Mayor’s Roundtable

Land use: Affordability and economic vitality

By Mayor Shelby Rognstad
Reader Contributor

This is the fourth article in the series detailing recommendations that came out of the city of Sandpoint’s Housing and Economic Study developed by Leland Consulting. In this issue, I will discuss Leland’s suggestion to update land use policies across the city to support housing affordability and economic development.

The first recommendation from Leland regarding land use is to update the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan. The Comprehensive Plan, or Comp Plan, sets policy at the highest level. It is a visionary document that sets community goals and objectives, identifies special areas and establishes context areas that are the precursor to zoning maps. The Comp Plan lays the foundation for zoning regulations and guides more detailed plans and policies for housing, specific areas, utilities and capital planning. 

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad.

The city began revising the Comp Plan in 2019 before the pandemic hit. The process was halted due to the impact of COVID and has been picked back up over the last year. There have been numerous public workshops over that time inviting the public to consider which elements of the existing plan to carry forward and identify opportunities for improvements to the plan. 

The existing Comp Plan, approved in 2009, also called for land use policies that support housing affordability and economic vitality. So, what we are hearing from Leland is nothing new, but the housing situation certainly has become more dire in recent years. 

Leland called for a review of land use codes (Zoning and Subdivision) to determine what changes are needed to achieve community goals. This review should reassess allowed uses in commercial and industrial districts to ensure that the city is relegating its limited land resources carefully and not over-dedicating its land for single family housing (which is inefficient, expensive to serve and increasingly unaffordable) or storage units, which don’t create jobs. 

Efficient and thoughtful land use is critical to ensure Sandpoint is able to house its workforce and provide for job creation and retention. This review is currently underway and will continue beyond adoption of the new Comp Plan.

Leland called for refining zoning districts to accommodate a range of residential development types such as townhouses, cottage clusters and multifamily housing at a range of densities (“missing middle” housing). Such variety and flexibility are critical to providing new housing at a range of price points to meet the needs of Sandpoint’s residents. Providing for increased density across zoning districts is one of the most powerful tools the city has to lower the cost of housing because land is one of the most costly elements of a development. More housing units within a given area lower the per-unit cost for each house. 

Sandpoint’s minimum lot size is 5,000 square feet. Many cities have nice neighborhoods with lots sizes of 3,500 square feet or smaller. Particularly with well thought out building and design regulations, smaller lot sizes can increase the number of housing units across the city without sacrificing quality or community character. 

Leland called for codes that encourage mixed-use and small-scale infill to support more efficient commercial development throughout the city. This includes more density and residential units above and behind commercial units. This has the added benefit of promoting economic vitality when there are more residents or customers in the vicinity of local businesses. It also promotes public safety when there are more “eyes on the street” at all hours. 

Lastly, Leland called for a review of density and height regulations. Because Sandpoint’s high water table makes it impractical to build underground parking, above-ground garages will be required to accommodate parking in denser, central locations. Above-ground parking is expensive, however, and will consume the developable capacity of a site reducing the space available for housing units. In appropriate locations, building heights that allow for four or five stories of housing above a one or two-story garage will allow the costs of the concrete structure to be spread across more housing units. The result is more affordable units in desirable locations (where there are existing services) with the added benefit of keeping utility service costs low for ratepayers. 

Again, with thoughtful zoning and design regulations, density and therefore affordability can be accomplished without sacrificing community character and appeal.

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