Moab City Council member Karen Guzman-Newton, second from left, talks about local issues during a well-attended joint city council meeting with members of the Grand County Council on Oct. 30. [Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

Community members voiced opposition and support for work being done by the Moab City Council and the Grand County Council recently during a joint town hall meeting. Specifically, the councils solicited remarks on the proposed city-wide single-use plastic bag ban, and on both the city and county’s efforts to address affordable housing.

More than 70 people filled city council’s chambers for the town hall meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 30, facing their representatives arranged in a semi-circle at the front of the room. Moab City Mayor Emily Niehaus facilitated the event. She began with welcoming remarks and outlined the format of the meeting: citizens with questions or comments had two minutes to speak at the podium before the councils, and one or two members of the councils would respond. Niehaus then encouraged those with comments to get started.

One of the first citizens to speak was Randy Day, founder of the local real estate company Anasazi Realty. Day took issue with the city and council approaches to providing affordable housing.

“I have great concerns, and also admiration, for the way we’re looking at affordable housing,” Day said. “I know what it is, and I understand what it takes, and I’ve seen it and built it … with that being said, I don’t think our approaches are quite correct.”

Day expressed frustration at the impact fees imposed on developers by the city. He also felt that advocates for affordable housing were not willing to have their own neighborhoods changed to accommodate that housing, and he faulted elected officials for not being more even-handed in where zones have been identified for increased housing density.

“When you go to put an overlay or a zone on someone else’s property — you know darn well they’re going to be mad,” Day said. “Affordable housing is like bacon — everybody loves it, but nobody wants to raise the pig. We’ve gotta have somebody willing to take the pig on.”

Day’s opinion was energetically delivered, but it was taken in stride by the council members. Day and Niehaus clearly had an established rapport, though they held different opinions.

“[T]hank you for coming in to my office and meeting with me and having a very lively conversation about this very topic,” Niehaus said. “It was my pleasure. Come in any time. We disagree.”

“I agree,” Day called from where he had resumed his seat in the audience. People chuckled.

Grand County Council chair Mary McGann also responded to Day’s comments, saying, “It is difficult, and the difficulty often lies in what you were just saying… you’re going to get complaints from all areas. It is our job to take all those ideas, listen to everybody’s point of view, and do our best to create policies that are balanced and protect neighborhoods, while at the same time, provide housing for the people who are doing the jobs in the community. And it is a balancing act.”

County council member Curtis Wells spoke as well.

“Randy, your words are not lost on me,” he said. Wells went on to say that “of all the tools” the council is considering to address affordable housing, he is most troubled by the assured housing policy, which would require hotels to build housing for their employees.

He described it as an “aggressive, public-driven” approach, and praised the High Density Overlay plan for being market-driven.

Throughout the evening, city and council members revealed conflicting opinions on the best solutions to community needs.

While Wells spoke with high expectations for the High Density Overlay, Grand County Council member Evan Clapper had doubts about its effectiveness.

“There have been a lot of carrots dangled out on sticks for a very long time, and not a single project has taken advantage of that,” Clapper said. “With the lack of enthusiasm of anyone taking any of these incentives that we’ve seen historically, honestly, I would be amazed if more than three property owners took advantage of this.”

Clapper’s remarks were in response to citizen Page Holland, who also expressed concerns with the High Density Overlay proposal.

“I can see some benefits of [the High Density Overlay], but the numbers just seem so extreme,” Holland said. “For instance, I live in a rural residential zoned area, which I always expected would be one house per acre, ish. … I think that planners might look at a map and go, ‘Wow, look at all this land close to town, one house per acre. Let’s put an overlay of 35 units per acre over this.’ Really? I mean, do you guys really think that that is a reasonable thing to impose on a neighborhood?”

McGann assured Holland that the plan was still undergoing changes, and that the council is continuing to consider input from citizens.

Citizens also brought up the issue of employers using residential homes as bunkhouses for their employees, creating parking problems and other code violations in neighborhoods.

Due to a recent change in code language, occupants of a house no longer have to be part of the same “family.” The change has left ambiguity on how many persons can occupy a home.

The city council planned to discuss the matter in depth at a special meeting on Nov. 5.

“We want to restrict, in some fashion, the number of people living in what used to be a single family home, so that the impacts to the neighborhood are very much the same as when related people lived there,” Moab City Council member Mike Duncan said.

“I will say that your comments and other comments from the community about this issue have definitely been heard,” Niehaus assured a citizen who asked about bunkhouses.

Many remarks came from people who are active with various boards, commissions, or nonprofit work to benefit or influence the community. It became a running joke, and a cause for laughter throughout the evening, as citizen speakers identified themselves and then disclosed their affiliations, with the disclaimer that they were only representing themselves, and not an organization.

When Audrey Graham introduced herself, quiet chuckles grew louder as she assured the crowd, “I’m not speaking for the housing authority. I’m also not speaking for the Land Trust Board, or the Community Child Care Board. And I’m not speaking for Friends of Arches and Canyonlands.”

“I just want everyone to remember how connected everything is,” Graham said, after the laughter quieted. She spoke just after the occupancy issue had been raised.

“We are going to have bunkhouses until we have more housing available in the affordable range,” she said.

Discussion centered on housing, growth and development took up much of the two-hour meeting. Another topic touched upon was water management.

When Gerrish Willis, chair of the Grand County Planning Commission (but speaking as an individual), brought up the water issue with a reference to John Wesley Powell, who suggested that geopolitical boundaries in the west should follow watershed boundaries. Willis proposed joint meetings with San Juan County representatives to coordinate development as well as how water will be used. Another citizen suggested that the city should be imposing enforced regulations on conservative water use.

Council members referred to a study currently being conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey to determine how much water can sustainably be drawn from the valley aquifer. The results of the study will provide data to guide development and regulations.

Council member Wells expressed his support for the data collection.

“Even if we all disagree on climate issues or whatever, the facts are the facts, and we can all agree that we need to monitor the aquifer level and understand what the recharge rates are,” he said.

He went on to say that once the results of the study are in, he would support regulations that would conserve water.

Other topics raised by citizens included the impact of tourism on the school district and the needs of the growing student population, and the recent cuts in the types of materials accepted at the recycling center.

Though the single-use plastic bag ban was on the agenda for the evening, only one person raised the issue, expressing concerns that the move would make long lines in the grocery store even longer. Council responses were much more unified on this topic than on approaches to the housing shortage, with several representatives coming strongly to the defense of the plastic bag ban.

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Niehaus thanked everyone for attending and participating in the town hall.

“I feel like I learned a lot, and will take away a lot from this,” she said, adding, “And hopefully, you have some ice cream waiting for you at home, like I do, as a treat to end the evening.”

Citizens voice concern at public meeting

“Affordable housing is like bacon — everybody loves it, but nobody wants to raise the pig. We’ve gotta have somebody willing to take the pig on.”