Moving from 10,000 to 4,200 and exempting multi-family units
By Katherine Nettles
As issues mount across the Gunnison Valley involving affordable housing, a shortage of service workers, heavy visitation and related backcountry impacts, a concern around large homes going up in iconic view sheds and what effect they might have on the local character and environment has landed in the county’s crosshairs. Gunnison County commissioners have identified maximum house size as an area for potential action, and the Gunnison County planning commission has taken up the task of addressing what should be allowed for new construction before applicants would be required to go through a minor impact review process rather than a simpler administrative one.
The planning commission indicated last week a willingness to lower the current maximum home size from 10,000 to 4,200 square feet and send a message that the Gunnison Valley is not interested in allowing large, conspicuous homes to be built without more serious consideration to environmental impacts and a more public process.
In a joint work session with commissioners on Friday, July 9, the planning commission and the community development department discussed potential changes to the Land Use Resolution (LUR) that could lower the limit for residential building sizes and overall lot coverage. After first listening to public comments, the commission’s members discussed what new maximum sizes might strike a balance between reflecting community values and also limiting unnecessary burdens on the planning department.
The consensus was to work with a new maximum of 4,200 square feet for a primary residence, and 5,700 square feet total with outbuildings. The planning department will work on a document outlining these potential LUR changes, which the planning commission will then vote on. If approved, it will go to the county commissioners for a public hearing and a final vote.
The July 9 work session drew several public comments, and most addressed the nexus of the discussion, the recent “Wandering Willows” application that has proposed a 10,000 square foot residence with additional outbuildings totaling around 12,500 square feet within the Slate River viewshed. Most speakers urged the county to create a special use area for the Slate River corridor, and lower the maximum allowable size before an applicant would be required to go through a more in-depth minor impact review process that includes a public hearing.
Crested Butte resident Emily Artale said, “When we allow larger homes they consume more resources… I think we have an obligation to make responsible decisions to limit our impact even if we’re not feeling that impact locally,” she said. She also questioned the impact of larger homes on the affordable housing crisis as property values increase throughout the community.
Long-time Crested Butte resident Glo Cunningham spoke of her time serving on the Crested Butte Land Trust board of directors when the Slate River wetlands preserve was established in the 1990s at a cost of several million dollars.
“I’m here to support having as many restrictions as we can on those wetlands. It was a huge, huge project to protect it; it was a fantastic effort and extremely early visionary thinking of the community to want to protect that area. And to see that there is an opportunity for someone to have such a large house there is shocking to me,” she said. “Please work hard on this and do right by our community.”
“We’re not saying you can’t build larger than that, we’re just setting a higher bar, and it’s totally reasonable to set a higher bar for these developments,” added Keith Pearen in regard to the possible LUR change.
Arvin Ramgoolan likened the caliber of the iconic views of the Slate River corridor to that of the Grand Tetons or the Grand Canyon. “It has welcomed people for decades to our valley, and that’s worth protecting in addition to the wildlife and water,” he emphasized.
Devon Cone said she moved to the north end of the valley two years ago, and agreed that the open spaces are a community value and restricting home sizes is important to her.
After public comment was finished, planning commission member Laura Puckett-Daniels noted that the work session topic would focus only on countywide house sizes versus specific locations within the valley that people might want protected. She then opened the work session.
Community and economic development director Cathie Pagano and county attorney Matthew Hoyt also noted that several developments in the county had previously been granted covenants that exempt them from any new LUR amendments or limits on new structure sizes. Such developments include Cement Creek at Crested Butte South; Eagle Ridge Ranch; East River Ranches; Red Mountain Ranch; Trappers Crossing and Trappers Crossing South. Those are therefore “grandfathered in” and not susceptible to any new LUR changes.
“We’ve been tasked with recommending new maximum square footage per lot sizes to the LUR” said Daniels. She reflected that the commissioners as elected officials have been hearing a great deal from their constituents. “And the people have expressed a strong desire for smaller residential maximums,” she said. “Our values are more around conservation and preventing negative environmental impacts…and we can see that as a community those values are also true on the ground.”
Daniels reviewed data from the planning department that the core of the community is building houses between 2,100 and 2,500 square feet on average, with an aggregate building size of between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet on average. “The bulk of our community has this value at heart, as evidenced by what we are hearing and seeing,” she said.
Daniels then suggested the commission recommend a new primary residence size limit of 4,200 square feet with an additional 1,500 square feet available for other structures, for an aggregate of 5,700 square feet. Daniels suggested that her lower numbers are to answer the call for more environmentally sustainable development.
“I did go more extreme than you all,” Daniels said, addressing county commissioners. “But if we’re concerned about environmental impacts, we need to be making more change in that direction, and capping things at 6,000 and another 2,500 [outbuilding] square footage, I don’t think we’re making a big enough impact.”
Commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck said he was comfortable at that range as well, having looked more closely at the issues since his initial suggestion of around 5,000 or 6,000 square foot maximums earlier this summer. “I’m thinking about the priorities of the community right now, and I see housing, and dealing with issues around the impacts from visitation and growth,” he said.
“We’ve got to get to a new square footage that’s reasonable and accessible and it’s that sweet spot where it’s not overloading the staff and planning commission with all these minor impact reviews,” he said.
Planning commissioner Andy Sovick pointed out that the suggestion of 4,000 square feet was not going to make much change, so much as preventing things from getting worse. “My reaction is that’s not very radical,” he quipped. “Our current limit is so high that it’s almost like people can do whatever they want.” He said he would like to see a lower number, if it wouldn’t burden county staff too much.
County commissioner Roland Mason predicted that there would be more homes coming in at 5,000 and 6,000 square feet and said he believed a 4,200 square foot maximum would in fact create more burdens on staff to manage these applications and subsequent minor impact reviews. He suggested between 5,000 and 6,000 square foot maximums for primary residences or a 7,000 square foot aggregate to allow for accessory dwellings and garages.
Pagano reviewed the county data and said there were not many 4,000, much less 5,000 square foot homes being built just yet. “Last year, one was above 5,000 and two were above 4,000. In 2019, there were three or four around 4,800 and above. I think those are manageable,” she said, from a workload perspective for her department. “And I suspect that most of them are in areas that will be exempt from review, like East River Ranches, Trappers, etc.” she said.
Houck expressed an opinion that policy comes first. “If we are creating policy that reflects the values of the community, and we get to a point where there’s a staffing issue that it impacts, it’s our responsibility to find and allocate money, personnel and the necessary tools we need to address that.”
Sovick countered that increasing staff numbers could add to building costs, and that can become a barrier to affordability.
County commissioner Liz Smith said that people who are building homes above 4,000 square feet are not as affected by increasing costs for those more extensive minor impact reviews.
At the other end of the spectrum, officials discussed at length how to exempt multi-family housing from the square footage maximum, so as to keep multi-family and affordable housing projects from incurring additional costs and delays in the approval process. There was consensus to work that exemption into the amendment language.
Pagano said her department would take this direction for a new maximum of 4,200 square feet or 5,700 including outbuildings and create a document for the planning commission to consider and vote on at a future meeting. If the planning commission approves of the document as an LUR amendment, it would move to the county commissioners, who would hold a public hearing and then a final vote.