Our view: Secondary units good idea | SteamboatToday.com

Our view: Secondary units good idea

At issue

The Routt County Board of Commissioners has voted unanimously to allow construction of secondary units on rural properties

Our view

Given the area’s growing housing crisis, we think allowing secondary units is a practical short-term plan that should be encouraged

Though last week’s decision by the Routt County Board of Commissioners, which will allow rural homeowners to construct secondary housing units on their properties, elicited disagreement between county commissioners and the Routt County Planning Commission — the latter of which voted 8-1Nov. 3 to recommend denying the change — we think the move has the potential to relieve at least some of the county’s affordable housing problems.

Our view

Given the area’s growing housing crisis, we think allowing secondary units is a practical short-term plan that should be encouraged

Chief among planning commissioners’ objections is the idea that allowing such secondary units is in conflict with the county master plan, which stipulates the county is to avoid “any construction activity that changes the basic character or use of the land.”

Commissioners flatly disagreed with this interpretation.

“I don’t believe secondary units reflect a change in the basic character or use of the land,” County Commissioner Tim Corrigan said during the meeting at which the change — which represents a reversal of past policy — was ratified. “I’ve come to believe they probably are a component of improving the situation with affordable housing.”

Even so, commissioners acknowledged that, in many cases, developing such secondary units will present challenges, and we don’t disagree. As forward-thinking as we find the change, it would be naïve and unwise to proceed before taking a careful look at the details to ensure the process is feasible.

Evidence the 10-year-old West of Steamboat Area Plan, which was adopted in 2006 as a way of boosting affordable housing stock and has yet to produce much in the way of housing, affordable or otherwise. In our opinion, one of the reasons that plan failed was that it was adopted without careful consideration of the challenges inherent with its implementation.

The allowance of secondary units comes with similar challenges.

Chief among them is ensuring that the secondary units comply with state regulations governing domestic water well permits, as well as the county permitting process governing wastewater treatment. Either might easily render the construction of these units financially and logistically unfeasible.

That said, we would advocate for the establishment of a specific fee structure governing such units, one that incentivizes their construction and is commensurate with the scale of benefit the community will enjoy in terms of added workforce housing.

And the scale of potential benefit is considerable, both to the county, which would enjoy an uptick in the availability of housing stock, and to the property owners, who would receive extra rental income.

We would be remiss if we failed to directly address the disagreement from which this change was born — a disagreement that spanned nearly a year and was belabored through the course of nine public meetings.

As we stated in the beginning, the disagreement seems to have arisen from the idea that allowing secondary units is at odds with the county master plan. If this is the case, we submit that the disagreement itself — coupled with county commissioners’ rejection of planning commissioners’ recommendation — could be seen as a vote of no confidence in the plan, itself.

In January — about the same time the discussions regarding allowing secondary housing units were getting underway — we editorialized about our disagreement with Planning Commission’s assertion that the master plan does not need an update.

In this regard, our opinion has not changed, and the discord surrounding the recent change is further evidence of the need for an update.

The very existence of such conflicts demonstrates to us once again that the master plan is out of touch with the county’s rapidly evolving housing needs.

So to our support of county commissioners’ decision, we reiterate our earlier call for a thoughtful, analytical reevaluation of the master plan — which was last updated in 2003.

During discussions about the change, Planning Commissioner Bob Woodmansee — who led the commission’s opposition to the change — called the plan “a well-thought-out, citizen-supported (plan) that included many different stakeholders and wide participation.”

That may have been true 13 years ago, but much has changed in the intervening years, and the increasing incidence of conflicts demonstrates the plan may no longer be representative of the county’s housing needs.

We don’t doubt the Planning Commission’s intentions, but when the principle objection to a change that stands to improve one of the county’s most vexing problems comes from a 13-year-old document, maybe it’s time to revisit that document and come up with a new plan that better reflects current needs.

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