High Rise Plans Get Bad Review From Panels

Citizen advisory group raises bee-sting swarm of questions about council’s plan to allow seven-story buildings

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Peter Aleshire/Roundup

Bernard Lieder, Payson design review board chair.

The Payson Council’s interest in seven-story buildings received some rough handling this week from the planning commission and design review board.

Both advisory groups unleash-ed a termite swarm of objections to gnaw at the foundations of the council’s plan to raise height limits in certain areas of town from three to seven stories.

The council two weeks ago directed the planning staff to come up with a proposal to create new zoning categories in industrial, commercial and multi-family residential zones that would allow for 75-foot tall resort hotels plus apartment and condo complexes.

The council members hope a new building height will lure both tourist-oriented resort projects and apartment projects with rents low enough for working class residents.

But the members of the two advisory panels mostly worried about whether such mini high-rises would wreck Payson’s forested, small-town feel, generate too much traffic, strain the abilities of the fire department, block views of existing homeowners and ruin the backyard privacy of the neighbors.

The planning commission weighed in on Monday and the Design Review Board had its say on Tuesday. Both bodies raised similar concerns.

“My first concern is ‘why?’ What’s the purpose,” said Design Review Board Chairman Bernie Leider. “If it’s to create more open space by going up, that could be beneficial. If it’s to create extra density, that’s different.”

Design Board member Kenneth Woolcock said “it seems like that height is in direct conflict with what we’re trying to do with the design review board. You don’t see many seven story buildings that have a western heritage, mountain town look.”

Design Board member Barbara Underwood observed “I would hope that they wouldn’t just blanket it” in the commercial and multi-family zoning areas that mostly run along the highway and cluster around the airport. She said the town shouldn’t allow high-rise buildings that would overlook existing residential areas.

Board member Bill Ensign said the town had no need for such high densities, given the cost of land. “What about the poor schnook that ends up with a piece of land behind one of these 75-foot monstrosities?”

Acting Community Develop-ment Director Ray Erlandsen tried to calm the revolt, noting that the planning staff was in the early stages of gathering information to make a recommendation to the council.

“I don’t think the staff has the option to go back to the council and say ‘nobody liked it, we’re not bringing you anything.’ There are many, many issues to look at, and that’s what we’re doing now.”

Erlandsen explained that town planners had already had talks with several developers interested in building resort hotels and condominium projects who said they couldn’t afford to pursue the project with the town’s existing height limits, which allow three-story buildings up to 45 feet tall. The town several years ago raised the height limit from 30 feet to 45 feet when the fire department bought a ladder truck able to fight fires atop a 45-foot-tall building.

“We’ve had developers come to us –— for the convention center and hotels — and they don’t seem to be able to pencil it out with the current height limit.”

He said in some cases, the developers of proposed high-rise apartments or hotels planned to actually reduce overall densities, by leaving more open space surrounding the buildings than they would have with a three-story limit.

Assistant Town Attorney Tim Wright said that one proposed condominium project wanted to leave two-thirds of the total land area in forested open space, but the building code wouldn’t allow it given the number of units they wanted to build.

“They were going to back up the buildings to Home Depot and leave the area adjacent to the existing homes open space,” noted Erlandsen.

Underwood said the town might need to think creatively, especially if it wants to accommodate future developments like a proposed Arizona State University branch campus, complete with dorms.

“I applaud the council for thinking outside the box,” she said. “If we’re talking about a college and letting the dorm rooms go up to keep the natural beauty around it, then I’d be for it.”

Chairman Leider said the town staff and council would have to tip toe through political minefields, since residents show up to protest any zone change that increases density.

Moreover, “you have a potent political backlash if you are controlling property values” through the distribution of the high rise zoning. “If you zone that corner for a high rise and not this corner, then we’re affecting the value of that land.”

State laws written into the constitution by the voters make it difficult and potentially costly for a town to adopt any zone change that decreases the value of private property, but don’t prevent zone changes that increase that potential value.

Erlandsen said the planning staff would continue to gather input, before sitting down to write a proposed change in the zoning ordinance to allow seven-story buildings. He said the changes would take all the input into account, including concerns about adjacent uses, views, fire protection, topography and placement within the existing commercial and multi-family zones.

“We’re in a very, very early stage,” he assured the mildly mollified board members.

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