The adage of “Never look a gift horse in the mouth” came to mind while watching Tuesday’s City of Bishop Planning Commission meeting.
The commission met to discuss the application for a Conditional Use Permit submitted by local businessman, Aaron Schat.
Schat wants to convert the former Sterling Heights Assisted Living Facility, located on Pine Street, into 69 residential units to provide workforce (employee) housing.
The assisted living facility went out of business last year.
Schat has “rebranded” the property as Sterling Studios.
In a city desperately in need of more housing, the proposal appears to be a “win-win” solution, but it is only a partial solution to the housing shortage. Many employees have families and need larger living space than 1- and 2-room units.
Local businesses in Bishop have had increasing difficulty finding workers largely due to a lack of housing availability. Schat himself is only too aware of as he owns several businesses in town that employ dozens (if not a hundred or more) employees. In the empty Sterling Heights facility, he saw a potential solution to not only his own staffing problems, but those of other local employers. Northern Inyo Hospital and the Toiyabe Indian Health Project, both of which use temporary medical staff such as traveling nurses from outside the area to fill vacancies, support the project. Concerned about the local economy, the City of Bishop is also under considerable pressure from the State of California to increase workforce housing as well.
According to Associate City Planner Elaine Kabala, Schat applied for a Conditional Work Permit to convert the existing two-story, 44,000 square foot assisted living facility to (58) studio units and (11) 2-room suites for a total of 69 residential units.
He requested consideration to use a parking ratio per unit of 1:1 rather than the 2:1 ratio that was required by the city’s current zoning ordinance. Otherwise, he said, the project was infeasible.
The current facility has 39 underground (covered) parking spaces. To provide at least one parking space per unit, Schat proposed to use the back of the property directly adjacent to the west of the building—which is also part of the Sterling Heights property—to add more parking, an additional 36 parking space for a total of 75 parking spaces. This would bring the total in line with a 1:1 parking ratio he sought.
In support of Schat’s request, Northern Inyo Hospital CEO Kelli Davis spoke to the commissioners saying, “We really need this,” and “We need to think outside the box” to meet local housing needs. Both NIH and the Toiyable Indian Health Project use temporary health care workers such as traveling nurses from outside the area to meet their staffing needs. The problem is finding a place for those temporary medical workers to live.
Aside from the parking issue, concern was expressed by some commissioners about the safety of residents that walk to Bishop Park using the city-owned alleyway adjacent to the facility. Several ideas were bounced around. A solution still needs to be found.
City Attorney Russell Hildebrand attended the meeting by remote. He was asked how much leeway the commission had in making certain changes from zoning regulations. He called the project “a re-use of a non-conforming use,” and that it was entirely up to the city to decide what was acceptable. The assisted living facility was itself built under non-conforming use because of the need for senior housing at the time of its construction.
Many wonder just “who” will be renting these units? Schat initially said he would like to limit it to single adult employees of local businesses, however he was quickly reminded by the planning commission that state law prohibits discrimination of a tenant based on marital or familial status (such as having children under the age of 18) and a host of other anti-discrimination prohibitions. Acknowledging he still had much to learn, Schat said he would follow whatever the law dictates, but the idea was to provide housing for employees of local businesses and there should be a way to limit it [density].
Most commissioners expressed concerns about the parking and safe pedestrian access to the park with the possible (inevitable) increase in vehicle traffic. Commissioner Erik Leitch also expressed concern over parking spaces in the alley and asked Schat if he would consider tearing down the house adjacent to the facility to add ten more parking spaces to get rid of the four parking spaces in the alleyway. Schat’s look of incredulity was priceless: He quickly responded, “It’s a half-a-million-dollar house!” and “No, I’d rather not demolish it.” If nothing else, it was an entertaining moment to watch unfold.
Commissioner Heather Lind made the motion to approve the Planning Staff’s recommendation to approve the Conditional Use Permit. It was seconded by Commissioner Harry Bhakta, followed by the vote. The final vote was 4 to 2 in favor of approval. Commissioners Patricia Lew and Erik Leitch voted “No”; Commissioners Lind, Bhakta, Andrew Gaidus, and Robert Lowthorp voted “yes.”
So, this “gift horse” appears to be off to a good start. It remains to be seen how it will all work out, but Aaron Schat has proven a competent and successful local businessman, which in large measure had much to do with the commission’s approval.