Airport Plan Still Needs Revisions

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The Payson Planning Commission this week found itself juggling babies, which is to say, helpless creatures on whom the future depends.

And with a wonderful display of dexterity and determination they made a fine catch of the biggest, loudest baby in the air: Ensuring that the recently swapped land around the airport retains enough “employment” land use to ensure the town’s economic future.

Unfortunately, the commissioners also dropped two of the three babies in play.

Specifically, the Planning Commission approved a drastic reduction in high-density residential land and turned what could have been the town’s last real park into a useless strip of junipers in approving the general plan amendment for the 220 acres of land around the airport.

Granted, if you could save only one of those mewling, drooling infants — the commissioners picked the right one. And the commissioners showed great insight, energy and dedication in listening to the public and insisting on vital changes. The discussions demonstrated the value of such a volunteer commission intensely connected to the community they serve.

But we hope the council will stoop to recover those fussy little runts left on the ground on Monday.

Certainly, the Planning Commission, town staff and landowners represented by Ray Jones fixed the most glaring problem with the initial plan — the reduction of land for future light industrial use from about 95 to 57 acres.

The landowners worked with admirable flexibility and community mindedness to put as much light industrial land back into the plan as possible. The new figure stands at about 78 acres — a loss of about 13 acres.

The surviving 78 acres represents the best chance to ensure a supply of decent-paying jobs, so communities of the Rim Country remain vital and balanced — instead of becoming retirement communities with a side order of highway burger joints. That chunk of undeveloped land will enable Rim communities to actively recruit new businesses. That might include a new generation of mills and wood product companies that can make a profit on thinning the millions of acres of overgrown forest that pose such a threat to all the Rim communities.

But the commission got so focused on the bawling, airborne baby that they didn’t seem to even notice the amount of land designated for high-density residential projects like apartments dropped from 26 to 14 acres.

The lack of affordable housing qualifies as a crisis in Rim Country.

The average Payson resident makes $34,000 — enough to qualify for a $110,000 mortgage. But the average Payson house costs $220,000 to $232,000. As a result, the region suffers from an ongoing shortage of workforce housing. The handful of apartments in town usually have waiting lists, even with the relatively high monthly rents.

It makes no sense to lure businesses to town to occupy that new light industrial area if there’s no place for the workers to live.

In addition, the town suffers from a shortage of park space — as evidenced by the heavy use of Rumsey Park. Voters underscored how much they value park land in the recent YMCA vote.

Yet the planning commission proved willing to convert a six-acre chunk designated for open space into a long, thin buffer zone intended to screen existing neighborhoods from the shrunken apartment section and the employment area.

Certainly the homeowners have a legitimate interest in a buffer between the existing neighborhood and the new, higher-intensity uses.

The residents who spoke at the planning commission meeting showed insight and restraint and spoke forcefully for the interests of their neighborhoods. The commission and the council will have many future discussions addressing their legitimate concerns, including whether to extend Sherwood Drive.

However, we think the town can provide that buffer without giving up the last big chunk of parkland it’s likely to get— especially in an area designated for apartments and workforce housing.

Fortunately, the zone change and debate about details of actual developments that lie ahead will give the town lots of opportunities to protect the legitimate needs of existing homeowners.

But it would be a grave mistake to respond to those concerns by eliminating land that could accommodate apartments and a useable park.

Fortunately, the town council can make these additional changes when it takes up the proposal in December.

The planning commission did its part by protecting future jobs. Now the council should protect future residents.

That may require some patient explanation — followed by a dose of political courage.

But hey — no one said juggling babies was easy.

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