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Boone Town Council Approves Controversial Affordable Housing Task Force Proposal in Split Decision, 4-1

By Paul T. Choate

town-of-boone-logo2Feb. 19, 2013. The somewhat controversial proposal for new supplemental standards for multi-family housing was approved in a 4-1 vote by the Boone Town Council at their Tuesday meeting. Additionally, an exception to the new standards through conditional B-3 rezoning for mixed-use projects was also approved.

The proposal was submitted by the Affordable Housing Task Force on Feb. 2. It will allow for no more than two unrelated persons to live within a unit in new developments. Additionally, in every unit with two or more bedrooms, a “master suite” bedroom that is at least 25 percent larger than the other bedroom(s) is be mandated.

Other changes include putting a limit on bedroom-to-bathroom rations, including garages or 50 square feet of storage space, a .5 ration of outdoor livability space and limiting parking spaces to two per unit. The new standards also require varied unit sizes in new developments and restricts building heights to three stories.

Councilman Allan Scherlen, the lone nay voter, opposed approval on multiple grounds. He cited Planning Commission members who had expressed concerns over the proposal – despite the Planning Commission voting 6-3 to ultimately approve the new standards.

Scherlen also inquired as to why the result of a housing study that are expected in April were not waited on before making a decision on major new standards.

“Even representatives of the task force admitted that there needed to be changes,” Scherlen said. “Two or three of the most experienced members of the Planning Commission saw problems with it. … I think there are problems and I think it’s a mistake to go forward at this time.”

Scherlen also expressed concerns over the .5 livability space ratio, saying he felt it could get in the way of making housing more affordable.

Councilwomen Jamie Leigh and Lynne Mason, both members of the Affordable Housing Task Force as well, defended the proposal saying they recognized it is a first step but that increasing the stock of different types of housing would help lower costs.

“I am a bit perplexed with some of the opposition, as workforce housing has been repeatedly identified as a need in our community and we are presenting this recommendation to increase the supply,” Mason said.

Some in the development community, as well as Watauga County Commissioner Chairman Nathan Miller, had recently voiced their opposition to the proposal.

Miller recently said the proposed changes to the UDO will reduce the value of the old Watauga High School property by “roughly $10 million.” As for the “affordable housing” aspect of these proposals, he said the changes would have the opposite effect by creating a “monopoly” on current student housing developments, which will have far reaching effects out into the county.

He added that if Templeton Properties backs out of the sale, taxes could increase if the revaluation comes in low. Also, he mentioned funds from the sale could be used to pay off debt from the Watauga High School and repair the Watauga County Swim Complex. 

Miller even went as far as to say that “a whole parade of horribles” could be avoided with the sale of the old WHS property.

The new proposal does not, however, effectively kill any future large-scale student housing developments. Based on an exemption under conditional B-3 district rezoning, the new standards can be avoided.

The approved exemption would allow for the new standards to be bypassed in mixed-use projects so long as either, the commercial properties are built in the first phase of construction; no more than one-third of the multi-family units are built prior to completion of all commercial buildings; or the developer offers financial commitments in advance to finish all the residential and commercial properties.

The exemption requirements are in place as a means to prevent potential developers from constructing only the residential and then “walking away” from the project.

“We recognize that this is a first step,” Mason said. “After the hosing study is made available there will be additional suggestions.”