A risky change

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County and city officials are to be congratulated for completing the re-write of the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan.

On Monday night, members of the Steamboat Springs City Council, Routt County Board of Commissioners and Routt County Planning Commission formally approved the plan.

It has been an arduous, time-consuming process -- the re-write took nearly two years -- but we applaud officials for their inclusiveness. This truly was a community effort.

Overall, we agree with changes to the plan that originally was adopted in 1999. Most importantly, the new plan eases affordable housing requirements and eliminates burdensome taxes and fees on new homeowners in the area. The original plan proved to be an obstacle to development. By contrast, the new plan can be a catalyst for much-needed, entry-level housing in the area.

The only move we question was Monday's last-minute decision to increase the affordable housing requirement from 15 percent to 20 percent.

The 1999 plan required that a third of all housing in the area be deed-restricted affordable units. For years, developers and the largest landowners in the area -- Mary and Stephen Brown, who own about 85 percent of the property -- complained the requirement was too high. No development was even proposed in the area.

A year ago, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority proposed loosening the requirement to 15 percent.

"Thirty-three percent isn't accomplishing anything," YVHA Executive Director Elizabeth Black said at the time. "The program has to be embraced by the residential development business. We felt 10 percent was too low and settled on a minimum of 15 percent."

There was debate about the number, but everyone involved compromised and agreed to Black's proposal.

True, the 15-percent affordable housing requirement is mostly arbitrary. It's hard to say what impact Monday's increase to the 20-percent requirement will have.

But the change is risky.

First, the requirement is inconsistent with the city's new zoning ordinance that requires 15-percent affordable housing within city limits. The zoning ordinance also has different income eligibility for its deed restrictions. Shouldn't the zoning ordinance and West of Steamboat Springs Area plan be consistent, especially because the long-term vision is for new development in the West plan to be annexed into the city?

Also, the Browns have their property under contract. At the time that the contract was signed, the parties were operating under the assumption that the plan would include a 15-percent requirement. The Browns have not said who the buyer is or what the buyer's plans are, but the affordable housing change could disrupt the deal. Mary Brown hinted as much Monday night.

The new West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan holds significant promise for the future of the valley. The changes to the plan, we hope, will spur developments necessary to allow our workforce to buy housing close to where they work. Don't get us wrong -- the more affordable housing the plan creates, the better.

We just hope that the last-minute increase in the affordable housing requirement doesn't undercut the plan's long-term goals.

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