Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Housing law repeal is 'significant'

Officials contemplate new incentives for workforce housing

Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Housing Authority Executive Director Jim Fackrell says Blaine County’s pending repeal of workforce housing requirements is "fairly significant." Photo by Mountain Express

A decision by the Blaine County Commission to begin the process of repealing a county-wide workforce housing requirement could have significant and lasting impacts for the Wood River Valley's businesses and employees.

Drafted and adopted in fall 2006, the ordinance requires subdivision developers to set aside 20 percent of homes built as part of a subdivision as deed-restricted housing. But on Thursday, April 24, the commission unanimously gave orders to the county Planning and Zoning Commission to return a recommendation on repealing it.

"I think it's fairly significant," said Blaine County Housing Authority Executive Director Jim Fackrell. "The ordinance required every development in the county to provide 20 percent community housing. When you take something away that's as significant as development throughout the county it means less product will be available to take away a backlog of needs."

Fackrell acknowledged that in the year and a half since its adoption, a period of relatively slow construction, the ordinance had not garnered any housing or in-lieu fees. But 20 percent of all subdivisions that will eventually be built could have achieved an impressive stock of workforce housing.

"I had no advance warning that that was going to happen. I was a bit surprised," Fackrell said. "With that said, I can understand the county's reasoning and certainly understand the advice of counsel and believe they were acting on the advice of counsel, so you can't fault them for that."

The discussion on the legality of affordable housing regulations picked up intensity last winter when, on Feb. 19, 4th District Judge Thomas F. Nevill ruled that the city of McCall's requirement that 20 percent of new development must be set aside as deed-restricted housing was illegal. He determined that the resort community's affordable housing requirement was unconstitutional and amounted to an illegal tax.

About a month later, a developer threatened to sue the city of Ketchum, and the city vowed to fight. In each municipality, however, inclusionary zoning works a little differently, and in Ketchum it is incentive-based. That is, deed-restricted housing is only required if a developer wants to build at higher densities and taller heights than normally allowed.

Blaine County Commission Chairman Tom Bowman pointed out that there is no alternative with the Blaine County ordinance, as there is in Ketchum.

"There was no option," Bowman said. "You had to satisfy it somehow. Now we understand it's different from the way Ketchum has it, where it's completely optional."

Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tim Graves said that while Neville's decision is not binding for Blaine County, he could not find enough distinguishing characteristics between the county and McCall ordinances "to warrant going forward with our inclusionary housing ordinance."

The Thursday meeting of the Blaine County Commission had actually been scheduled to discuss amendments to the county's inclusionary zoning ordinance, not its repeal.

"We'd been actually working on the changes to the ordinance for at least a couple work sessions," Bowman said. "(But) in light of the McCall decision, are we advised to keep working on this in its present form?"

Commissioner Larry Schoen asked Graves to review the Blaine County ordinance in the context of the McCall decision.

"Tim (Graves) found that there are more similarities than differences," Bowman said. "And based on the local court's previous decisions—on the bent of the court—we would have no chance of prevailing if it was challenged.

"I did not want us to start building up exposure with people building houses and us collecting and spending in-lieu fees, and at some point in time having to repay those. We were conscious of the exposure we were putting on Blaine County, and we couldn't do that responsibly."

Bowman and Fackrell pointed out that the county can still ask for workforce housing through the planned-unit development process. In fact, Bowman said the county may consider amending the planned-unit development ordinance to state that "superior design," a requirement of such developments, always includes a workforce housing component.

"One idea that's out there that we haven't pursued is considering some kind of upper house size limit," Bowman said. "To (go beyond that) you could go about supplying some sort of workforce housing. There are absolutely no details worked out on that. It's a concept only."

Hailey Planning Director Beth Robrahn said the city decided about a month ago to stay the course with its inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires any subdivision that results in five or more lots or units to require 20 percent workforce housing.

"We are going to take this slow period," she said. "We don't have a lot of development applications in the pipeline, so we'll probably try to take this timing as an opportunity to make improvements to our ordinances. It's not something we think we need to rush to do."

Robrahn said Hailey is interested in examining all of its ordinances to see if any of the city's standards constitute barriers to development of workforce housing.

"If so, how can we eliminate or minimize those barriers? That could be anything from housing types or uses, number of units permitted in an area or parking requirements."

Sun Valley Planner Diane Shay said last week the city has an inclusionary housing ordinance on the books and is, like Hailey, continuing to enforce it.

Finally, Bowman pointed out that workforce housing built in Blaine County prior to adoption of the inclusionary zoning ordinance will not be affected by the pending repeal.

"There was workforce housing built before our inclusionary zoning ordinance came into effect," he said. "Those were volunteered by the applicant, so those are not affected by this."

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