Woodland Park Planners Approve
by Rick Langenberg
After six months of discussion and often heated debate, Woodland Park planners have finally signaled the green light for the city’s first-ever affordable housing law. In fact, the proposal represents the first time in nearly two decades that city leaders have brought a formal ordinance addressing the problem regarding the lack of multi-family dwellings and apartments for future residents to the finish line. Studies have indicated that Woodland Park faces a big shortage in reasonably-priced rental housing, with vacancies declining and monthly costs on the rise. Plus, multi-family
housing is a rare commodity in Woodland Park.
If approved by the city council, officials hope the new measure would spark more projects aimed at meeting the community’s needs for housing local workers and seniors and having more residential developments in the downtown area. The big prize for project developers and builders consists of 400 high priority water taps that are reserved for these affordable housing-related units. These properties, if they can obtain this designation, could be up-zoned and receive certain advantages regarding housing density not permitted under current land use laws. But in order to qualify for these taps, which exceed those of the city’s water tap management policy and its target population cap, the developers must abide by certain conditions, such as complying with property deed restrictions, abiding by requirements of state and federal agencies, providing housing for certain age and income levels and meeting deadlines for the phasing of their projects.
Although conceding that the new plan isn’t perfect and offers a rather flexible definition of affordable housing, the planning commission made it clear last week they have achieved their task. They voted unanimously to endorse a new law that specifically establishes high priority housing units and reserves water taps for these types of dwellings, along with setting the ground rules. “We have done what we were asked to do,” said Planning Commissioner Larry Larsen. “We have met our obligations.”
Moreover, Larsen, a planner for the city of Colorado Springs, who previously manned Woodland Park’s planning department, described the law as “cutting edge stuff. We are not a Telluride or Aspen. He was referring to the way that the Woodland Park, under its proposal, sets the stage for affordable housing projects by allocating these taps to developers/builders as an extra enticement, and not by forcing them to construct projects with a certain percentage of workforce or senior housing. That latter method is what is used in many communities. Larsen conceded that Woodland Park’s plan is designed to be “simple and flexible.” “It is really quite different,” said Woodland Park City Attorney Erin Smith, when describing the approach taken by officials in adopting this measure, compared to other cities. According to Smith, the proposed law would allow developers to access “these elite taps.” But in order to obtain this designation, they must comply with a laundry list of rules, such as possibly having their property deeds restricted for 25 years, complying with standards set by state and federal housing agencies for the incomes of people who live in these units, facing time deadlines in constructing their housing projects and providing information to the city on an annual basis “We have to look to the future,” said Commission Chairman Carrol Harvey, when expressing support for the plan. During the affordable housing discussions, Harvey, who advocated more of a market-based approach, scrutinized many aspects of the proposal.
However, the new affordable housing law, according to several commissioners, still has a few flaws. New commissioner Geoff Watson described the rules for senior housing as contradictory and potentially clashing with the goals of the city’s overall affordable housing effort. With the proposed rules for senior housing, no stipulations are required for income. Watson fears this could lead to upscale projects that would take high priority taps away from other senior, multi-housing developments that fit more into this affordable housing niche. The main requirement for senior housing is that these units be occupied by one family member, who is 55 years or older.
The whole issue of senior housing, a key element of the plan, has still posed a few question marks. Most commissioners objected to linking senior housing to requirements from the Housing and Urban Development agency and the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority. Also, the law doesn’t exactly open the door to people with fixed incomes or living on low wages. The city’s definition of workforce housing consists of dwellings occupied by couples or families making no more than 80 percent of the average median income for Teller County, which isn’t that low.
But at the same time, the plan is touted as one that could facilitate more projects for local workers, such as school teachers, police officers, bank employees and government workers. “I am very encouraged,” said Bill Blackburn, of the Woodland Park RE-2 School Board. “Workforce housing is a very important issue.” The school board members described the dilemma facing local teachers who want to live in Woodland Park. Another big question mark consists of water availability. Utilities Director Jim Schultz has concluded that the city has enough water resources to allocate these extra taps, which allow the town to have an additional 1,000 people and grow to a potential population cap of nearly 14,000. At the same time, he admits the plan would pose a slight gamble, but says the community’s desire to have more diversified housing is worth the risk.
The Woodland Park Planning Commission struggled with this plan for months, and at one time, appeared ready to throw in the towel. The turning point, though, came when the commission decided to renew their focus on just dealing with three main housing types. These dealt with housing for seniors and local workers and projects that accommodate people who want to live in the downtown core. The plan will now be addressed by the city council. In fact, this will represent probably the last main issue the current council will grapple with, prior to the April 3 municipal election. The new council could have as many as four new members.