Moab City Police Chief Mike Navarre, left, and city council members Tawny Knuteson-Boyd, Heila Ershadi (in red), Kalen Jones and Kyle Bailey (in light blue) visit the Humane Society of Moab Valley, where the city is building a new facility for rescued cats with money from a private donation. The shelter was one stop on a city infrastructure tour that included visits to recreation areas, sewer and stormwater facilities, and other public buildings, where officials are assessing the needs for ongoing maintenance work and renovation projects. [Photo courtesy of Rebecca Davidson]

For the first time in more than a decade, Moab’s city council and planning commissioners are sitting down with each other to update the city’s general plan.

At a joint city council and city planning commission workshop on Thursday, March 17, officials focused on affordable housing in particular as they discussed the next steps to amend the city’s building code, and to flesh out the current draft of the updated general plan.

The meeting marks the first open dialogue between the two bodies in more than 10 years, Moab City Planning Commission chair Jeanette Kopell said.

Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison opened the meeting by affirming the city staff’s determination to work with the planning commission toward effective solutions.

“We’ve got to open up these lines of communication,” he said.

The planning commission is committed to moving the process to a meaningful conclusion, Kopell said. She said she hopes that the newly opened lines of communication will increase understanding between the two governmental bodies.

“I’m excited that I’m going to be working with city council,” Kopell said. “This is about Moab. If you want me to be happy, you’ll make Moab a better place to live. Not what you think it ought to be, but what this community has said it wants to be.”

Communication between the planning commission and city staff has been a “challenge” in the past, Kopell said. It’s also a primary reason for stilted progress toward the passage of an updated general plan that effectively addresses Moab’s affordable housing woes, she said.

Beginning in 2012, with the aim of unveiling a general plan update in 2015, the planning commission sat down with community members and technical specialists to paint a picture of the city’s circumstances and its needs moving forward.

“Change is coming, people are coming; we are expected to meet the needs of growing numbers of tourists and our community population, as people work toward better quality of living,” planning commission member Laura Uhle said.

This year, officials said the draft of the general plan will be updated with new data to inform policy decisions and set concrete goals.

“We want to make sure we have a solid general plan,” Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson said. “You wouldn’t build a weak foundation for a house; you wouldn’t want a weak general plan for city code development.”

Davidson said the city is committed to a new approach toward its stewardship of infrastructural development and maintenance, as well as housing affordability.

Among other things, budget appropriations and a new staff position will help ensure that the dialogue between the council and planning commission remains open and healthy, she said.

Moab’s newly hired Community Services Director Amy Wieser will take on the role of the city’s affordable housing coordinator, serving as the point person who drives the city’s affordable housing initiatives.

Affordable housing advocates say that international destination cities from Moab to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Vail, Colorado, are grappling with the economic realities of major wealth disparities in their communities. Potential solutions to the issue could put the onus on developers to mitigate the effects of building investment housing for high-income homebuyers with conditional-use requirements to include units that are more affordable to lower-income people.

The process of writing codes that govern city development is deceptively simple, Sakrison said.

Zones are defined, and then permissible applications of development within zones are defined. At that point, conditional uses can be assigned to nudge development in the direction that the city ultimately wants to follow.

One example of a conditional use rule would require a developer to include a certain number of affordable housing units on any parcel within a certain zone.

The challenge the planning commission and city council face now is clarifying the code.

“We don’t want any gray area,” Sakrison said. “We want to do away with the term ‘reasonable.’ We need to have defensible positions we can define when questioned.”

Over the next 12 to 18 months, the city plans to seek additional community input, while gathering more data to guide the final draft of the general plan.

“I really think we’re focused on improving our infrastructure,” Davidson said. “It’s a simple thing, but it’s critical. We can’t wait any longer.”

Approving codes and policy that lead to actual change will require “immense political will,” said former Grand County Council member Audrey Graham, who currently serves on the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah’s board and as chair of the Moab Community Land Trust.

“I am so happy that there’s action happening,” Graham said. “Not just attention and worry, but actual action.”

Graham said she is concerned, however, that new policy may fall short of affecting real change if policymakers aren’t prepared to stand their ground in defense of community-centered development when challenged by economic interests.

“Affordable housing isn’t a problem the market can fix in a resort community,” Graham said.

Officials working jointly on first plan update in more than a decade

We want to make sure we have a solid general plan … You wouldn’t build a weak foundation for a house; you wouldn’t want a weak general plan for city code development.