Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ketchum P&Z approves affordable housing measures

Express Staff Writer

Nearing completion of a yearlong planning effort to revitalize Ketchum's downtown, the city's Planning and Zoning Commission on Tuesday approved ordinance changes to accelerate construction of affordable housing, protect historic buildings and promote more aesthetic design.

The changes are in the form of recommendations that must be approved by the City Council.

They are part of a flurry of activity throughout Blaine County to pass land-use ordinances by November in anticipation of the possible passage of Proposition 2, which would require municipalities to compensate property owners for actions that reduce property values.

During a more-than-six-hour meeting in a packed City Hall meeting room, commissioners took public comment and debated the extent to which they wished to impose affordable-housing requirements on developers and to allow greater downtown density.

Numerous speakers deplored the inability of local workers to find housing in Ketchum and the resulting lack of vitality in the town.

"I think we've got a good grasp of the philosophical issues," P&Z Chairman Jack Rutherford said in response. "Tonight's meeting is really about the codification of issues."

Some of the P&Z's decisions were difficult for audience members to follow, tallied in polls of its members by planning consultant Lisa Howowitz rather than by motions and votes.

The ordinance changes were based on a draft Downtown Ketchum Regulatory Code drawn up by the city's Planning Department with the help of two planning consultants, the Tom Hudson Co. and Urban Design Studios. The draft code departs from traditional zoning in favor of "form-based" zoning, which promotes mixed use and focuses more on desired designs rather than on density caps.

The P&Z's proposals include a citywide "linkage" ordinance that would collect fees from all commercial and residential construction, on the presumption that the projects hire employees for whom housing must be found. For commercial construction, the fee is $5,530 per 1,000 square feet, and for residential construction ranges from $850 for a 500-square-foot unit to $49,800 for a 12,000-square-foot unit. The money would be used by the city to build deed-restricted housing.

In addition, residential developments in the Community Core District would be required to include deed-restricted housing, at the rate of 20 percent of their total area, if they have a floor-area ratio of 1 or more. Floor-area ratio relates total floor area to lot size.

Horowitz pointed out that the requirement is likely to create "book-end" buildings, promoting the construction of small buildings to avoid the affordable-housing requirement, or very large ones to be able to afford it.

Developers at Tuesday's meeting objected to the affordable-housing burden placed on them, contending that it would inhibit development. Attorney Gary Slette, representing Sierra Investment Fund, which owns the old Sun Valley Athletic Club property, charged that the city was rushing to carry out a "wholesale amendment of its ordinances in what appears to be a beat-the-clock in anticipation of Proposition 2."

"I think we need to look at a community-wide resolution and not just hit the last guy who walks in the door," Slette said.

The P&Z departed from one important aspect of the draft downtown code, which had abandoned floor-area ratios as an approval criterion in favor of purely "form-based" criteria. The P&Z set a maximum FAR of 2.25 in the Community Core, with two commissioners dissenting.

"If we're going to squeak housing and other things in there, we've got to allow more sellable footage," Commissioner Greg Strong said. "We either really want housing or we don't."

Former Ketchum Mayor Jerry Seiffert also chastised the P&Z for its density limits, contending that the Blaine County Comprehensive Plan traded no big retail development between towns for more density within them.

"There's been resistance in the cities to meet their end of the deal," he said.

However, Rutherford contended that "when push comes to shove, design guidelines do not effectively control a building's bulk."

Also on Tuesday, the P&Z approved a Transfer-of-Development-Rights ordinance that would allow the owners of historic buildings to sell development rights on their properties to the owners of property in designated "receiving areas" in the Community Core.

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