Mammoth’s own Council and the Planning and Economic Development Commission (PEDC) met on Oct. 16 in a joint workshop to discuss the Mammoth Lakes Draft Commercial Zoning District Chapter of the Zoning Code Update (ZCU), with a particular emphasis on the PEDC’s proposal to use Floor Area Ratio (FAR) to regulate development intensity in Commercial Zoning Districts.
Editor’s note: So what the heck is Floor Area Ratio? In brief, it promises to allow for greater density in commercial development.
Transportation Planner Jessica Morriss explained that the ZCU is the result of a three year effort funded by $318,245 from the Strategic Growth Council Sustainable Communities Planning grant program to bring the Town’s Zoning Code in line with the 2007 General Plan Update.
In simple terms, said Morriss, the Zoning Code should “tell what kind of uses or businesses can be in the zone, and what the property design look and feel is.” Yet the Zoning Code “hasn’t been updated since incorporation [in 1984], basically,” she said. Because of its age, the current Zoning Code “has many unintended contradictions and inconsistencies, plus it does not reflect the vision and goals of the 2007 General Plan Update,” explained PEDC Vice Chair Elizabeth Tenney. “The Update will be a very much improved Code.”
One of the proposed changes to the Code is the use of FAR, or a ratio of gross floor area to site area, to measure the intensity rather than density of development in Commercial Zoning Districts. Those Districts include Downtown (Main Street to Manzanita), Mixed Lodging/Residential (Main Street), and Old Mammoth Road (from Tavern Road and up). The Zoning Code currently uses density to determine development, with a maximum of 12 units/acre for residential development, 40 rooms/acre for lodging, and up to 80 rooms/acre of lodging if understructure parking is improved. According to the Commercial Zoning District Regulations Background Information report prepared for the Town by Dyett and Bhatia Urban and Regional Planners, “By just regulating density, only the number of rooms or units is regulated; the size and bulk of the overall development is only limited by development standards such as height, setback, and lot coverage limitations.”
To streamline the process, Town staff and the PEDC propose using a 2.5 FAR standard instead. According to Morriss, the FAR would become part of a “white box concept” for development, which would also include height, setbacks, and the general shape of any potential development. “With FAR, you can fill that [white] box with whatever you want,” she explained. She noted that developers could pursue commercial, office, or lodging uses for their development, and that the number of units or rooms in a development would be determined according to FAR rather than a set unit/acre ratio. “It provides flexibility, but still allows the Town to dictate how big that development can be.
“But it might mean that a developer can put more rooms in their box than they are currently able to,” she added. “That’s where the Town evaluating what going to FAR means in terms of the General Plan and General Plan Environmental Impact Report comes into play.”
MMSA Director of Planning and Development Tom Hodges, a member of the Downtown Working Group that crafted the Commercial Zones Chapter of the ZCU, explained that while there is no direct one-to-one ratio to convert FAR to units or rooms, “Density will increase.” He added that the current densities defined by the Town Zoning Code “would not allow us to build just about any of the national brand hotels. Those would all require increases to the standards which will be accommodated by the proposed FAR numbers.” Yet with increased density comes increased impacts to Town water supply, traffic, and parking. Hodges said that the FAR project will have to go through the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) process in order to determine that these impacts will not be detrimental to the Town.
Because the current General Plan EIR doesn’t include FAR, “in order to move to that type of measurement, Council is directing staff to pursue further environmental analysis,” Morriss said. The use of FAR in the Zoning Code Update would require a General Plan Amendment, which in turn would require environmental review through CEQA. Staff projected that process could take anywhere from six months to a year, and could cost anywhere between $200,000 to $400,000.
At the Oct. 16 workshop, Mayor Rick Wood balked at the anticipated timeline and expense of the project to add FAR to the ZCU. “I can’t help but be disappointed,” he said. “I had hoped to be farther along at the end of this Council’s term, which is June of 2014, than we are.” Morriss countered that the ZCU itself is 90% completed. “We’re at the one yard line,” she said. “Unfortunately, the last yard is the hardest.” Staff recommended, and Council approved, pursuing two separate tracks: the first, to complete the ZCU by the end of the funding cycle in June of 2014, and the second to pursue the FAR General Plan Amendment, which would be folded into the Commercial Zoning District Chapter upon completion.
PEDC Commissioner and ZCU Users Group member Dave Harvey argued in support of taking the time to establish FAR as part of the Commercial Zoning Chapter of the ZCU. “Over the years, every time a developer would come forward, they always had to ask for a series of variances,” he said. “This would lead to meeting after meeting. You’d be hard-pressed to find another Town where 50 public meetings had to take place prior to get entitlements to build something. As a Town, we need to be smarter and more efficient when it comes to pursuing development.” Harvey maintained that FAR offers an opportunity to create a clearer and more practical understanding of development standards for both developers and the Town.
The Town will publish the entire Zoning Code Update Draft on Nov. 13, followed by three open house sessions in December, and public review and public comment until Jan. 6. Staff will complete the final draft of the Update by June 2014.