At their regular meeting on March 8, the Moab City Council decided to move forward with the Walnut Lane affordable housing project by pursuing a public-private partnership, in which the city will long-term lease the property to a developer who will manage, complete, and operate the project. The process will start with a request for proposals from potential partners. If no viable proposals are received, city leaders will consider selling the Walnut Lane property with deed restrictions attached.

The area at 250 and 280 Walnut Lane in Moab, near Swanny Park, is currently a manufactured home park with 26 occupied trailers. In 2018, the city bought the trailer park with the hopes of turning it into an 80-unit affordable housing complex, which would both re-house the current tenants and provide affordable housing for other Moab locals. However, the project returned to the drawing board after terminating its contract with a development firm last fall, and early this year, the city council voted to return a $6.5 million sales tax revenue bond intended to fund the project.

This left the council with a few options: to pursue a design-bid-build process that would allow the city to develop Phase 1 of the project internally, then decide where to go once Phase 1 is done; to pursue a public-private partnership, a method Park City uses to build affordable housing and the option the city decided to pursue; or to sell the property entirely with deed restrictions in place that would ensure the property would become affordable housing.

This last option is new, and has significant pros: it poses the least financial risk to the city, the city would no longer need to manage the property, and it’s likely the fastest way to get the property redeveloped. However, selling the property would also cause the city to lose control over the property’s development, including control over the quality and type of development created and how many units would be built.

According to Acting City Manager Carly Castle, to pursue any public-private partnerships, the city would need to hire an affordable housing manager who could oversee the negotiation of the partnership contract and could pursue new affordable housing projects in the city.

Ben Billingsley, the acting deputy city manager and finance director, drafted a request for proposals that would be used if the city pursued a public-private partnership. That option allows the city more flexibility, he said, which Castle agreed with—putting out an RFP “maximizes our options moving forward,” Castle said.

“What we’re doing is we’re saying, could this work? Are there interested developers that could make this happen, within the confines of how the city council would like to see it developed?” Billingsley said. “And if at the end of the RFP period, there are no respondents, then we have a better idea of what we’re looking at, and that becomes another decision.”

“I like what Ben said, that this doesn’t lock us into anything,” said Councilmember Tawny Knuteson-Boyd. “It still leaves us the option of selling the property outright, with deed restrictions … I like that we’re just asking to see if anyone out there has experience and can make this work.”

Councilmember Kalen Jones said he would not support the RFP, and would rather see the city sell the property outright. He pointed to the fact that the city has a current “in-house staff burden,” and said the ability to hire someone else to become an affordable housing manager “isn’t realistic.”

“I am extremely skeptical that, regardless of how the RFP proposals come back, the city is going to be able to meet those firms and be a responsible partner,” he said. “This is too big and complex of a project given our hiring capabilities. So I’m ready to move on and initiate the sale of the property.”

Councilmember Luke Wojciechowski disagreed, saying that selling the property would “lead to the quickest displacement of the residents.”

“We already have a ton of displacement occurring and on the cusp of occurring within our community,” he said, referring to the evicted residents both along Kane Creek Boulevard and within a trailer park at the corner of 200 N. and 200 E. “A very significant portion of these people, along with the other people who are being displaced, will not be able to get rehoused in our community, and we are going to lose them. We are an economy that is dependent on the tourism industry, which needs a lot of employees. I’m concerned that we are shooting ourselves in the foot in the long term just to wipe our hands of this ugly situation.”

Wojciechowski supports an RFP, he said, but is more interested in reaching out to make local partnerships first.

“It feels like Moab is already this pyramid that’s getting turned upside down, and our base is getting eroded from us,” he said. “We, as a community, are on the precipice of that toppling. If we keep eroding away at that base, we’re just becoming less and less stable.”

The motion to publish an RFP passed 4-1, with Jones dissenting.

“I know that this has been a long discussion, and hopefully, we’ll get some positive results from this motion,” Mayor Joette Langianese said. “Let’s just go from there, and we’ll see where we end up.”