Leaning toward 5,000 square foot, aggregate of 7,000
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
A tense crowd turned out for a public hearing held by Gunnison County commissioners on Tuesday, September 7 to discuss how much local policy could affect future home size in Gunnison County. Commissioners have heard an outpouring of both support and opposition to the proposed amendment that would reduce the maximum home size that receives an administrative staff review. Currently any house that is 10,000 square feet or larger must go through a public planning commission minor use impact review process but the proposed amendment will basically cut that in half.
After listening to citizens speak on Tuesday, the commissioners agreed to proceed with the proposed LUR change. But they agreed to a compromise on the size cap based on some new data. Commissioners will vote on the proposed amendment in the coming weeks once the amendment language is finalized.
The amendment would change the maximum house size from the current cap of 10,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet for a single residential structure, and from 12,500 square feet of aggregate building sizes to 7,000 square feet. The planning commission voted last month to recommend the reduction to 4,200 square feet or 5,700 square feet for aggregate building sizes.
An application for a home size exceeding these limits would go beyond a somewhat straightforward administrative review process with the planning department to a more complex minor impact review process that includes a public hearing.
Approximately 35 citizens attended the hearing Tuesday, and some members of the community—particularly those in the building industry—brought sharp comments of opposition. County commissioner chairperson Jonathan Houck reminded attendees that the LUR is meant to be changed as needed over time “as a living document,” and that public hearings aren’t an opportunity to count the number of people for or against something, but to weigh individual comments on their relevance and value to the issue. “Many people submitted comments based on how long they have lived here and how many people work for them,” he said.
Community and economic development director Cathie Pagano explained that during previous discussions, her data from the past 13 years showing an average house size in the Gunnison Valley of about 2,100-2,300 square feet did not include attached garages.
She shared new data with attached garages included which drives up the average local home size to about 2,800 square feet. That change became an important crux in the decision of how low to reduce the allowable square footage, and ultimately commissioners agreed to vote on a maximum of 5,000 rather than 4,200 square feet.
Pagano said that since 2007, approximately 5 percent (44 applications) scattered throughout the county would have applied to the proposed amendment requiring a minor impact study. “That averages 3.3 permits per year since 2007,” she said.
Jennifer Hartman of Sunlight Architecture in Crested Butte argued that the “drastic change” to amending the LUR had been done without enough details. She also took issue with the petition that circulated among residents to protect the Slate River corridor, and said she believed it had misled some people signing it into being used to push the house size agenda.
Julia Kidd of Kidd Construction said the building industry supports local jobs and the more involved minor impact process would be inefficient while giving too much voice to self interest among neighbors. “I feel that this community already struggles with a ‘close the gate behind you’ mentality,” she said.
Beth Wyman disputed telling people what they can do with their land. “The idea that it only affects a few people so it’s okay to do,” she said, was an inequal application of law. Furthermore, she said the county hasn’t considered the financial impacts of thwarting wealthy homeowners who are “our golden ticket” and pay taxes to fund our schools.
“These houses have been going up for decades and nobody cared until the 10,000-square-foot Slate house came along. Well, I’m sorry, the Slate isn’t that special…pick another valley. What is precious is private land,” she said.
Albert Roper, a third generation rancher who recently underwent a process of dividing up his property, said he was here to represent the people going through the minor impact review process. He said it was anything but minor, and quite time consuming. He said the county has become over-regulated, and he found the number of people “I have to ask permission to do what I want with my property” to be insulting.
Lainy Sorensen said she and her husband purchased property in May, and plan to build something that would be impacted by the amendment. “If we are allowed to build our house as planned, we will include an integrated secondary residence for additional employees. If the square footage is drastically minimized as proposed, we will not be able to build any additional housing for local employees other than ourselves,” she said. “We are already overwhelmed by the paperwork required…an additional minor impact review would add to that significantly.”
Contractor Ben Somrak gave a particularly impassioned speech. “I’m the reason we are here today, probably,” he said, as the general contractor for Wandering Willows, the large home proposed along the Slate River. He accused the main proponents of the amendment, particularly organizer Tim Szurgot, of being “the perfect embodiment of the not in my backyard [NIMBY] movement.” He also expressed an opinion that the 1,700 signatures on the petition were misinformed and that the movement was “threatening the values of our capitalistic society.” He told commissioners that defending property rights is their responsibility, “what seems so basic in the Wild West that we like to consider ourselves as here in Gunnison County.” Somrak said if the amendment went through, he would have to lay people off and lose a lot of business. “And you guys are going to lose a lot of votes,” he added.
Last, Somrak said many people on his side of the issue could not make it to the meeting because they were busy working for their families.
“Your constituents—that’s us—are just sick about this,” he said. “A 58-percent reduction to the square footage in one fell swoop, right under the nose of the working man while he is busy out there making a living, it’s not the right way to do government.”
Somrak also said that the Wandering Willows project would bring $6 million to the local economy and over $30,000 to the affordable housing fund.
