THE BUZZ: Housing Hopes

By on October 5, 2016

Electeds forge ahead with ARUs, District 2 remains grounded and a massive housing project hangs on.

(Photo: Town of Jackson)

(Photo: Town of Jackson)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Town leaders continue to work their way through revisions to land development regulations in Jackson that are intended to give better clarity to what landowners can do with their properties. Some features may also put much-needed workforce housing on the ground. Two such changes are headed in opposite directions.

A proposal to add more accessory residential units (ARUs) potential to an expanded area of town passed first reading Monday after the plan was reworked by an ad hoc advisory group.

The 600-plus-page revised land development regulations (LDRs) for Jackson’s downtown core District 2 hit a bigger snag last month when a referendum vote repealed the changes to that district and sent elected officials back to the drawing board. At Monday’s regular town council meeting, officials discussed how they might go about wiping the proposed LDRs from the books and move forward with crafting a replacement.

The council also heard from three developers hoping to break ground with their plans, and a fourth that voluntarily put off his remodel until zoning laws are firmed up.

ARUs pass first reading

At first blush, ARUs could conceivably provide housing relief in a way that would benefit both landlord and tenant without costing the town and taxpayers anything. But ordinances allowing or relaxing restrictions on things like mother-in-law suites and guest houses may degrade neighborhood character, some worry.

“Part of the reason ARUs appeal to me is you have an opportunity for an ideal scenario where an owner who is renting on their property [creates] a relationship that benefits both the owner and the renter in terms of keeping rent affordable, and in terms of compliance and other issues we’ve considered in supporting this,” said councilman Jim Stanford during Monday’s meeting.

Sticking points are compliance and size. The working group came to the consensus that everything hinged on whether the town would be able to monitor these ARUs to make sure homeowners actually lived on the property and indeed rented to locals with jobs. And what could be done about parking the additional renters?

“Enforcement was the biggest issue for the working group. I’m disappointed there was no commitment to address that,” Lorie Cahn, a member of the advisory group, told councilors.

Town staffers say they do the best they can monitoring ordinances now, but it would be difficult to keep track of ARUs especially after properties change hands. Mayor Sara Flitner put the onus on citizens.

“It will take a lot of community effort, and we need to rely on each other,” Flitner said. “It is incumbent on all of us as neighbors to help make sure the rules we have on the ground are adhered to. It takes all of us to make our neighborhoods function.”

Regarding a maximum size of 500 square feet for detached units on smaller lots, councilman Don Frank maintains they simply don’t work. “I will assert again that a 500-square-foot detached unit will never be built. They are far too expensive to build,” he said. “Shrinking these things to thimble size is counter-productive to our goal of actually seeing them get built.”

Stanford rejected the notion that keeping rents reasonable and ensuring properties didn’t become frat houses would be troublesome. He also thought smaller sized units could pencil for homeowners.

“Part of the goal here is to create affordable housing. By the size of the unit alone it helps ensure these units remain affordable,” Stanford said. “And just in my neighborhood I’ve seen an 800-square-foot detached unit and it’s hard to tell which is the primary unit and which is the ARU. And the rent is preposterous compared to what you or I might envision as being affordable. As people move toward tiny homes and ways to do things in smaller spaces this gives them a way to put a tiny home on their property and call it an accessory unit.”

Ordinances concerning ARUs passed first reading with few changes.

District 2 redo

Frank began discussion about District 2 with a bang.

“You betcha,” Frank exclaimed at Monday’s meeting when the mayor asked if anyone wanted to open the discussion. “There was a very noticeable, very well-funded, and very targeted argument about short-term rentals. I was curious about that. I couldn’t decide whether that was a coincidence or a very strategic propaganda effort. And I would have preferred that the sponsors of this referendum had been more honest about what they wanted to discuss … rather than fulminate a lot of misinformation and a lot of drama and a lot of emotion. And then bait-and-switch the issue after they got a lot of people wound up. I had to get that off my chest.”

The council ultimately decided against an emergency ordinance (a two-week process) and instead made the first of three readings (a six-week process) Monday to erase regulations from zoning code. Town leaders also expressed a desire to get busy right away with a revised set of zoning regulations so developers don’t remain in limbo. Some wanted to go fast, others, slower.

“I make the case for doing this quickly. To me it’s not ideological. I’m only trying to be practical,” Stanford said on proposing an emergency ordinance to repeal District 2, while simultaneously slicing out short-term rentals and retrying iced zoning. “I feel like we were very close. The only thing that people seem to go ballistic about was the change we made before the second reading.”

Flitner seemed more cautious. “I read the papers. I want some assurance that we are not headed for another referendum. Doing it in six weeks instead of two weeks seems prudent,” she said.

Frank said that since the referendum repealed all ordinances concerning District 2 and not just the short-term rental aspect, town officials had the opportunity to put “everything back on the table” in redrafting another set of LDRs, rather than just stripping out that quarrelsome aspect and moving forward quickly. He said he was OK if the process took up to 10 weeks.

“Frankly, capitulating to a very small minority with a very small voting outcome, I don’t think is good government at all. I think it’s a great example of pinpoint lobbyists using dog whistle politics to promote an agenda that I don’t believe is shared by the majority of the 4,540 [registered town] voters.”

The council promised to have something drafted for their next meeting in two weeks.

On the ground

While electeds wrestled with theoretical tweaks to zoning, one developer came forward with a concrete project ready to go. Or at least ready to tap the town’s water.

Zane Powell representing Hidden Hollow, a proposed 168-unit housing project at the former site of the Forest Service headquarters on N. Cache, is seeking assurances the town would be willing to take ownership of the property’s onsite water/sewer infrastructure, and needed permission to begin grading onsite. He was admittedly out ahead of the curve with the request since the town council has not seen so much as a sketch plan for the project, though it did recently receive approval from the planning commission.

“Everybody told us it would be a two- to three-year process to get through [planning], and another two or three years to get a building permit,” Powell said. “We refused to believe that. If we get sketch plan approval this fall and do grading and water/sewer, that gives us the winter months to bring to you a final development plan. It puts housing units on the market in 2017 rather than 2018.”

Hidden Hollow is projected to be a mix of affordable, workforce and market units on the 10-acre parcel. According to Powell, the project will consist of 13 single-family home sites, 20 multi-family townhouse units, and 135 additional units built within apartment/condominium buildings.

Bob Lenz called the project a “huge development” and said the additional sewer load would push the town’s wastewater treatment plant “to the brink.”

Flitner also was uncomfortable with the size and scope. “I don’t know if we are about right with the number of units, or whether it’s way too dense, or what. I’m not able to make a decision right now,” she said, adding, “If we get value (housing) and more protected units that are not vulnerable to second home purchase or use, that would be something I would like the opportunity to consider. Because we just learned this afternoon that 27 percent of the units in our community are empty for a significant portion of the year, or occupied by someone who doesn’t work and live in our community. I’m at least interested in the housing being tied to someone with a job here.”

Stanford wasn’t interested in giving away too much, too soon, saying he wanted more assurance affordable units in Hidden Hollow would remain affordable. He also was not interested in footing the entire bill for infrastructure work.

Frank embodied the collective will of the council by expressing a desire to hold off until electeds could get a better understanding of what was going in on N. Cache.

“I do appreciate the applicant’s desire to move quickly to create housing of various types including workforce housing,” Frank said. “However, it’s not been my experience that we move ahead with a grading permit when this body hasn’t even seen so much as a doodle on mass, scale, or clustering.”

Hidden Hollow received a “wait and see” from the council until its sketch plan presentation scheduled for October 17. PJH

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