The Grand County Council voted 4-2 on Tuesday, May 17, to rezone this 38.95-acre property at 2022 Spanish Valley Drive from large-lot residential to multi-family residential. Developer Michael Kaesky is proposing to build a 220-unit subdivision on the land. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

The issue of affordable housing is at the center of several amendments to Grand County’s land use code, and so is a rezone request for a controversial 220-unit subdivision that the Grand County Council approved on Tuesday, May 17.

The council granted the developer of the proposed Arroyo Crossing subdivision an upzone from large-lot residential, to multi-family residential on 38.95 acres he owns at 2022 Spanish Valley Drive. Council members Chris Baird, Lynn Jackson, Mary McGann and Elizabeth Tubbs voted in favor of the upzone, while Jaylyn Hawks and Ken Ballantyne opposed it; Rory Paxman abstained from voting on the motion.

Changes to the land use code include a provision to relax regulations governing the development of accessory dwelling units; the removal of open space requirements on planned unit developments; and an ordinance to improve and streamline the administration of land use applications.

Grand County Planning and Zoning Administrator Mary Hofhine said the changes are needed to address affordable housing issues in the county, and to speed up the development process by making it more efficient at the administrative level.

“These areas were identified as barriers to affordable housing in the land use code,” Hofhine said. “The thought is that these changes will allow for more affordable housing.”

Square footage allowance on accessory dwellings was increased from 800 square feet to 1,000 square feet, and the council eliminated a requirement stating that property owners must live in the primary dwelling. The council also amended the land use code to do away with open space requirements on planned unit developments.

Hofhine said that planning department staff determined that open space requirements failed to produce meaningful and functional open space areas, and that more importantly, the requirements inhibited the use of affordable housing density bonuses.

Baird said that although open space made sense on paper, in reality, it “hasn’t really played out to any advantage.”

“And, as some folks have said all along, we’re completely surrounded by open space and that is the truth,” he said. “It makes sense to me to let people own that space privately. I think it will be better utilized and taken care of.”

However, Baird took issue with an amendment to Article 9 of the Land Use Code to streamline the administration of land use applications. The ordinance does away with public hearings during the preliminary plat process and gives authority for approval to the county’s planning commission.

“I believe that it is very important for the elected officials of Grand County to be the authority who vets development rights, and that all happens with the preliminary plat,” Baird said. “I’ve been through Cloudrock, and several other very contentious development applications, and I just can’t imagine that it would be a good idea to give total control of the approval of these projects to a non-elected board of volunteers. I foresee a lot of problems with this decision moving into the future.”

Hofhine said that anything granted through the preliminary plat would have to meet the requirements of the land use code, and that the new amendment would make the process more efficient, as well as cut down on “public clamor” at hearings.

Hofhine said that public clamor often amounts to no more than a “not in my backyard” sentiment, and that subdivision requirements are established by code.

“If a development meets the standard of the code, it should not be denied unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary,” she said.

Hofhine said that the public is protected by code at that level of the process through things such as setbacks, landscaping and fencing requirements, and that council approval would still be required for final plats, zone changes and conditional uses.

But, Hofhine said, “If you live next to a vacant lot in town or the county, it’s going to get built on.”

County official calls commitment to affordable housing “unprecedented”

Affordable housing was also at the center of council approval for the master plan and rezone request for the proposed Arroyo Crossing subdivision.

The council first rejected the proposed development of 220 housing units earlier this year due to a lack of commitment on paper to affordable housing. Developer Michael Kaesky has since made a formal agreement to commit 20 percent of the units as deed-restricted affordable housing.

Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine told the council prior to the vote that such a voluntary commitment on behalf of a developer is “unprecedented.”

“This will be the first development of its kind (in Grand County), and I think it is absolutely commendable that the applicant is willing to do it,” Levine said. “For Grand County to have 44 units designated for affordable housing in this subdivision would be truly remarkable.”

Baird said he is pleased that the developers of Arroyo Crossing voluntarily committed themselves to a “very substantial fraction” of affordable housing in their development proposal.

“My hat is off to them, and I’ve always said that if a developer is willing to commit to affordable housing, that I’m willing to commit to an upzone,” Baird said. “This is the first time it’s really happened and I’m optimistic about the project.”

The county received numerous letters opposing the development. Citizens’ concerns ranged from potentially negative impacts on the area’s rural character, increased traffic, drainage issues and damage to wildlife habitat.

Local resident Peter Nicholson, who protested the rezone request at the council meeting on May 17, told the Moab Sun News that he encourages the development of affordable housing, but as a civil engineer, he sees many issues with the project.

“The drainage is ridiculous and traffic will be absurd,” Nicholson said. “These things needed to be studied and researched before it passed.”

Hawks raised concerns about drainage and traffic, as well as environmental disturbance.

“It looks to me like there is no way to make all of this happen without pretty much leveling the whole place,” Hawks said. “Maybe this can’t be taken into consideration but that is a beautiful mature desert ecosystem that I feel like is just going to be completely destroyed.”

Levine said that drainage and traffic plans were too costly to require from a developer prior to preliminary plat approval, but added that the applicant would still have to resolve those issues.

“The applicant still has much more work to do in traffic planning and with storm water,” Levine said. “This is not a rubber stamp. With the master plan, you are approving the concept and the density.”

Ballantyne questioned drainage issues, as well.

“Does this document address the drainage?” he asked. “At what point in the development process do we make sure water isn’t going to be dumped onto another property?”

Levine said that final approval would have to come from the county engineer and that in accordance with county and state land use codes, “development flows off of a property cannot exceed pre-development flows.”

“In other words, a development cannot increase off-site flow on to other properties,” Levine said.

Tom Shellenberger, a real estate agent for the developer, said that a project of this scope has been long overdue in Grand County. As a member of the planning and zoning commission in 2005, he helped develop the master plan overlays that identified areas suitable for greater density and affordable housing.

“We took a field trip and looked for areas that would be more conducive to these types of developments, while keeping an increase in density closer to town,” Shellenberger said. “This is one of the last large parcels where something like this can happen.”

Shellenberger said that the development would have a mix of housing unit types and cover a spectrum of economic tiers.

“It won’t all be affordable, but it will provide necessary housing for local people in our community, such as employees from the sheriff’s office, teachers and federal government agencies like the BLM,” he said. “It can be done sensitively, which is something I’ve wanted to see in Moab for a long time.”

Affordable housing at the center of actions regarding proposed 220-unit subdivision, and other changes to land use codes