By Cate Huisman
By now it’s well known that housing is beyond a quandary for Sandpoint. People who have lived and worked here for years have lost their long-time housing to the higher prices our market now commands. Businesses paying a median wage have trouble finding workers, because a median wage isn’t sufficient to pay for housing. We have little power to stem the rising tide of non-resident homeowners who drive up prices, or to limit the businesses that choose to build the big homes that bring the highest return on their investments.
But, as a city, we can use zoning regulations to encourage the construction of higher-density housing that working people are more likely to be able to afford.
A recent column by the Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad in this paper [Perspectives, “Mayor’s Roundtable: Land use: Affordability and economic vitality,” Jan. 5, 2023] points out that the report of the Leland Consulting Group — commissioned by the city to help it plan for growth — calls for “refining zoning districts to accommodate a range of residential development types such as townhouses, cottage clusters and multi-family housing at a range of densities.”
And he continues, “Providing for increased density across zoning districts is one of the most powerful tools the city has to lower the cost of housing.”
As Sandpoint prepares to update its Comprehensive Plan, it is asking for input on what this new housing should look like. Its Planning and Zoning Commission worked hard to write the current rules, which include specifics such as setbacks and building heights that facilitate the transition where one kind of building is neighbor to another. The rub often comes at the juncture between a single-family home and a proposed multi-family building next to it. The attempt, according to City Code 9-4-2-2, is “to create opportunities for new types of housing that seamlessly integrate with existing neighborhoods in the area.” As we try to increase density, the current rules have not always seemed sufficient.
The survey provides some idea of how we might come closest to that “seamless integration.” It gives several examples and asks us to consider which of these we would support. And it asks about using smaller lot sizes, noting that many historic lots in the city were only 25 feet wide, while current code requires a width of 50 feet. Narrowing that lot size would allow for more houses in a given space. Would we support that as a way to lessen the cost of housing?
There are also questions about accessory dwelling units — ADUs — which are smaller secondary homes on single-family lots. These are allowed now on most residential lots, but more people might be able to live in them if the regulations were tweaked — to allow for more bedrooms, for example. Are we OK with that?
Drawings accompanying each question help us to visualize the effects of the proposed changes. They make it clear that we will have to adapt to a new aesthetic. We may not want this change, but the alternative — a town full of big houses owned by people who don’t live or work here — is much worse. The survey gives us an opportunity to contribute constructive input that may be our best hope for maintaining a real, working city.
You can find it at opentownhall.com/12503. It will be up until Wednesday, Jan. 25.
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