Public turns out for neighborhood discussion

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Citizens favor filling vacant housing units and buffer zones.

By Arin McKenna

Fifty people turned out on Wednesday for the first of three public meetings scheduled for round 2 of public input on the Comprehensive Plan. Wednesday’s focus was on neighborhoods, density and growth. It began with a summary of the results of a random sample survey to which 599 citizens responded (3,000 surveys were mailed out). One focus of the survey was on how the county might deal with growth for up to 2,000 additional residents. The majority of those surveyed wanted new housing downtown, followed by infill of vacant houses and lots, developing housing on DP Road and distributed growth throughout neighborhoods. The preference in White Rock was for development of A-19 and the Longview Drive areas, as well as distributed growth. Survey respondents did not favor constructing new housing areas. Three-quarters of those responding felt that more affordable housing was needed. They supported accessory dwelling units, affordable housing requirements, low-income mortgage assistance and subsidized housing as mechanisms for meeting that need. Seventy-one percent felt the count should require a buffer or transitional areas between single-family housing and more intense development. Those who attended Wednesday’s meeting seemed to be aligned with the survey results, with some exceptions. There was a strong consensus on the need to fill vacant houses, but disagreement about the mechanism for doing that. The group seemed to lean toward offering incentives rather than imposing penalties. Someone suggested that many of the homes sitting vacant might belong to elderly people without the means to prepare them for sale, and that some type of assistance program might be the key to moving them. George Chandler asked what standards the Community Development Department was using for accessory apartments. “When I read the code, an accessory apartment is a dwelling unit, and as such, it has to meet the same setback requirements and parking units as a the other building that would be on that lot,” Chandler said. “(CDD’s) interpretation of the code is that that an accessory apartment only has to be like a shed, like an accessory structure that can sit three-feet from the fence rather than the 20-feet that a regular dwelling unit has to have. You also think that you could have two dwelling units on a lot that’s only big enough for one dwelling unit according to the zoning for that district. “When you’re proposing that we allow a lot more of these accessory apartments, and use them to solve this housing problem that we don’t have, which one of those (standards) are you using?” Chandler also called for regulation of short-term rentals such as bed and breakfasts and boarding houses to assure adequate parking, adherence to setbacks and lot size requirements in order to control the proliferation of such things as Airbnbs that are disrupting cities such like Santa Fe. “If you read the present code, it purports to regulate those things. But the people who enforce the code don’t follow it,” Chandler said. “If they don’t think they can enforce it the way it’s written, then we should rewrite it so it can be enforced. Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Philip Gursky encouraged participants to suggest changes to they would like to see to current code, which allows for such things as accessory apartments, home businesses and carports. “We have a code that was intended when it was written to try to increase density, to allow lot space, to allow accessory apartments,” Gursky said. “The question I think we’re really looking at – and I think it’s one of the most important questions – is it any longer appropriate in certain neighborhoods or in all of our existing residential neighborhoods – to promote that in our code? Do we need to change the code...How do people feel about what’s going to go on in their neighborhoods, in terms of what ought to be allowed? What should we change?” Gursky asked citizens to consider questions such as whether their neighborhoods had adequate parking, whether there was too much noise or too much lighting, are they safe? The answers to those questions could lead to suggestions for changes in the development code. There were two opinions on growth within the group. One woman asked, “Does anyone who came tonight believe that we do not need more housing, that we should use what’s already here?” About 15 hands went up. Someone countered with a suggestion that the county should research what metrics are needed in order to grow and sustain the community. “There is a threshold that you have to meet – regardless of what the citizens want – if a community is going to survive. You have to balance these inputs against the needs of the community as a whole.” He asserted that a 2,000 person growth projection over 25 years was too low, that it should be 6,000 “in order for this community to stay alive, to have businesses to support the community, to be able to house the workers that are working in the community stores and then to make this a desirable community for additional laboratory people with higher incomes to move in, stay here, as opposed to being a bedroom for the locals, and everybody that’s got a higher potential property value leaves and goes to Santa Fe.” Council candidate Chris Chandler questioned proposals for transition areas listed in the neighborhoods’ “white paper” (available on the website). “The way they’re described in the papers is not my concept of what a traditional area is, which to me is high density, medium density, single family. Instead, it just talks about ways to protect residences from high-density areas,” Chandler said. “We should say you can’t have super high density next to a residential.” The white paper did not discuss density as an option for transition zones. Instead, it suggested using setbacks, stepbacks, landscape buffers or walls and shielded outdoor lighting to moderate the impact of commercial or high-density housing units. “This is not just an academic exercise. This actually happened to us on 9th Street. UNM-LA and the county got together and decided they were going to tear down the apartments that are across from us that are 23 feet high and build a 50-foot building 10 feet closer to the road, directly across from single-family homes,” George Chandler said. “There are a lot of places downtown where this could happen. So people need to realize that this affects their neighborhoods.” Someone suggested that height limits should be included in transition zone options. “I was shocked when the Smith’s went up and a huge section of the vista disappeared because of the height,” she said. Other suggestions from the group included having a short-term rental unit in the downtown area, encouraging more accessible housing and assisted living units for the growing senior population and zoning that encouraged both income and demographic diversity within neighborhoods. One person urged CDD to work more closely with neighborhoods when they considered such things as zoning exceptions. “There should be a mechanism for the neighborhood to represent themselves when someone requests a change, not just those houses within 300 feet,” he said. Gursky noted that in Philadelphia, neighborhood associations serve as that buffer, but someone pointed out that they had been trying to form a neighborhood association for a year and had been told that Los Alamos County has no mechanism for doing that. Facilitators conducted a straw poll at the end of the meeting. Not everyone in attendance participated, but the responses to the three questions posed were interesting. Those who participated strongly supported having compatible land uses in neighborhoods and either supported or were “basically okay” with affordable housing in their neighborhoods. The response to the question “Do you support expanding uses in residential areas?” was at the other end of the spectrum, with most participants checking “formal disagreement” and “I will work to block it. Citizens are encouraged to provide input on these and other issues related to the comprehensive plan by emailing Steve Burstein, sburstein@arcplanning.com, or Tamara Baer, tamara.baer@lacnm.us. For more information on the Comprehensive Plan, go to http://www.losalamoscountycompplan2016.com. Additional meetings on the Comprehensive Plan are scheduled for June 22 at Fuller Lodge (downtown, redevelopment and economic vitality) and June 29 at White Rock Fire Station No. 3 (open space, trails and circulation). All are from 6–8 p.m.