going to be building ARUs. You are not going to gain much. Any gain is a loss of the friendliness and camaraderie we’ve had there for nearly 60 years.”

The vote on whether to include the Gill Addition as an ARU appropriate neighborhood passed on a close 3-2 vote. Councilmen Bob Lenz and Jim Stanford were opposed. Stanford said he disagreed that ARUs would make for an unfriendly neighborhood but said he was honoring a pledge to listen to feedback and “take the temperature” of each neighborhood.

“The temperature in Gill is ice cold,” Stanford said.

Mayor Sara Flitner said incremental progress on housing needed to be made, and Frank said he gets uncomfortable when anyone claims to represent the feelings of a larger group. He suggested residents of Gill Addition self-regulate their neighborhood.

Parking is a big concern for all. The consensus is to allow for one space per bedroom of any ARU. Parking in town is already a problem with many residents upset over boats, campers, and other “toys” parked on the street in front of their homes for weeks on end. Some worry adding more cars to town streets may create more of an eyesore.

Sinclair said the working group spent the most time on the final bullet point category of enforcement. Everything depends on it, and everything begins to fall apart without it.

“How can the town address existing enforcement issues around rentals, parking and noise?” Sinclair speculated.

The committee floated a few ideas including a rental licensing program designed to make sure ARUs were being rented properly by owners who actually lived onsite. One fear is that absentee second homeowners who are already renting their main house will build an ARU and rent that too. Town staff admitted enforcement via licensing would be labor intensive and probably not practical.

Committee member Arne Jorgensen, a local architect, noted, “Enforcement will be biggest issue. The town needs to address rental issues—ARUs or otherwise.”

Lenz worries about compliance after a property sells to a new owner while Frank thinks citizens should bear more responsibility in policing themselves. Stanford agreed, saying people have to hold themselves and each other accountable.

With the adoption of the working group’s recommendations, staff will redraft ARU ordinances and prepare them for a future meeting where they will go back to first reading. PJH

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