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Planning Commission worries new environmental regulations could make housing more expensive

Monday, August 29, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

After expressing concerns over the impact of new water quality and drainage regulations on housing affordability, members of the Planning Commission voted Tuesday to form a working group to tackle the code changes before giving a final recommendation to City Council. 

The rules, which were part of the failed Land Development Code rewrite, would help make development more sustainable by requiring enhanced water quality and stormwater infrastructure. But the rules might also hurt housing affordability by adding to the cost of building. 

“When we did the LDC rewrite, during that time, a lot of these regulations were balanced with new planning, new density, other types of regulations,” Commissioner James Shieh said. “And now my concern is … we don’t have the balance of additional entitlements.”

The rules will require upgraded stormwater infrastructure like rain gardens or biofiltration ponds instead of the typical concrete detention ponds, as well as enhanced landscaping requirements in many new developments. A full list of the changes can be found in the presentation by city staff.

Council decided to dust off the code changes, which had been shelved since the LDC rewrite failed in 2020, via a June 9 resolution sponsored by Council Member Kathie Tovo. 

In another change, projects will no longer be allowed to build to the level of impervious cover that currently exists on a site. Commissioner Greg Anderson gave the example of Lamar Union, where the developer was able to exceed typical impervious cover limits because the site “was a giant parking lot with some retail.”  

“This ordinance as is, without any additional gives, would have cost them 80 homes, eight of them affordable homes,” he said. 

Anderson also lamented delays in proposed code changes to allow housing in more places while other initiatives seem expedited. “Everything is just stuck if it makes housing easier, but if it’s a cost or a fee or a regulation, ‘We’ve gotta hurry up, we’ve gotta hurry up with the regs.’”

Staffers sympathized with commissioners but said their hands are tied. 

“We don’t want our requirements to stand in the way of affordable housing,”  environmental policy program manager Liz Johnston said. “I think we do need to strike a balance. It’s just very difficult with the way their resolution was written, and the amount of time, and the difficulty in changing zoning code right now.”

“Thinking about additional entitlements is something that we would love to do, but it feels a little taboo to loop in,” Environmental Officer Katie Coyne said.  

Staffers at the next meeting will share how the rules might affect housing affordability, including site plan review times. “You’ve probably had folks in this position who were expected to think in a siloed way about environmental goals, and I don’t think that’s possible if we’re going to have a resilient city,” Coyne said. 

After their discussion Tuesday, commissioners formed a working group to discuss and potentially craft amendments to the regulations. At the commission’s next meeting on Sept. 13, working group members will provide an update on the discussions before the commission makes its final recommendation on Sept. 27. Council is scheduled to vote on the changes Sept. 29. 

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia CommonsThis story has been changed since publication to correct Liz Johnston’s job title.

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