Key officials say they care who lives in the units, not who owns them

Three people key to passing Grand County’s High-Density Housing Overlay recently said in signed court testimony that the intent of the ordinance was to “restrict resident occupancy rather than property ownership,” undermining a recent narrative by county officials to the contrary.

The chair of the Grand County Commission, who voted to approve the ordinance in 2019, has also expressed a similar sentiment.

The officials signing the statements are Zacharia Levine, who was the director of Grand County’s Community and Economic Development Department at the time the ordinance was drafted; Former Grand County Council Member Curtis Wells, who voted to pass the ordinance in 2019; and Kaitlin Myers, who worked under Levine during the drafting of the ordinance in 2018 and 2019, also did.

Grand County Commission Chair Mary McGann voted to approve the HDHO in 2019, and in March, she voted for rules and regulations that developers are now fighting because they limit who can purchase the units — not just who can live in them. McGann has made statements recently that also indicate that she does not and did not care who owned HDHO units; she only cared that they housed locals.

Three developers who the county approved in 2019 for HDHO developments appealed a decision by the county that they say violates rights they gained with the approvals. That decision was to put in place rules that prohibit HDHO developers from selling units to outside investors.

The comments from Levine, Wells, Myers, and McGann serve to back developers’ efforts. Myers said county staff communicated as much to developers, a claim that developers also make.

“In response to inquiries regarding ownership, we repeated numerous times that these units should be restricted for ‘people who live and work in Grand County,’” said Kaitlin Myers, who worked for Levine in the same department during drafting of the ordinance. “We told interested developers that we were interested in who lived in the units, not necessarily who owned them.”

Some county officials have argued that the homebuilders’ efforts would undermine the purpose of the HDHO by allowing anybody to own the units, stoking fears that they would become second homes or lodging operations that would further increase housing costs for Moabites.

Developers and former county staffers reject this argument. In 2018 hearings on the matter, county staff described how restricting occupancy of HDHO units would serve as a simple price control without unduly burdening developers.

The simplicity of the mechanism contrasts with the City of Moab’s Planned Unit Development, which the city council passed in 2019, in the shadow of the county’s HDHO.

The city’s ordinance, which has not garnered interest from the developers it hoped to court, relies on a set of income restrictions and price controls to determine who can live in which units built under the PAD, and how much those units can cost.

The HDHO, county staff argued, relies on one simple principle: Creating a locals-only market for housing, protecting the houses from becoming vacation or second homes.

By requiring that HDHO units be occupied by a local renter six months out of the year (or by the owner nine months out of the year), property owners would lower their prices enough to meet the needs of the local workforce.

However, following the departure of Levine and others who drafted the ordinance, the county sought to slightly complicate the ordinance’s calculus, though officials have said would simplify its enforcement.

Instead of looking at the household occupying an HDHO unit, the county now wants to regulate HDHO units at the time that they are sold. They would limit who can buy them rather than restricting who lives in them.

Elected officials such as Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan, who most publicly pushed for the change before the Grand County Commission earlier this year, argued not only that the original intent was to restrict ownership all along but that the ordinance itself spells out this requirement.

Sloan’s claims of the intent behind the ordinance have eroded in the face of testimony from Levine, McGann, Wells, and Myers.

“We need rentals, and I have no problem, personally, having somebody from out of town buy it and then rent it to locals at a price that the locals can afford,” McGann told The Times-Independent.

Wells said Monday afternoon in testimony on the appeals that he was not concerned in 2019 with who owned HDHO units. He, like McGann and others, just wanted locals living in them, since that would act as the price control.

“It was my understanding as a council member that county planning and zoning staff intended for the HDHO ordinance to restrict the residency of the occupant but not the residency of the owner,” Wells said in a signed affidavit.

In the end, the intent of the ordinance will not matter if the language of the ordinance itself is clear. That’s according to the hearing officer overseeing the developers’ appeals this week, Bruce C. Jenkins. See related story (not yet written) for details.

Raw: New appeals documentation