City addresses size concerns

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— Debates about the size of buildings in Steamboat Springs can be some of the most heated in the development process. Because the current standards are subjective, developers often go into the process not knowing what size buildings they will be able to build.

At the same time, the public has expressed increasing concerns about housing density in some of Steamboat's most cherished districts, especially Old Town.

The new Community Development Code attempts to address both of these concerns, making the process more straightforward and predictable for developers while establishing steadfast maximums for building sizes in various neighborhoods.

The main way the city is attempting to deal with density issues in the new code is through a change in the calculation of the allowable density in each region of the city.

The current code uses a density bonus system to manage residential density in the city. This system establishes base allowable residential densities for specific areas, measured in dwelling units per acre.

The Walton Creek Area, for instance, has a base density of 6.308 dwelling units per acre. Projects can add to the base number by meeting specific criteria and getting awarded with density bonus points.

They can achieve those points by adding amenities like affordable housing units or internal improvements to their projects.

Density bonus points, unfortunately, are often awarded in a subjective manner, as the benefit to the project and the community of certain amenities can't necessarily be calculated on a strict numerical grid. Developers, then, can enter a review without any idea of how many units they will be able to build based on density bonus points.

Developers meeting similar criteria can be made to build projects with different allowable densities.

The density bonus system is also limited because it focuses on the number of units and not the size of individual units.

Another problem some see with the current code is that there are few provisions in it to limit the size of homes in areas such as Old Town. The current code includes regulations on lot size, setbacks and number of stories in Old Town but does not address the mass of the buildings or the height in terms of feet.

The city's newest system for calculating the allowable density in each neighborhood involves a concept called Floor Area Ratio.

Floor Area Ratio, in conjunction with maximum lot coverage and maximum building height, will help contain the size of buildings in the city.

FAR is calculated by dividing the gross floor area of all of the buildings on the lot by the size of the lot.

For instance, a 7,200-square-foot lot with two buildings, each of which has a gross floor area of 1,800, would end up with a 0.50 FAR.

Gross floor area includes all floor space in a building except for basements, employee units and underground facilities.

The 0.50 FAR would allow a developer's gross floor area to equal half the size of the lot. But, because the city will also likely put limits on the percentage of the lot covered by the first floor of the building (lot coverage) and the height of the building, the three variables will work together to determine the size of the structure.

The developer, then, will be able to know exactly what size building would be able to fit under the parameters.

"This way the developer knows before walking in the door how much and how big they can build on their lot," said City Planner Tom Leeson.

Members of both the public and private sectors have heralded FAR as a fair and more predictable system but have already begun to debate the allowable sizes in different sections of town through groups like the Development Advisory Group and the Historical Preservation Advisory Commission.

HPAC is especially interested in the size of buildings, said the city's historical preservation specialist, Laureen Schaffer.

The city has not yet calculated the exact FAR's for the various areas in Steamboat.

Leeson said that the city has also established a maximum allowable lot size for the downtown area, which comes out to about 22,000 square feet. That square footage is roughly the same size as the largest businesses in the downtown area, he said.

Planning Commissioner Kathi Meyer, however, said the city needs to look at setting the bar at the right level in terms of the height of buildings because the current height standards have not been challenged by a building that was too big in the past year. That could mean that developers are being extra careful with their projects or that the city has set the bar too high, she said.

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