As Grand County officials explore ways to promote economic diversification and housing availability for local residents, some landowners and business leaders are expressing concerns that over-regulation will deter positive growth.

Nearly a dozen citizens addressed the Grand County Council during a public hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 6, ahead of a scheduled vote next month on a proposal that could largely prohibit new overnight rental accommodations in the county’s highway commercial zone.

Many members of the public voiced agreement with the planning commission’s conclusions. However, local landowners with property in the contested zone overwhelmingly opposed the proposal on Tuesday night.

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd with residents, business owners and other community stakeholders, critics of the proposal voiced concerns about their livelihoods, as well as the efficacy of using government regulation to drive development.

Red Cliff Condominums developer Brad Mikesell said he purchased land in the highway commercial zone with the specific intent to develop housing that buyers could choose to use as overnight rental accommodations.

He opposed the proposed change, regardless of whether his properties are grandfathered in for their current use, he said.

The Red Cliff Condominiums complex currently includes five three-story buildings, each with 12 units, many of which are licensed for overnight rental accommodations.

“What has to be understood is, financially, I could not rebuild that today,” Mikesell told the council. “To build stacked or high-density housing, you need three stories, and that requires construction to commercial code. If I were to build that same complex today, I’d be looking at $250,000 per door, and that is not affordable housing.”

He supported other landowners’ protests that they should be able to develop their land according to the intent with which they purchased it in the first place, he said.

The Red Cliff Condominiums complex is in its final construction phases, and the new buildings could still be used as overnight rental accommodations if the council approves an “overlay” zoning designation for the property.

The county created the overlay designation in 2008 as an option to be granted at the county council’s discretion for developments in zones where that use is otherwise not permitted, but may be appropriate for overnight accommodations within an entire subdivision or condo-style buildings.

Grand County Planning Commission member Joe Kingsley said that because the overlay option is available, the amendment would simply require developers to be up front in their disclosures of planned uses. That’s why he voted in favor of it, he said.

The planning commission has granted development applications made under the pretense that the housing will be for the local population, and then watched developers sell to out-of-town investors who turn the housing into overnight accommodations, he said.

“People use the code as a loophole to be dishonest,” Kingsley said, speaking as a private citizen. “That loophole has got to be closed.”

Many at the public hearing questioned whether the development uses still allowed under the proposed amendment would achieve the planning commission’s economic diversification objectives. For example, a developer could still build an RV park, bed and breakfast, hotel or motel – uses which require building to commercial standards without seeking an overnight accommodation overlay exception.

Moab dentist Jeffery Cornelius purchased 1.2 acres along the highway commercial zone as an investment given the zoning designation it had at the time. His intention has been to build out slowly as his finances allow, maximizing the allowed 18-unit per acre density by constructing duplexes.

“My biggest concern with (the overnight accommodations overlay) is that it becomes subjective,” he told the Moab Sun News. “And when it becomes subjective, it also becomes inherently unfair.”

Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine explained that following months of research and deliberation, the Grand County Planning Commission came to the conclusion that some regulation is necessary to maintain a balance between current development trends and the full spectrum of long-term community interests.

The current trend in permitting and construction suggests an ongoing increase in development of overnight rental accommodations, he told the council. While five of the planning commission’s seven members did not find that trend to be a problem in itself, they did determine that overwhelming the highway commercial zone with such development would eliminate opportunities for other, potentially higher, uses there in the future.

“No one is disputing the many positive benefits of growth in the overnight accommodations sector, but there are also several impacts they create and other community interests to consider,” Levine said. “This amendment does not stop overnight rentals; it simply provides the county more options to decide how, how much and where to put overnight rentals.”

The zone at issue includes highway frontage land near the future Utah State University–Moab campus, where infrastructure projects are under way in anticipation of groundbreaking on buildings in early 2019.

Many government and community leaders see the future campus as key to the area’s economic prospects. Levine explained that by limiting the land use code in the surrounding area now, the county could help preserve space for future uses beyond construction of housing for out-of-town visitors.

“The new university will help diversify the economy,” Levine said. “But if these areas are taken over by overnight accommodations, where will that commercial development go?”

Levine acknowledged that the zone change is ultimately up to the council, as is the decision whether to grant overnight accommodations overlays in the future.

“Although an updated approval process concerns individuals with financial interests (in) the overnight accommodations industry, many would agree that the Moab community is nearing a point where it’s reasonable to ask developers of such uses to be clear about their project intentions and provide an argument in support of their project,” he said. “If somebody wants to develop overnight accommodations, which are commercial uses, it only seems fair to review and approve them as commercial development, require commercial construction and assess commercial impact fees.”

Opponents see government overreach; supporters say change is needed to preserve housing for local residents

No one is disputing the many positive benefits of growth in the overnight accommodations sector, but there are also several impacts they create and other community interests to consider.