Is the new math just about bigger numbers?
Wednesday night, Nov. 20, Mammoth Lakes Town Council approved an allocation of $400,000 for a draft work program to change how town planners calculate density.
The new rules would convert density requirements in Commercial Zones from a maximum of 12 units per acre for residential and 40-80 rooms per acre for lodging to a flat 2.5 Floor Area Ratio (FAR) standard.
FAR would provide a ratio of gross floor area to site area, measuring the intensity rather than density of development. Because FAR would provide greater flexibility for the number of units in a development, it would likely increase density in new developments in Commercial Zones.
Consideration of FAR, a concept first introduced by former Community Development Dir. Mark Wardlaw several years ago, is the second phase of the Town’s Zoning Code Update (ZCU). The ZCU aims to resolve contradictions and inconsistencies in a Zoning Code that has not been updated since the Town’s incorporation in 1984.
Senior Planner Sandra Moberly explained that because FAR would increase density, a shift to FAR will require analysis under CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act). Such a CEQA study will determine possible impacts to traffic, population, air quality and noise, among other things.
Moberly noted that staff has already identified three consultants to help with the program. Their proposals range in cost and scope, with the greatest cost estimate at about $400,000, and lengthiest scope of work at about 18 months.
“We would work with the consultant to reduce the cost and timeframe as much as we can,” Moberly said.
When asked by Councilmember Matthew Lehman what the shortest time frame was, Moberly explained that should the CEQA analysis determine the Town must complete an Environmental Impact Review (EIR) rather than simply a Negative Declaration, the shortest time frame would be around 16 months. “It all hinges on the CEQA,” she said.
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area CEO Rusty Gregory spoke in favor of the allocation for the draft work program. “Transient Occupancy Tax is the lifeblood of the Town,” he said. “To drive that, and the quality of life in general, we need a vibrant downtown. We need the CEQA [for FAR] to get that to go.”
The $400,000 allocation for the FAR study came from a FY 2012-13 budget surplus presented by Finance Manager Cyndi Myrold to Council earlier in the Nov. 20 meeting.
Myrold explained that greater revenues and fewer expenditures in FY 12-13 left the Town with an unreserved fund balance of about $1.9 Million.
Increased revenues in FY 12-13 were the result of an increase in TOT by $660,000, property tax by $191,500 and franchise fees by $123,000. Meanwhile legal costs as part of the MLLA Settlement were about $715,000 lower than budgeted, and Public Works saved about $600,000 due to reduced spending on snow removal and a greater than budgeted reimbursement from State Gas Taxes.
Myrold and staff proposed setting aside $400,000 of the unreserved fund balance for the FAR study, $100,000 for a new “Finance System,” and $100,000 for a Contingency fund that could potentially fund the Fourth of July fireworks show, among other things. The remainder of the unreserved balance, $1.3 Million, would go to the Reserve for Economic Uncertainty (REU).
Mayor Rick Wood voiced his support for the allocation to the REU, but also his displeasure that staff’s projections for FY 12-13 were off by roughly $2 million. Mayor Wood questioned Myrold about what factors made the budget so “unbalanced.”
“The things that made us so unbalanced, so to speak, are things that at the beginning of the year are unknowns,” Myrold explained. She cited snow removal, which cost less in last year’s drought year than a typical winter, as one example. Lawsuit fees are another, and funds from the State, this year in the form of Gas Taxes, are yet another unknown. “I think you would like us to remain somewhat conservative [in our projections],” Myrold said. “We don’t want to end up in April trying to make up a big chunk of money.”
While Councilmembers agreed, some wondered whether the Town might not consider a deeper analysis of TOT trends to assist with TOT revenue projections. More accurate projections might free up budget funds for other uses, they argued.
“I would support the idea of looking back at trending,” Mammoth Lakes Tourism Executive Director John Urdi said, considering “You’re budgeting 16% lower than the last two actual years.” Myrold agreed. “I think we could do a lot more analysis,” she said.
Town Council unanimously approved both the FAR study and unreserved fund balance allocation.