Does Payson need seven-story apartment complexes and hotels?
Probably, the Payson Town Council concluded on Thursday.
The council voted unanimously to start the long process of changing the zoning laws to perhaps double current height limits in commercial and multi-family apartment zones.
Acting Community Develop-ment Director Ray Erlandsen asked for permission to investigate mini-high rises in Payson, perhaps by boosting the maximum building height from the current 35-45 feet to more like 75 feet.
“We’re faced with somewhat of a dilemma,” said Erlandsen, “in that we have limited land space. We have projects where when they penciled it out — they had to go up.”
The council supported the proposal, partly to provide more affordable housing and partly to open the door to hotels and high-intensity development.
“We’ve drawn some fairly strong requirements,” said Mayor Kenny Evans of the current 3-4 story height restrictions.
“I’ve worked on four projects that said that (limit) would preclude them coming to town.”
Evans has spent months negotiating with assorted investors about building a luxury convention resort somewhere in Payson, although, like many other projects, the lack of financing has stalled progress.
Councilor Ed Blair expressed doubts about the new building height, saying Payson should remain a small, tourist town.
“I’m not necessarily opposed to it, but I’ve been to Sedona several times and I don’t see any high buildings there.”
“But I’ve heard you say that you don’t want to be like Sedona,” said Evans.
“I think I said Prescott,” said Blair.
However, the other council members who spoke all supported launching into an investigation into changing the zoning laws to allow taller buildings in town.
Most cited the town’s current, critical shortage of homes the average working resident could afford.
Councilor John Wilson said “we need an ability to have more affordable housing by going up,” so long as any such tall buildings didn’t block the views of existing residents.
Councilor Su Connell said “to me this is an answer to smart growth. I believe it’s an economic opportunity we have shortchanged ourselves in the past. It can be adjusted for the topography. It’s time to look at increased densities, so I’m 100 percent for it.”
The council’s willingness to consider higher-density development marked another shift away from the policies of previous council, which imposed some of the toughest growth restrictions in the state including an annual limit on building permits. The Town recently effectively doubled its water supply, removing one of the chief restrictions on future growth. Moreover, construction has all but halted in the past two years, making growth restrictions moot, officials say.
Councilor Mike Vogel said, “to try to stop some of the phone calls in the morning, let me say this is the only way Payson can build work-force housing. Don’t call me tomorrow to complain about the height limit if you complained last week about the lack of work-force housing.”
Councilor Richard Croy said the council’s vote would merely start the process of investigating the options and a new height limit. The change would ultimately include things like the size of the parcel, the setback, the impact on views from adjacent properties and different zoning categories.
“But this is the only way we’re going to get anything approaching affordable housing.”
Evans added the town must consider the financial impact of low-density development. Providing public services like police, fire, trash, sewer and water to a one-acre parcel costs a lot more than serving higher density development.
A homeowner living on a one-acre parcel might require the same infrastructure investment as three or four people living in a more dense subdivision, but those three or four people would generate a lot more income for the town.
Studies suggest that cities effectively lose money in providing services to houses, but subsidize those services by taxes on the businesses that serve those residents.
No one spoke against the idea of taller buildings in Payson.
Ironically, the council has in the past several months faced a series of crowded public hearings during which residents vehemently protested increases in densities in their neighborhoods, including several cases in which neighbors objected to requests to turn two-acre lots into one-acre lots.
However, a consultant who recently completed a housing plan for the town identified the lack of affordable housing as a major problem, since the community faces a difficult combination of low, rural wages and relatively high housing prices, driven in part by the large number of well-off, second-home buyers from Phoenix and elsewhere.