Passive House apartment project wins nod from Steamboat planning commission
Steamboat Springs — A conflicted Steamboat Springs Planning commission voted 5-2 Thursday in favor of conceptual plans for architect/developer Jeff Pullman’s “Passive House Apartments,” which would create 52 highly energy-efficient rental units on a parcel of land set back from U.S. Highway 40.
“I want to bring this passive house (concept) to Steamboat to lead by example,” Pullman said. “It will be a first in Steamboat, and I believe it would be the first in the state as well.”
The site is across Weiss Drive from Southside Station convenience store and near the entrance to Walton Pond Apartments.
The rub for planning commissioners came down to the significant number of variances (13) the developer sought to the “community commercial” zoning code that prevails in the neighborhood. Pullman told planning commission members that variances — such as placing the building in the center of the lot rather than addressing its access on Weiss Drive and exceeding the maximum 160-foot building length — were essential to maximizing solar gain for the apartment building.
Passive House expert Adam Cohen predicted to the planning commission that Pullman’s project, when complete, would garner national attention. Cohen, an architect and certified passive house consultant from Maryland, said he is not on retainer with Pullman but felt strongly about speaking in favor of his project.
Pullman “didn’t pay me to come out here,” he said. “I came out here because it’s an important project for the nation. We’ve done dormitories, but one thing that has slipped out of our grasp is a market-rate, multi-family project. Finding developers willing to do market-rate, energy-efficient (projects) is really important.”
The different commissioners’ hesitation over Passive House wasn’t because they didn’t admire Pullman’s plan to create an innovative building designed to produce as much energy as it consumes (making it “net-zero”) through a combination of tight construction, insulation that far exceeds the building code, photovoltaic panels covering a flat roof and even carefully designed shading of windows so the apartments remain cool in summer.
Even Commissioner Rich Levy and Chairman Jason Lacy, both of whom voted against the motion to approve, expressed their admiration for the project.
But there were also those who voted “aye” who had mixed views on approving the project.
Commissioner Kathi Meyer said she would reluctantly support the motion to approve the conceptual plan with all its variances, but the sheer number of them suggested to her the applicants should have submitted a planned unit development application intended by the city to create flexibility for creative development proposals.
“As I look through each variance, I can find a justification,” Meier said. “I just feel this is the wrong process, but this is what the applicant is asking.”
“I’m completely in support of Passive House,” he said. “I just think we should look at this (application) another way.”
On the other hand, Planning Director Tyler Gibbs said he preferred that Passive House not pursue a PUD, which effectively changes the zoning on the parcel. Should the developer decide not to go forward, a future development proposal on the same parcel would require it be re-zoned again. He said, in his opinion, the variances could be justified by the city’s stated sustainability goals and Steamboat Springs City Council’s commitment to the city showing leadership in that area.
Commissioner Charlie MacArthur responded by asking how the commissioners could evaluate the variances based on the passive house concept when their charge was to weigh them against the zoning code, only. He asked if planning staff was comfortable with introducing subjectivity into the planning commission process.
Gibbs replied that his comfort with subjectivity in this case was based on the community’s goals for sustainability.
Ironically, Lacy, although in favor of the project, voted “no” on MacArthur’s motion to approve, because it specifically left out a condition that relied upon sustainability to justify the the variances.
The plan moves on to the Steamboat Springs City Council on Sept. 15, and ultimately, Pullman will need to pursue a development plan before he wins the city’s final go-ahead for Passive House Apartments.
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