Judy and Gary Carmichael want to develop a residential subdivision for local middle-class families on this 20-acre alfalfa field and horse pasture off Spanish Valley Drive south of Moab. The Rim Village development and the Old Spanish Trail Arena are pictured in the background. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Alfalfa fields could give way to as many as 70 new homes for local middle-class families, under a Spanish Valley couple’s plans to develop farmland they’ve owned for four decades.

Judy and Gary Carmichael are asking the Grand County Council to rezone 20 acres of vacant land off Spanish Valley Drive, just east of the Old Spanish Trail Arena and the Rim Village townhome development.

Gary Carmichael said the project is tailored to local residents who can’t afford homes that routinely sell for $500,000 or $600,000.

“We need something for the working-class people,” he told council members during their meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 15.

A majority of Grand County Planning Commission members previously recommended that the council should deny the Carmichaels’ request for a rezone, which is not in line with the county’s revised General Plan.

However, county council members who spoke during a Dec. 15 public hearing on the proposal were largely receptive to the Carmichaels’ plans, provided that safeguards can be adopted to prevent the land from becoming high-end overnight rentals.

“I’m in favor of upzoning there,” Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird said. “It’s just a matter of how much, I guess.”

Baird said that when he looked at a satellite image of the surroundings, it was fairly obvious that it’s already “pretty impacted” by development, including Rim Village, the arena and denser residential housing to the northwest.

“It’s already sitting right in the middle of quite a lot of stuff that’s going on,” he said.

However, in the event that the county council rezones the property, Baird is concerned that there are no guarantees to ensure that middle-class residents could afford to buy new homes within the subdivision.

“Just because we increase density doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to get any affordable housing out of it,” he said.

Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine said that similar concerns came up during the planning commission’s Dec. 9 review of the Carmichaels’ proposal.

“Right now, we don’t have any mechanism in place to prevent all of that increased density from being expensive increased density,” he said.

They do have Judy Carmichael’s word for it, though.

Carmichael – a former county council member who lives just across the road from the property in question – said she wants to build about 70 units of standard housing for middle-class families who work in the area. The development would be an “actual subdivision,” she said, as opposed to a gated community for wealthy visitors and part-time residents.

“We wanted the land to be cheap enough and the houses to be small enough that people who are working in Grand County could actually buy houses that could appreciate in value, and 15, 20, 30 years down the road, they can pass them down to their children,” she said. “We were not looking to build overnight anything.”

The couple owns their land free and clear, she said, so they don’t need to build the greatest number of homes that would be allowed under the rezone in order to maximize their returns on the property. But they do need the county to approve the request, she said, if they’re going to act quickly.

“The housing crisis is now,” she said. “The rezone would put us in a position to move forward a little faster.”

Unlike land speculators, Carmichael said she and her husband didn’t buy the property just to develop it.

“We have 40 years of history on this land, but we’re done,” she said. “We’re done farming.”

When they purchased the land in 1975, no zoning designations were in place.

Three years later, the county imposed the still-current restrictions, which allow one house per acre in order to accommodate septic tanks. Judy Carmichael said she was told that the rural-residential designation would change to large-lot residential zoning once sewer lines were routed through the area, although that change never happened, she said.

The Carmichaels put the property up for sale about a year ago, and over time, she said they heard from developers and real estate agents who advised them that the market for one house per acre is already saturated.

If they can’t move forward with the current proposal, Carmichael noted that the property will still be sold.

“And it won’t be as easy for you to control the development and what it becomes after it’s out of our hands,” she said.

As things currently stand, Grand County Planning Commission member Joe Kingsley noted that the adjacent Rim Village is home to some of highest-density housing in the community.

While four of the planning commission’s six members sent a negative recommendation on to the council, Kingsley made a motion in support of the proposal because he believes the extra housing would be a boon to the community.

As long as officials continue to place restrictions on higher-density housing, he said, they won’t solve Moab’s housing problem.

“We’re perpetuating it,” he said.

Kingsley said the board defeated his proposal in part because some planning commission members are concerned about the distance between the property and downtown Moab.

Levine noted that the county’s General Plan calls for higher-density housing developments closer to Moab’s city center; there’s also a concern about setting a precedent for future developments in the county, he said.

Grand County Council member Mary McGann sat in on the planning commission’s meeting, and she believes that there was broad support for the Carmichaels’ plans.

“What I took away from the planning committee was that everybody supported what Judy’s concept was,” she said. “The concern was, if it was somehow taken out of her hands, there wasn’t a guarantee that her vision would happen.”

Grand County Council member Ken Ballantyne said his only concern about the proposal is the effect it could have on Spanish Valley Drive, which might not be in the best shape to handle increased traffic loads.

“It’s kind of a paved cow path,” Ballantyne said.

The public comment period on the proposal will remain open until Wednesday, Dec. 30. The county council is scheduled to vote on the Carmichaels’ request at its next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016.

Couple wants to build subdivision on Spanish Valley farmland

I’m in favor of upzoning there … It’s just a matter of how much, I guess.