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The student housing complex called the Commons at Sawmill received approval for a permit to rent by the room from the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission despite the fact that the apartment complex has already been doing so for about a decade.

The city requires apartments that rent by the room to apply for and receive a conditional use permit from the city, which brings with it additional requirements of the developer or owner of the apartment complex.

Attorney Nick Woods, who represented the owners of the Commons at Sawmill, said under previous owners, the apartments had been rented by the room for at least a decade without ever applying for or receiving a permit to do so.

Woods said the new owners had no reason to believe that the Commons was operated outside city code when they bought the complex three years ago -- that is, until they were told by city staff.

“So the client had a choice: they could have gotten cute -- as some of the other owners of multifamily [apartments] have done -- where they create some tweaks and some modifications to the way they lease these things to try and circumvent the rules,” Woods said. “My clients, to their credit, said no, we're not going to play games, we're not going to get cute, we’re not going to circumvent the rules.”

According to city staff, it is not uncommon that apartment complexes in Flagstaff find ways to rent by the room without a permit.

The issue was addressed in the city’s high occupancy plan that was passed by Flagstaff City Council last year. Staff are currently vetting and receiving public comments on changes that would make it more likely that larger apartment complexes are automatically pushed toward applying for a permit. Right now, staff are enforcing codes after the fact, which can be more difficult.

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One of the changes being considered would make it more likely that a development would automatically require a permit in certain areas of the city. Changes also would require a permit if the physical building appears to be set up to be rented by the room.

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The Commons was originally built in 1994 and has 194 apartments totaling 448 bedrooms. According to the owners, the apartments are at 96% occupancy with 100% of residents being students.

As the complex has been renting by the room for at least a decade, the permit changes nothing about their operations except that they are in compliance with city code.

In applying for the permit, the owners are bringing some other aspects of the complex into compliance with the current zoning regulations.

That includes bringing the landscaping into the current zoning standards, which will mean the addition of more trees, mostly in the parking area of the development.

The developer has also agreed to provide residents free Mountain Line eco-passes for two years.

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Adrian Skabelund can be reached at the office at askabelund@azdailysun.com, by phone at (928) 556-2261 or on Twitter @AdrianSkabelund.

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