Developers are planning to build a 196-unit apartment complex on this property at 1780 E. Mill Creek Drive, as seen facing Spanish Valley Drive in the distance. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

The developers of a major apartment complex off Mill Creek Drive can now move forward with the next phase of their plans for the 196-unit project.

Moab City Council members voted 4-1 on Tuesday, March 28, to approve a conditional use permit that allows housing on the ground floors of the planned 10-building, three-story complex at 1780 E. Mill Creek Drive. Rani Derasary voted against the majority.

There was little discussion among council members in the few minutes between the time that Tawny Knuteson-Boyd made a motion to approve the permit and the final vote was tallied. However, the council’s consideration of the issue was far from rushed in the preceding weeks and months: It tabled the proposal three times to further review proposed conditions that council members and others suggested.

Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi said she believes that the council went through a deliberative process in the time leading up to the vote. During that time, she said, the project’s neighbors had the opportunity to weigh in on applicant Hogan & Associates’ request for the conditional use permit, and the council developed a range of requirements for the developers to meet.

“I think the time it took to get to the vote was well spent because we did come up with some conditions that mitigated the impacts to the neighbors, which was very important to us, and important to the developer, too,” Ershadi told the Moab Sun News on Wednesday, March 29.

Development partner Mike Bynum of Millcreek Development, LLC said he’s happy that the council approved the permit. He said he supports a conditional deed restriction that establishes long-term rentals for a 15-year period, as well as the conditional use to allow apartments on the ground floor.

“I think it’s a good thing for the community,” Bynum said.

But Spanish Valley Drive resident Mike Toninelli – the project’s closest neighbor – said he’s disappointed that a majority of council members didn’t delve further into the city’s code to support additional changes to the developers’ plans.

“To me, it was like little piddly stuff,” he said. “I really expected more out of the council.”

Among other things, the council set forth new requirements for a 6-foot-tall wooden privacy fence along the property’s northern and eastern boundaries, as well as conditions for exterior lighting and landscaping. The developer must also participate in the construction of future improvements to the Mill Creek Drive frontage, and guarantee that finished elevations of each building “shall not exceed” 40 feet from the final grade.

Knuteson-Boyd noted that under the current zoning, the developers would have been free to market ground-floor units on the property as overnight rentals that serve tourists, as opposed to housing for local families. For that reason, she said, she supported the request for a permit.

“I felt it was much more important that we have additional housing versus overnight rentals,” she told the Moab Sun News. “It’s pretty simple in my mind.”

“Time to act,” council member says

During her general report to the council, Knuteson-Boyd shared a letter from a mental health specialist who works with local schoolchildren. According to the specialist, entire families are living in camp trailers without electricity, running water and appliances, while other families with six or seven people are crammed into one-bedroom apartments, creating “toxic stress situations.”

“I didn’t necessarily tie it to my vote at that point,” Knuteson-Boyd said. “(But) it strengthened my reasoning and it strengthened my decision to vote the way I did.”

Knuteson-Boyd said she has no illusions that the Mill Creek project alone can solve Moab’s affordable housing woes. But she hails the developers for their commitment to placing deed restrictions on about 38 of the project’s units, which will increase the availability of affordable housing, while providing basic facilities for some families, she said.

Local officials often talk about affordable housing and attainable housing, Knuteson-Boyd said, but the time has come for them to act.

“We’ve got to put some muscle behind that talk,” she said. “We can’t be such sticklers on code and policy that we forget there are children and families out there that are lacking basic necessities.”

Bynum is involved in the redevelopment of property on 100 West and Williams Way for a new “Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection by Hilton” hotel. And when numerous affordable housing units were razed to make way for that project, he agreed to develop local workforce housing elsewhere.

“It displaced a lot of people, and he promised to build housing for the community,” Moab City Council member Kyle Bailey said. “He was encouraged to do that by the city – to provide affordable housing or market-driven housing.”

To be clear, Bailey said, a previous city council made the decision to annex the Mill Creek Drive property into the city limits during former Moab City Manager Donna Metzler’s administration.

“This current city council, they weren’t really involved in the whole thing,” he said. “They got caught up in a situation that wasn’t theirs.”

From his perspective, Bailey said he thinks the city did “mess up” when it annexed the land, and may not have been fully aware of the impacts that the process could have on several homes in the surrounding area.

Bynum, however, has since made some concessions, Bailey said, such as moving apartment buildings farther away from Toninelli’s property.

“He did make a lot of adjustments to the situation of the buildings,” Bailey said. “He tried to mitigate it as much as possible.”

For Toninelli, though, the planned height of the three-story buildings remains an issue.

“Probably one of the big things is it’s all uphill for me, which makes a 40-foot building much, much taller,” he said. “It’s hard to sit here and grasp what 40 feet is.”

The painting contractor bought seven-tenths of an acre in unincorporated Grand County 35 years ago because he valued its rural character – and close proximity to the city center.

In that time, Toninelli has watched the thumb-sized saplings he planted grow into mature trees, while he transformed his home’s former attic into living quarters and even built a new kitchen for his now-ex-wife.

Today, he said, the property he’s cared for and improved over the decades is all he has to his name.

“I was just hoping to spend the rest of my life here, and my kids would get it at the end,” he said.

Toninelli said he’s never stated that he doesn’t want the development, but he is pressing for additional changes to the project. If the developer could reduce the size of the buildings from three to two stories, he said, it would be an “easy solution” that may deliver a slower return on the investment, yet would still be profitable in the long run.

In the event that doesn’t happen, Toninelli is concerned that he’ll lose his commanding views of the Moab Rim, and miss out on the striking sunsets that the self-described “old hippie” enjoys.

“These guys (will) just take out my winter sun,” he added. “It will be like living out in Castle Valley right up against the canyon wall.”

Nor does he know what to expect of the sheer number of people who will be living so close to his property.

“I don’t know what it will be like having that many people looming on top of you, more or less,” he said.

Bynum said he spoke with Toninelli after the council’s March 28 meeting, and moving forward, he said that he will continue to hold discussions with him, as well as other neighboring property owners.

“If there are things that are amenable or helpful to them, we’re going to (work with them),” Bynum said.

For now, Bynum doesn’t have a clear idea when he and his development partners will break ground on the project.

“Time will tell on that one,” he said. “We’re going to move forward as quickly as we can.”

Members split 4-1 in favor of developer’s plan for 196-unit project

I felt it was much more important that we have additional housing versus overnight rentals … It’s pretty simple in my mind.