Attorney Kendall Burgemeister asked that commissioners allow a higher maximum size in the amendment, because “These exempt neighborhoods are getting built out, and these larger homes are going to shift to other areas.”
Attorney Marcus Lock said he understood both sides of property rights and also the environmental impact of larger homes. “But this current proposal seems like a drastic proposal. It does not seem consistent with balancing those two.”
Local musician Lizzy Plotkin serenaded the room following Somrak’s comments with a song about the need for clean water, simplicity and efficiently sized homes. “I’ve written songs over the years when issues have come up, and I just feel like sharing,” she said.
Crested Butte resident Jim Starr recalled being on the board of county commissioners when the maximum house size number was increased in 2007. “Much has changed since then,” he said, and far more homes are that size today. He emphasized that an LUR amendment wouldn’t change what people can do, just the procedure involved. “This county has always prided itself on the amount of public input it receives on issues,” as well as on its conservation values, he said.
“The larger the house, the more employees it requires to build it over a two- or three-year period,” continued Starr. “Most of these houses are not lived in full-time, so that requires more service level employees which exacerbates the affordable housing problem.”
John Hess said he supported the change and smaller size of new houses, echoing a letter he had submitted online beforehand.
Crested Butte resident Andrew Arell brought up the climate change impacts of larger homes, and recent county data showing that locally, buildings contribute 61 percent of greenhouse gasses.
“Here in Gunnison County, we do not have an exemption,” he said, from contributing to the solution. He argued that the county should not “privilege opulence,” or delay action. “This doesn’t need to be a divisive issue. I’m a working class person; I am also taking off work to be here,” he noted.
Crested Butte South resident Derek Harwell said, “It strikes me that many of the people who have spoken against this…are speaking in favor of their own self interest, while others who speak in favor are speaking in favor of community values.” He said he has counted many construction crews that aren’t employing local workers at all. “When having more becomes a divisive issue, the question becomes when is it enough?” he asked.
Keith Pearen also spoke of the environmental impacts of larger homes. “The biggest knob that we have to turn on lifetime emissions is how big [houses] are…” he said. He said that as subdivisions allowing larger homes get built out, “We want those newer homes in other areas to reflect the values of our community.”
Tim Szurgot responded briefly to some of Somrak’s statements, including the narrative that this effort is all to protect his views. “This isn’t personal; I never thought it was about me. I’m not quite that narcissistic…it’s about the next seven generations,” he said. “In fact, I can’t see Wandering Willows from my house. But other people will be able to see it. And this is about more than one project.”
Szurgot emphasized that the petition was advocating for the Slate River watershed protection from building large homes without more robust environmental impact reviews and public process. “We’ll get a better product,” he said of the minor impact review, and that given the climate crisis, environment and flood plains are important considerations.
Local builder Greg Downum said his business perspective is that contractors and their clients want something simple and clear to follow in an LUR. He also said he understands that “the scale is off,” about many large houses.
Commissioner Roland Mason, who is also a builder, said he also didn’t believe the new maximum proposal of 4,200 square feet was quite right, and he advocated for a higher maximum size while also targeting some of the very large outliers.
Mason urged commissioners Houck and Liz Smith to compromise at around 5,500 square feet maximum given the county’s new data and the building community’s plea. “That allows folks who have some existing buildings to do a little bit more if they wanted to,” he said.
Smith said she appreciated having heard from a diversity of perspective, and believes a lot of the discussion has arisen “from the rapid changes in our community.” She agreed that more demand will happen across the county and she expects those outliers to become more and more common with real and lasting environmental impacts. “These are issues that have really shaken our community…it is significant that so many people are really looking at places like Gunnison as a satellite to the Front Range.”
However, she also said in light of the new average home size data she was prepared to go with a larger maximum number.
“I do understand and hear how the process has been for some of you,” she said of the minor impact review. She also said she understands this is not the only way to address climate change, “but we have to take this one issue at a time.”
Houck spoke last. “This has been an interesting discussion for me,” he said. He agreed that the Wandering Willows brought the issue up most recently, “But we’ve been having this discussion long before that.” He said he too had been in the construction industry, and that workers in that industry are maxed out right now with so many projects. “The economic impacts of building in this community have been robust,” he said, and even in the economic downturns, construction has never completely dropped out, regardless of policy.
He said all development matters, and ignoring environmental and wildlife impacts can lead to issues such as the Gunnison sage grouse being listed as an endangered species, where he is now fighting just to help ranchers get access to their own land.
“The less we pay attention to that, the more wildlife is imperiled,” he said, and the more development will be curtailed.
Houck and Smith agreed they would entertain moving forward with a maximum home size of 5,000 square feet, and also agreed tentatively to Mason’s counter suggestion of an additional 2,000 for accessory units or an aggregate of 7,000 square feet.
County staff will draft an amendment to the LUR, and commissioners will have a chance to vote on it at their next meeting on September 21, or the following meeting on October 5.