Perhaps they’ve got the name backwards.
As currently named, however, the Mammoth Lakes’ Planning and Economic Development Commission is ready to approve development—so ready, in fact, that several Commissioners appeared outright livid with the Mammoth Lakes Housing (MLH) Board for suggesting a proposed development had not met its Affordable Housing Mitigation requirement.
Commissioners considered the Mountainside Project at a special meeting on Wednesday, March 25. The project sits on Rainbow Lane across from Canyon Lodge, and includes 16 townhomes, two of them freestanding and the rest duplexes. The townhomes would be whole ownership units and open to nightly rentals.
Proponent John Hooper described the development as using “all wood, natural stone; very high end.” He said the design is similar to the Grayfox project across from the Westin Monache, but said he had learned from mistakes made on that development, and intended to create more space between houses (15 feet rather than 10), as well as larger units, garages, and decks.
For the Mountainside project, Hooper requested reduced setbacks—from 25 to 16 feet on Rainbow Lane, and from 20 to 10 feet on the east property line.
Hooper also requested an increased building height, from the current limit of 35 feet, to heights of 36.9 to 43.9 feet at various buildings within the development.
Neighboring buildings 1849 and Snowbird Condominium are 60 and 40 feet in height, respectively.
While requests for variances to allow decreased setbacks and increased height have met with resistance from the Planning Commission in the past (see the example of the 80|50 expansion), Commissioners were all in favor of approving these alterations for Mountainside at Wednesday’s meeting.
In fact the only thing that Commissioners appeared to grapple with was Hooper’s proposed Affordable Housing Mitigation Plan (AHMP), or rather the MLH Board’s perspective on it.
The Town currently requires projects to provide on-site, deed-restricted housing units equaling 10 percent of a total development (in Mountainside’s case it would be one on-site unit), but developers also have the option under the Interim Housing Mitigation Policy of proposing an AHMP. That AHMP must prove that on-site mitigation is undesirable for the community and not feasible, and that there would be a substantial additional benefit derived from the AHMP.
In the Mountainside AHMP, Hooper proposed the project pay the current in-lieu fee for projects of nine or fewer units, although the project will have 14 units (the two separate units are too small to require workforce housing mitigation). That fee is $23,222 per unit, for a total of $325,108 for the 14 units.
Hooper’s proposal argued that the development is far from Vons, schools, the hospital, and other residential facilities and amenities, and that the project area is focused toward nightly rentals, therefore on-site housing would be undesirable. Hooper also argued that “Canyon is busy five months and a ghost town the [rest of the year].”
“I know that financially, I can’t do [an on-site unit],” he said.
The MLH Board argued that Mountainside was an ideal location for on-site housing. As MLH Executive Director Jennifer Halferty explained to Commissioners, the MLH Board felt the project is within a residential zone, and that its proximity to local transit and a major job center (Canyon Lodge) make on-site housing attractive.
Halferty also argued that Hooper’s AHMP hadn’t demonstrated the benefit of an in-lieu fee. As the MLH Board report asserts, in-lieu fees can be of more limited value than on-site housing, considering limited land availability in Mammoth, and the more time-intensive process of fee allocation for planning, administering, subsidizing or developing affordable housing.
Hooper said he intends to break ground in May of this year; “What can $325,108 buy this summer that will increase the supply of available workforce housing?” wondered the MLH Board report.
Planning Commission Vice-Chair Dave Harvey had a bone to pick with the on-site requirement.
“It doesn’t make sense across the country,” he said. He added that the California State Supreme Court is still considering whether or not “inclusionary,” or on-site, housing is legal.
The State Supreme Court is actually considering whether in-lieu fees are legal, Halferty corrected him.
This did not appear to deter Harvey.
“The findings [of the MLH Board] are very subjective to who is reading and making them,” he argued, “and the decisions that are made from them … suffice it to say, the report is not a report that I found extremely beneficial for this body to review. In reading this report, it was obvious that there was a tremendous amount of opinion. That was disheartening.”
Harvey went on to assert that Mammoth’s Affordable Housing Mitigation requirements have kept developers away. “I will support this developer’s AHMP and recommend such action to the Council,” he concluded.
Chair Mickey Brown seconded Harvey. She noted that the Town is currently updating its Housing Ordinance, and therefore the in-lieu fee, further complicating the project’s Affordable Housing Mitigation requirement.
The new fee will not be effective until July.
“As far as I know, the developer is ready to put sticks in the ground this year,” Chair Brown said. “I think we should do everything we can to help him [Hooper] get his grading permit in May.”
Meanwhile Commissioner Elizabeth Tenney, who by now has sat through numerous presentations of MLH Board findings on AHMPs (from the Tallus and Inn at the Village projects, to name a few), had a more fundamental and troubling question:
“What is Mammoth Lakes Housing?” she asked. “What is the relationship between the Town and Mammoth Lakes Housing?”
Halferty explained that MLH works with the Town to provide affordable housing in Mono, Inyo, and Alpine Counties, and provides housing information to the Town, including reviews and comments on AHMP proposals.
“I don’t think it’s Mammoth Lakes Housing’s intention to not put sticks in the ground,” she said in reference to Chair Brown’s comment. “We see workforce housing as our responsibility for the Town.”
Yet later in the meeting, Tenney again asked Senior Planner Sandra Moberly to clarify the relationship between the Town and MLH. “I can’t make a good decision if I don’t have enough information,” she said. “I share Commissioner Harvey’s concerns; I was really surprised when I read this report. It wasn’t the kind of thing I expected … It was very different from the staff reports we’re used to.”
Moberly explained that this was because MLH does not provide staff reports, as its staff are not Town staff. Instead, Moberly explained that the Town contracts with MLH for specific projects such as the Housing Strategy, and goes to MLH for “housing expertise.”
“Also, they’re the local advocate for housing, for these programs,” she said.
“So they’re an advocate … so we wouldn’t expect a balanced analysis?” wondered Tenney.
“No, I think we would expect an analysis from their perspective of being the housing advocate in Town,” Moberly replied. “I would expect them to be balanced. They provided an analysis from their view of the Affordable Housing Mitigation requirements … Staff, we provided our analysis as well … You don’t have to take their opinion and use it when making a decision.”
The Planning Commission did not conclude its special meeting with any specific action, but will discuss the Mountainside project again in April.