Over the years, Flagstaff residents and elected officials have often lamented the lack of influence and control the city has over large developments.
Now, city staff are hoping to change that by reshaping Flagstaff’s zoning code to put stricter regulations on developments that are often designed with college students in mind.
The strategy involves changing how the city determines if a development will need a permit to rent rooms individually.
Unlike traditional apartment complexes, developers and managers of student housing have tended to rent by the room rather than the unit. In this way, each individual occupant has their own lease with the management.
Renting by the room -- often referred to as "rooming and boarding" by city staff -- requires a conditional use permit by the city, and that process can give the city some measure of influence on how a development looks if the developer asks for the permit before plans are finalized and construction begins.
However, city zoning manager Dan Symer said at the moment, whether or not a development goes though that permitting process can rely entirely on if the developer is honest about how they plan on renting out the apartments.
Developers will simply tell city staff they plan on renting by the unit and then, after the development is approved and construction has finished, they will begin to rent by the room, Symer said, pointing at the newly opened Standard development on Route 66 as a good example of this.
“The Standard, it doesn’t have a conditional use permit,” Symer said. “And we know they are renting by the room; we know that, it’s advertised. Several projects are in that situation.”
But Symer said the changes they are looking at would make sure that is no longer an issue.
That’s because the changes would base the need for a permit not on whether the developer tells staff they plan to rent by the room; instead, Symer said, it would be based on if the development is physically designed to rent in that fashion.
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“We’re trying to catch [these developments] at the approval process instead of down the road when we’re doing code enforcement and we're starting to have negative impacts on our neighborhoods because they’re not providing enough parking and etc.,” Symer said.
Based on these changes, buildings with a density of greater than 29 units an acre or a bedroom density of about 72 units an acre would both automatically be defined as high occupancy housing and required to go through the permitting process.
Similarly, the need for a permit would also be triggered by the ratio of bedrooms to bathrooms. This would mean if a development has apartments that are three bedrooms with three bathrooms and four bedrooms with four bathrooms, a permit would be required.
This ratio wouldn’t apply to one and two bedroom and bathroom units as those are more likely to be traditional apartments, Symer said.
Additionally, if 10% or more of a development's units have four bedrooms, it would need a permit.
Symer said all of these have proven to be signs that a developer plans on renting by the room as opposed to by the apartment.
In certain areas of the city, specifically around the Milton corridor and along Butler east of Lone Tree, developers would be allowed to have more units before triggering the need for a permit. City comprehensive planning manager Sara Dechter said this should attract developers looking to build student housing away from other parts that are more sensitive to the public such as downtown and the Southside.
The changes in how the city requires a permit may then give the city more influence when negotiating with developers. The hope is that staff, the Planning and Zoning Commission and Flagstaff City Council can then better control where and how developments are built early on.
To this end, the city would make the granting of a permit dependent on certain factors including whether the development is compatible with the surrounding neighborhood, the mass, height and other design aspects, Symer said.
The city would then also look at how much parking the developer is providing, whether the building is within 1,200 feet of a transit route and if the developer has a plan to turn the development into traditional apartments if the market sours.