The Payson Design Review Board saw the light gleaming dangerously down there at the end of the tunnel.
Turns out it wasn’t a train after all, just the end of the tunnel.
So the once-beleaguered, now-beloved design review board last week survived a bureaucratic, near-death experience to win unexpected plaudits from a once skeptical town council.
The volunteer design review board comprised of architects, builders, activists and landscapers spent more than a year coming up with detailed standards for how apartments and commercial buildings ought to look.
The board produced pages of standards to ensure new development had that Western,
mountain town feel — with lots of wood, logs, flagstone and distinctive architecture and as little metal siding, stucco or roof tile as possible.
But when those recommendations went to the town council nearly two months ago, several council members said they didn’t want to make builders jump through a whole new set of detailed, time-consuming, confusing hoops.
Instead, several council members asked the town staff to come back with two alternatives.
In one version, the town planning staff would apply the design standards developed by the board and the board itself would review cases only if a builder appealed the decision of the town staff. Builders could then appeal even that decision to the town council.
In the second version, the design review board would continue to review all new commercial and multi-family projects and “major” changes in existing buildings. The board is still working to develop separate standards for industrial developments. If a builder didn’t like the recommendations, he could appeal to the town council.
Design review board member Bill Ensign led off the hearing with a plea for a postponement.
“I’m a little confused,” he said in trying to decipher the contrasting recommendations.
Members of the design review board at their last meeting had said they would rather disband than be turned into a mere appeals board, with the town planning staff making most of the decisions and conducting most of the negotiations.
Ensign said, “I would ask that you table this and that we have the opportunity to talk to the council so we have a good understanding as to what is going on.”
Ensign said that the council shouldn’t change the existing system that sends all new commercial projects to the design review board first, without at least talking to the board.
The council adopted virtually all of the actual design standards proposed by the board — including the near-ban on stucco and tile roofs and other details contained in several dozen pages of design standards.
The standards would encourage or require “mountain” colors like brown and green, require native plants for landscaping, protect ponderosa pines and other mature trees and set requirements for roof lines and other architectural details.
So the only big question before the council last week was whether to have the citizen design review board continue applying the standards, or turn it over to the town staff with the board hearing appeals.
Resident Jeannie Langham objected to any demotion of the board.
“It is sad and frustrating to be fighting to retain a design review board,” she said, noting that several hearings and surveys had shown strong support of having a design review board in town.
“You would prevent Payson from being all it could be — it is beyond me. I cannot understand this.”
Town Attorney Sam Streichman then mounted a defense of the alternatives.
“We have page after page after page of design review guidelines here,” he said. “The decision before you is simply do you have a shortened appeals process or a longer process.”
Councilor Su Connell said, “We are not in any way, shape or manner getting rid of design review. The only thing is the review process.”
Assistant Town Attorney Tim Wright restated the choice — whether to have the board work with developers directly, or merely sit as an appeals board for staff decisions.
Ensign then made another stab at expressing his concerns. “Apparently I didn’t make my point,” noting that he hoped the council would meet with the design review board in the event it wanted to reduce its role.
Ensign said the board has so far reviewed half a dozen projects, without any problems. One builder objected to the design board questioning some elements of the project.
“That gentleman was very angry we had the audacity to do that,” said Ensign. But even in that case, the board and the developer worked things out.
“All I can do is wonder why this has even come up,” said Ensign.
“I’m not sure I understood what Sam was saying,” said a baffled Councilor Ed Blair. “There’s a major change between option C1 and C2 isn’t there?”
“I think you’re correct,” said Streichman.
“But you said it was all the same,” said Blair.
“I said the standards were the same,” said Streichman.
The conversation changed again, with testimony by Charles Proudfoot, a member of the Green Valley Redevelopment District Board.
The redevelopment board had previously adopted design standards for new projects along Main Street and didn’t know whether it would have the job of enforcing those standards or whether the task should be turned over to the design review board.
Representatives of the two boards had several meetings and agreed that the design review board should review projects, but involve representatives of the redevelopment agency in the process.
Major or minor additions?
However, the redevelopment board wanted to make sure that almost all Main Street projects went through that review process, including remodelings. The proposed ordinance would let town staff approve “minor” additions to existing buildings. However, in the case of a large building, the ordinance could define a 5,000-square-foot addition as “minor.”
Proudfoot noted, “There’s a major concern about the definition of minor. That still has to be worked out.”
“The definition of minor is defined in the document,” said Wright.
“But minor can be major depending on the size of the project,” said Proudfoot. “On a large project, it could be 5,000 square feet and that’s not minor.”
It remained for Councilor Mike Vogel to issue the most resounding endorsement of the design review board, even though he had initially been the most outspoken critic of imposing detailed design standards and an additional review committee.
“If we’d done this three months ago, I absolutely would have opposed it. I was scared to death,” he said in reference to the delays and confusion such detailed standards could inflict.
Vogel said he’d talked to every builder who had gone before the board, including the disgruntled one.
“I gotta tell you, I’m really impressed with it. I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “I can change my mind,” he added, getting a laugh from the room.
Councilor Richard Croy said he’d also changed his mind about the role of the design review board and the value of the detailed standards. “I wasn’t for this” originally, said Croy. “But if it doesn’t work, we’ll look at it again. If it does work, we’ll all be happy.”
With that, the council voted 6-1 to approve the new standards and continue submitting all new commercial projects and major changes in existing non-residential buildings to the design review board.