The overhaul of Payson’s restrictions on buildings taller than three stories will not change the town’s forested, rural character, insist Payson Town Council members.
The council recently unanimously approved an overhaul of the ground rules for buildings taller than about three stories, amid some confusion on the part about how big a change the new rules represent.
Early on, descriptions of the new ordinance had left the impression the revised ordinance would raise the maximum height restriction in town from 35 feet to about 75 feet — or about seven stories.
In fact, the ordinance sets no maximum height — but does impose a host of new restrictions for any building higher than 45 feet — or about four stories.
Acting Community Development Director Ray Erlandsen said the misunderstanding arose largely from a Council Decision Request Memo he wrote in January to provide the council with background. In that memo, he wrote that the new ordinance would allow the council to approve building heights up to 75 feet with a zone change and a conditional use permit, intending that number to just serve as an example.
However, he said the ordinance adopted by the council last week sets no maximum height limit, but does impose more restrictions than the current ordinance. The new rules include a list of 16 restrictions on buildings taller than about four stories, including the impact on the views of the neighbors and distance from residential areas.
The current zoning code also allows taller buildings in certain areas with a conditional use permit, but doesn’t spell out the restrictions.
Moreover, if anyone protests the approval of a building taller than 56 feet, the council could only override the objections and proceed on a “supermajority” vote of six out of the seven councilors.
The proposal spurred some confusion even on the final reading of the ordinance at the last council meeting.
Gene Sampson then rose to ask whether the town had taken into account whether it would have enough water to supply all its residents if developers built seven-story buildings.
“Your question is whether that 38,000 build-out population is still viable if we stack people to the clouds?” said Evans.
“Although that number is there, it’s the very rare property that would be considered for a PUD (Planned Unit Development)” necessary to go above 45 feet.
“So, in other words, the answer is no?”
“That’s not my answer,” retorted Evans. “Don’t put words in my mouth. Blue Ridge (Reservoir) tripled the amount of water we have,” so water no longer represents the primary restriction on development. “But we have a very limited number of properties that meet all the criteria even to go to 45 feet.”
The muddle about the change between the current rules and the new restrictions ran through much of the public testimony — even at the final hearing last week.
An updated memo explained the impact of the new system for approving buildings higher than three stories in commercial, industrial and apartment zones.
The town’s planning staff can now approve buildings up to 45 feet in height that meet the zoning requirements.
The old ordinance allowed the town staff to approve plans for buildings only up to 35 feet of habitable space.
The planning commission can now approve buildings up to 56 feet high that meet zoning and other restrictions. The old ordinance required any building taller than 35 feet in multi-family and industrial districts to go to both the planning commission and the town council for a zone change and a conditional use permit.
However, the new ordinance also requires such higher buildings to be set back at least 75 feet from any residential property and to comply with a new list of other restrictions.
The new ordinance, like the old ordinance, requires any building higher than 56 feet in commercial, industrial and apartment zones to get a zone change, which involves hearings before the planning commission and town council. The main difference lies in the list of 16 restrictions on higher buildings even in those zones.
Fire Chief Marti deMasi noted that the town will have to revise its fire codes before approving buildings higher than about four stories — the limit of the town’s current ladder truck. He said taller buildings must include a sprinkler system and fire-resistant building materials.
“As you get a bigger building and you stack floors on top of one another, you get a more complex problem for firefighters.”
Taller buildings must resist fire better to give residents time to get out and firefighters time to stage an attack.
Several of the residents who rose to question the impact of buildings taller than four stories on the character of the town struggled to understand the differences between the old and new rules.
Previously, council members said the new rules would prove useful in approving things like dorms on a possible college campus, a convention hotel, lower-cost apartments and development at a proposed expansion of the event center onto a piece of Forest Service land for trade.
“Where are the sites where you could do this,” asked Dan Keely, “or have they not been identified?”
Mayor Evans said, “There’s always that give and take. We can’t say the event center is such a site until we’ve gone through the process and met the 16 criteria. But I know that very few parcels would qualify — perhaps half a dozen. And rumors to the contrary, we haven’t identified any sites.”
Erlandsen added that the planning staff had originally set out to designate certain areas within the commercial and industrial zones as appropriate for higher buildings, but eventually gave up that effort.
“We learned that without knowing the specifics of the project, we couldn’t identify specific sites.”
Keely countered, “but you’re going to have some criteria and they’re going to just be blowing in the wind,” meaning subject to change and interpretation.
Councilor Mike Hughes interjected, “Anything over that 45-foot limit (approved by the planning staff), you’re going to have ample input.”
“I think there are adequate safeguards,” said Councilor Ed Blair. “If anything big comes up, it’ll come to us.”