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New student-focused development regulations inch forward

New student-focused development regulations inch forward

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Mystery Peaks

Erika Alvarez sent in this photo of the cloud-covered Peaks as seen from Sunnyside.

Flagstaff City Council weighed in at Tuesday night's meeting on long awaited zoning changes meant to lower the height of buildings in some parts of the city and more closely regulate large student-focused housing developments.

The majority of Council was supportive of the changes, and of city staff continuing efforts to get public input in the affected parts of the community.

Among the proposed changes is lowering the maximum building height from 60 feet to 45 feet in the community commercial zone, which covers sections of the city north of downtown, much of the Southside and the majority of the Sunnyside neighborhood.

City Zoning Manager Dan Symer told the council the response to the changes from the community has generally been positive, although they have received some pushback from business owners in the more commercial sections of Sunnyside.

During outreach events, Symer said, business owners along Fourth Street, Seventh Street and Cedar Avenue have told staff they would prefer to keep their ability to build larger structures as the city grows and those commercial areas may develop further.

Based on those public comments, Symer said they are also proposing an alternative plan that would still lower building heights in the rest of the community commercial zone, but would also change the zoning to highway commercial along portions of those roads.

Symer said those two zones are fairly similar, but it would allow those property owners to build as high as 60 feet.

But Mayor Coral Evans wondered if the city was going too far in making changes that would affect the Sunnyside neighborhood at all given the problem they are trying to address.

“We were trying to address mega-tall buildings that house students in the historic core of our city. That’s what brought us here, that’s what the conversation was,” Evans said. “So then I looked at this and I saw what we are doing to address that is also now going to impact and affect people that live in a completely different neighborhood that really hasn’t been a part of the original conversation.”

Evans pointed out that the Sunnyside neighborhood doesn’t have a neighborhood plan yet and they would be making a change to that neighborhood without an extended process in which the city was consulting residents.

When it comes to the Southside, despite the controversy around originating in the area, many residents are somewhat mixed on the proposed changes, said Deborah Harris, president of the Southside Community Association.

Harris said there are community members who have been holding on to property for decades and, after years of feeling sidelined by the city, are looking to sell now that developers are taking a renewed interest in the Southside.

Because of that, Harris said some of them oppose any changes that could lower the value of their land.

On the other hand, there are other community members who have told her they plan to leave their homes to family members and want the character of the community preserved as it is.

Additionally, Comprehensive Planning Manager Sara Dechter said as she and other city staff have been working on the Southside Neighborhood Plan, the neighborhood character and the bulk, mass and scale of new development has been one of the top concerns brought up by residents.

Harris said whatever the council eventually decides regarding the zoning changes, she hopes the voices of Southside residents are heard. Residents of the historically majority-minority neighborhood have been left out of the conversation many times before, Harris said, which has led in part to the current predicament.

During the meeting, spokespersons for the Flagstaff Lodging, Restaurant and Tourism Association and the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce both spoke against some of the zoning changes.

Steve Finch, CEO of the Lodging and Restaurant Association, pointed to how changes could lower property values by restricting how owners could develop their land.

“I could actually see some issues developing from those land owners when now you have restricted them from doing something with the land than when they bought it,” Finch told council. “You’ll have taken away a right they had when they bought it and I don’t see that going down well at all.”

State law strongly protects the rights of property owners against changes imposed by municipalities that may lower the value of the property. Proposition 207 requires a city to reimburse a property owner for any lost property value that is caused by city action, such as a change in zoning.

Alternatively, a property owner can get a waiver from the city allowing them to stay in the previous zoning as a way to avoid a loss in property value.

Evans said she would like to see an estimate of how many people may ask for waivers to opt out of the zoning change. If too many people want to opt out, Evans said they simply may not be able to stop the construction of large buildings in these areas.

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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