Planners debate housing

Commission's feedback puts self-help housing in jeopardy

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The city Planning Commission's negative feedback on an affordable housing proposal has raised serious questions for the survival of a self-help housing program.

Ellen Hoj, program manager for the Hands-on Housing Project, said the Planning Commission's rejection of the 36-unit townhome project off Hilltop Parkway reduces the chances of two phases of self-help housing being built this year.

"What it basically means, we lost an opportunity for more affordable housing and deed-restricted units. That is an opportunity that doesn't happen very often and I don't know where to go," Hoj said Friday.

Of the 36 units in the Fox Creek proposal, 17 would have been part of the self-help housing program.

The self-help program gives residents a chance to own a home by requiring them to put in hundreds of hours to help build it. The project is being undertaken by the Regional Affordable Living Foundation and would help fulfill the terms of a nearly $390,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One self-help housing project already is under way in West End Village.

If RALF cannot build any self-help housing in 2004, Hoj said, the USDA could put the program on probation. The grant stipulates that 24 homes must be built in 24 months, meaning 17 more have to be built by October 2005.

Hoj presented a pre-application plan to the Planning Commission on Thursday night. The proposal would put four three-plex buildings and four six-plex buildings on the Fox Creek subdivision site just off Hilltop Parkway.

The development is proposed in an area zoned as community commercial, making the multi-family homes a conditional use.

In a memo to the Planning Commission, City Planner Brian Bavosi said staff was supportive of the land use but had concerns about the plan's lack of trail connections, internal building orientation, landscaping and setbacks.

Planning commissioners do not vote on pre-application plans but do give feedback. Thursday night's feedback was not promising for Hoj.

"If you were requesting reducing standards in landscaping and architecture, I might be willing to consider that," alternate Commissioner Cari Hermacinski said. "But when it comes to infrastructure -- whether it is affordable or high-end -- inadequate infrastructure, I think, is inadequate housing."

Commissioner Dick Curtis said more creativity needed to go into the site design. Commissioner Randall Hannaway said the project had to have pedestrian connections to the sidewalk along Hilltop Parkway. Commissioner Scott Myller questioned if such high residential development was appropriate for a commercially zoned area and suggested a mixed-use development.

Some asked that the buildings be pushed back farther from Hilltop Parkway and raised questions about the level of architecture and landscaping.

"You can shortchange residents by not having at least the basic level of design," Planning Commissioner David Baldinger Jr. said. "We are willing to talk about exceptions, but in this case, you just pushed all the boundaries of the code well over the reasonable level."

Hoj asked if the Planning Commission was willing to make concessions to provide affordable housing.

"We have a wish list, the Ferrari of the code, but there are ways to accommodate a Subaru because there is a benefit for the affordable housing piece of it," she said.

Hoj told the commission the 17 self-help housing units would go to employees of the U.S. Forest Service and sheriff's office, to a son of a senator and artists. The goal of the project is to make the houses affordable for families earning between 50 percent and 80 percent of the local median income.

The self-help housing program is under land, time and money constraints, Hoj said. With the city's current zoning and the regulations imposed by the USDA, Hoj said, the Hilltop Parkway parcel was the only parcel available for development. The USDA puts restrictions on building sites near airports, railroads and in floodplains.

To keep in step with the USDA grant regulations, administrators of the self-help housing program were hoping to have infrastructure completed by late spring. The timeline has one self-help housing group pulling building permits this summer and a second group pulling permits later in the summer.

At Thursday's meeting, Bavosi suggested that if significant changes were made to the site plan, it should come back to the Planning Commission before going to the City Council.

The site plan presented to council took four months to develop, was one of eight alternatives and was approved by the RALF board, Hoj said.

Coming back to the Planning Commission with another site plan would add time to a project already under a tight deadline. Hoj said that would mean pushing back a year the self-help housing project planned for this summer.

The options, Hoj said, are to continue with the scheduled Feb. 17 council meeting, wait a year to build, or find land outside the city.

An emergency meeting with the RALF board will be called to determine the next step, Hoj said.

"I believed, basically, I could make a miracle happen," Hoj said. "(The Planning Commission) didn't help make that miracle happen."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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