Changes to the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan could be the catalyst to spur the kind of development the plan intended and the community needs.
We think the changes are overdue, particularly the elimination of a $720 annual fee on new homeowners in the plan. Not only is such a fee unfair, but it also serves as an obstacle to achieving the kind of affordable housing the plan envisioned.
The changes to the plan came about Tuesday when the Steamboat Springs City Council and Routt County commissioners held a joint meeting. Since both bodies adopted the plan in 1999, no significant development has occurred.
On Tuesday, the city and county acknowledged what had become clear -- as written, the plan is not achieving the goals of smart growth and affordable housing. Although they could not agree on all issues, city and county officials did make progress on two of the most important points -- the $720 fee charged to homeowners and the requirement that growth occur from east to west.
The city and county have long held that the land within the plan's boundaries should be developed east to west, so that the city could grow outward from its existing border and more easily extend its services. But given that established neighborhoods -- Steamboat II, Heritage Park and Silver Spur -- are well west of the city limits, it might make more sense to develop east from those neighborhoods to take advantage of proximity to existing infrastructure. It was good to see the city and county were open to such a concept Tuesday.
The bigger and more significant change is the elimination of the $720 annual assessment on new homes in the plan's boundaries. We understand the reasoning behind the fee. The goal was to ensure growth pays for itself, ensuring existing taxpayers did not incur the costs to extend city services to new housing. This presumes that the city would annex this new development.
But the problem is that the fee ensures these new homeowners would pay a higher rate for city services than those who live in town. When the area is annexed, residents in the plan's boundaries will get no sales tax break. And those west of the city, who are assessed by the Steamboat II Metro District and the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District, pay a property tax rate that is nearly 80 percent higher than those in the city. Adding a $720 annual fee is an overwhelming burden, especially in the area best equipped to provide entry-level, single-family housing to workers the community desperately needs including police, teachers, nurses, construction workers and others.
We agree with city and county officials that alternative sources of revenue might be necessary to pay for the increased costs of services new development might cause. County officials' openness Tuesday to sharing county property or sales tax revenues with the city to meet this need is a solution that should be pursued.
By no means did Tuesday's meeting answer all of the questions about the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan. Officials were divided about the plan's requirement that one-third of all new development in the plan be dedicated to affordable housing. Developers complain the percentage is too high; officials fear lowering it will eliminate the community's best chance to address the affordable housing shortage. It's a debate that must continue.
But overall, Tuesday's meeting produced the most significant steps in five years to jump-start the plan. We applaud the City Council members and county commissioners for the changes and encourage them to continue working to tweak the plan. Doing so is critical to meeting the community's long-term housing needs.