Design Rules Voluntary

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Payson now has spiffy new design standards to make sure schools and other public buildings fit into the town’s overall “cool mountain town” motif.

One complication: Public agencies like schools can build just about anything they want, without regard to town zoning ordinances and design standards.

That includes whatever the Rim Country Education Alliance (SLE) decides to build on more than 300 acres of forested land at the east end of town.

Nonetheless, the council last week adopted design standards town staff will have to sweet talk public agencies into following —including the designers of the proposed $400 million campus.

“This makes it clear we expect the planning staff to go back and work with those entities — not just sit back and say ‘gosh, golly darn — they’re going to build a 27-story building,’” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.

The design standards seek the same varied rooflines, use of natural materials like stone and wood, use of natural colors tilted toward browns and greens, use of native, drought-tolerant landscaping and preservation of a forested, open, mountain town feel that pervades the town’s existing design standards.

Various council members took pains to assure voters that the standards weren’t drawn up specifically for the university zone — and aren’t intended to create a “double standard” for the university buildings.

Design Review Chairman Bernie Leider said “many people see it as a double standard. They say that private industry has to live by the rules, but the public sector doesn’t. So we asked to be relieved of design review responsibilities (on public buildings), because it’s a no-win situation for us.”

Normally, the town’s volunteer Design Review Board scrutinizes developer’s plans to give the town a more consistent, integrated look — generally supporting the idea that Payson is a “cool mountain town.” The Design Review Board has generally made suggestions and negotiated changes with developers and has not yet ended up recommending against approval of a project because of design issues.

However, back when developers were still actually building in town, some complained about the delays caused by the additional review process or about the detailed specifications — although the town’s strict sign ordinance has probably generated the most complaints.

The standards approved last week by the council would require town staff to review the design of buildings proposed by other agencies and seek voluntary adherence the town’s design standards — with an appeal to the council in case of disagreements.

Applying either zoning codes or design standards to schools and other public buildings imposes special complications. Technically such public entities need building permits to ensure they follow building codes in construction, but can otherwise do pretty much whatever they want on land they own.

Town Attorney Tim Wright said the state’s courts have repeatedly ruled that towns can’t enforce design standards and zoning restrictions on land owned by other agencies. For instance, Tempe took exception when neighboring Scottsdale decided to build a sewage treatment plant in Tempe.

“But the courts ruled that Scottsdale was not subject to Tempe’s zoning — just as schools are not subject to zoning — even the sanitary district.”

Wright noted that the town had to cope with the issue when the Payson Unified School District submitted plans to remodeled Julia Randall Elementary School. Those plans showed the building would exceed the town’s maximum height requirements. Town staff then met with school district officials, who agreed to shift the position of the building and put in additional landscaping to mask the impact of exceeding the height limit, said Wright.

Councilor Ed Blair wondered what impact the new standards and procedures will have on buildings connected to the proposed university campus.

“I just want to clarify: Would the those buildings go through the design review process?”

Evans hastened to point out that the new process for reviewing public buildings wasn’t devised just for the proposed university, along with the dorms, administrative buildings, research park, parking garages and other facilities.

“There seems to be a perception in the community that this is driven by the university coming to town. That is absolutely untrue,” said Evans.

Still, the buildings on 300 acres on both sides of the highway west of Tyler Parkway will likely pose unusual design challenges.

Backers hope to create a forested campus with all the key buildings in easy walking or biking distance. The plan calls for multi-story parking garages, shuttles to move people around campus, lots of trees, dorms that can accommodate at least half of the students, solar and geothermal systems that will make the campus energy self-sufficient and a host of other unusual features.

Ultimately, the Alliance board will have free reign to approve those buildings, without necessarily complying with the town’s zoning ordinances. However, the Payson council appointed half of the members of that board and Star Valley the other half and can remove board members “for cause.” As a result, town officials don’t expect any conflicts when it comes to laying out the campus.

Backers for the campus have already hired architects who helped design the forested campus at the University of California at Santa Cruz to help come up with a site plan and design specifications for the campus.

Originally, those plans envisioned building the campus on Forest Service land south of the highway. When the process of buying the land from the Forest Service got bogged down, the planners drew up a fresh site plan for a 1,000-student first phase of the campus on county-owned land north of the highway.

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