Residents near a development in Spanish Valley called Creekside Estates are dismayed at an amendment to the plan for the next phase of building, which was approved by the Grand County Commission. Neighbors question the judgment of county staff and officials, while some county officials question the future of Grand County’s rural character.

Larry White, the owner of Creekside Estates, told the commission during a Dec. 15 public hearing that he has owned the land for 30 years and invested in building the soil for agricultural use. He said that keeping the land open for agricultural use is important to him, so he has planned to cluster a group of homes close together to leave a large undeveloped area on the rest of the parcel that could still be used for farming.

White already has an approved “Planned Unit Development” which allows six lots to be developed on his 6.48-acre parcel, thus maintaining a one-acre-per lot overall density—six homes on six acres. That proposal was approved in 1997, though the final plat was then not yet created.

However, part of the 6.48 acres is occupied by private roads; thus, the developable area is actually less than six acres. White requested an amendment to the Planned Unit Development reducing the required minimum lot size to .37 acres to be able to fit six “clustered” lots on the parcel.

The Planned Unit Development option is intended to “provide an opportunity to change dimensional standards and lot configuration patterns of the underlying zone to allow for a different layout to facilitate creative site planning,” according to a Feb. 2 presentation to the commission by County Community and Economic Development Specialist Mila Dunbar-Irwin.

Clustering homes “in the interest of preserving rural character” is specifically named by the code as a use of the development option.

They said they had chosen their location in order to escape higher density, and argued that a more appropriate location for affordable housing would be close to jobs and services downtown.

Neighbors contend that this Planned Unit Development amendment constitutes an increase in underlying density; in public meetings, county staff has maintained that it is not an increase in underlying density. While the disagreement may appear technical, tensions run high.

Neighborhood opposition

21 neighbors and residents of the first phase of Creekside Estates, which has already been developed, have banded together and hired an attorney to represent them. Several neighbors weighed in at the Dec. 15 meeting, referencing decades-old promises and signed paperwork that assured them a one-residence-per-one-acre density when they bought their homes in the area.

In a conversation with the Moab Sun News, Scot Andersen, one of the neighbors in opposition, said he believed lots sized at .37 acres would be out of character with the neighborhood and would change the underlying density.

Andersen has experience as a developer himself in other counties in Utah and other locations in the Intermountain West. In Andersen’s view, the private roads on the Creekside Estate property effectively reduce the size of the parcel—in turn, the number of lots allowed should also be reduced.

Dunbar-Irwin said that from the Planning and Zoning Department’s perspective, the proposed amendment does not constitute a density increase.

“The only thing that we’re looking at right now is a layout change,” she said. “It’s a six-acre lot, so six units is not an increase in density.”

Neighborhood opposition to development is a familiar discussion

Commissioner Trisha Hedin spoke passionately and voted against the amendment at the Jan. 19 meeting of the Grand County Council.

Hedin lives near a Planned Unit Development called Strawburb that the commission approved this summer. Neighbors and residents of All American Acres, where Strawburb is located, were also opposed to the Planned Unit Development, which allowed for quarter-acre lots rather than one-acre-minimum lots in the rural residential zone.

In that case, the exception was approved due to the fact that the four lots would provide affordable housing to be built by the local nonprofit Community Rebuilds. Affordable housing, under county code, is grounds for a “density bonus.” The Creekside Estates development does not include affordable housing.

At the June 16 commission meeting where the Strawburb Planned Unit Development was approved, Community Rebuilds Program Coordinator Lena Jaffe painted the decision as one about what kind of community Grand County wants to be.

By insisting on one-acre minimum lot sizes, she said, “we could be inadvertently accepting the idea that only those with a high income and above are able to live in Moab.”

If we’re saying we can’t do any lots smaller than one acre, we’re promoting the development of the neighborhood by second homeowners and we’re pushing residents and essential workers of Moab outside of the valley,” said Jaffe.

At the same meeting, residents of All American Acres flatly disagreed.

Just what is 'rural character'?

“I’m really concerned that we just keep chipping away at rural residential,” said Hedin, referring to the zoning designation of the Creekside Estates area in Spanish Valley. “People have moved out there because they want to be in a rural setting.”

Commissioner Sarah Stock disagreed that clustering development degrades rural character.

“Without clustering, there will be no large fields left, and to me that is the rural character—the agricultural component, not necessarily having some neighbors with small lots,” Stock said.

Commissioner Kevin Walker, who served on the Planning Commission before joining the County Commission, agreed with Stock that as planning guidelines have been developed, “clustering” has been promoted with the intent of preserving rural character.

Commissioners voted in favor of the amendment 6-1, with Hedin in opposition.

The County Commission held a Land Use Workshop on Feb. 2, at which Dunbar-Irwin noted that the term “open space” in a planning context does not mean the same thing as when used in a casual context. The clarification was in part prompted by the Creekside discussion.

“It is actually considered permanently dedicated land for use in common by residents of a development and/or the public,” said Dunbar-Irwin.

While a clustered site pattern may leave a large, undeveloped area on a parcel, it is still private property and does not qualify as “beneficial open space,” which would warrant a “density bonus” for a developer. In the case of Creekside Estates, the undeveloped area may or may not preserve rural character, depending on one’s perspective, but it does not constitute the legal definition of “open space.”

Hedin said that she believes that misunderstanding the term has led some commissioners to favor developments that she considers inappropriate, including the Creekside Estates Planned Unit Development amendment. She also proposed surveying residents on their opinions of planning policies before the next update of the county’s General Plan.

Andersen indicated that neighbors are preparing to appeal the commission’s approval of the Creekside Estates Planned Unit Development amendment. To Andersen, the issue is not just about neighbors’ preferences—it’s about the county correctly following its own code. He said that he was frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of technical understanding from both planning and county commissioners.

“This is a matter of truly listening and abiding by the guidelines and considering that fairly,” Andersen said.