Get ready for high rises in Payson.
The Payson Town Council opened the elevator door to four- to seven-story buildings in certain areas of town on Thursday, an attempt to lure a four-year college, a convention hotel and affordable apartments.
Currently, the building code sets a 35-foot limit — or 45 feet with a conditional use permit approved by the council and planning commission. The rules generally allow for a three-story building.
The new rules would make it possible to go up 75 feet — or seven stories in certain areas already zoned for commercial, industrial and apartments.
Under the new rules, the planning commission could approve buildings up to 56 feet by issuing a conditional use permit in one of the authorized zones.
If the developer wanted to go higher — up to 75 feet, or seven stories, he would need to get a zone change for a Planned Area Development, which would require a slew of hearings before both the planning commission and the town council.
The recent changes have been making their way through assorted committees since November — and will undergo one more public hearing before the town council in April before taking effect.
The changes have gotten mixed reviews from residents, a conflict reflected at Thursday’s first hearing of the new ordinance in the council chambers.
One longtime local developer, Bob McQueen, recounted a long history of frustration in trying to convince people to build hotels and apartments in Payson.
He praised the council for pushing through the changes and for working hard to make businesses feel more welcome.
He recalled a previous effort to put together a deal for four acres near Blockbuster.
“They definitely didn’t have the carpet rolled out. The recession hit us a lot harder and I sincerely regret all the young families that have moved out of here. But now we’re looking at an 80-room hotel — and it just won’t work at three stories. They need at least four. Developers have just turned their back on Payson because of our current height limit.”
On the other hand, several residents rose to express concerns about the proposal, based on the impact on their views, the privacy of their back yards and traffic.
Paul Labonte said raising height limits had ruined once-rural Fountain Hills. “When they got through building all those high rises, I couldn’t see anything. I would keep it at a two-story limit and keep it nice.”
But David McElroy said he could see high rises — but only in a few places.
“I could see it in specific spots — but in downtown Payson, I’d have to give it some thought. We should have something to get development — where we can have a good hotel. So let people say we don’t want it near Home Depot, but maybe near the Event Center.”
Bill Powers said, “You’ve heard the old saying ‘not in my back yard.’ Well, in this case it’s ‘not in my front yard — and not in my view.’”
Bob McQueen added, “I know there’s things in the works — it’s not a blanket deal we’re talking about.”
“But there’s a lot of vacant lots in Payson,” retorted Powers. “I wonder if building three and four stories when we have so many vacant lots it not counterproductive.”
Shirley Dye, who serves on the town’s Traffic Advisory Board, said “I’m OK with it if it’s not a blanket ordinance that says any developer can go up to seven stories high. But I really think two stories is as much as we ought to go for apartments.”
Most said they understood the need for high rises in certain, very limited areas — like a convention hotel along the highway that didn’t overlook an existing neighborhood or student dorms on the proposed ASU campus.
The council tried to reassure residents that developers would have to apply for permits to build high rises in existing commercial, industrial and multi-family zones, subject to a whole array of restrictions based on the surrounding neighborhoods.
The proposed ordinance lays out a variety of limits on building heights, even in the allowed zones. Those limits include:
• The impact on the views of the neighbors and concerns about shadows cast by the high rise building.
• The impact on the view from the road or highway.
• The existing intensity and quality of development in the neighborhood.
• Privacy of the neighbors.
• The impact on open space, preservation of native plants and the location and size of the parcel.
• Design and landscaping.
A memo from Payson Fire Chief Marti deMasi raised several concerns about the impact of high rises on fire safety.
Currently, the department routinely has seven firefighters on duty at any given moment, manning two fire trucks — neither of which have ladders high enough to fight a fire in a building higher than three stories.
The town does own a ladder truck that could fight fires in a seven-story building, but would have to call in an off-duty crew to man the truck in case of a fire.
DeMasi noted that a 75-foot-tall building would pose more complications for the department than a 60-foot-tall building.
He recommended that the building code require any building taller than three stories to have a sprinkler system for fighting fires and meet a much tougher building code standard for using fire-resistant materials.
The fire department has also proposed a revision of the overall building code to meet firewise standards, which would dramatically lower the risk that a brush fire could get out of control and race through town. Hearings haven’t yet started on that proposed revision of the building code for new construction.
The council listened to a succession of speakers, about equally split between welcoming the changes as a way to attract development and homeowners worried about the impact of high rises on the feel of the town.
The council then voted unanimously to approve the first reading of the ordinance.