Red River Town Council rejects tiny house parking variance

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Developers of The Silver Strike "tiny house" project have removed four out of six long-term housing units from their latest proposal to comply with town zoning after the Red River Town Council rejected their parking variance request during a special meeting Sept. 15 at the Red River Fire Station.

Partners Chad Mantz, Jess Radle and Jake Valentine originally hoped to build 35 fully furnished, 600-square-foot "individually owned homes." Hoping to motivate town government to approve a parking variance, the investors revised that plan, adding about 6,000 square feet of retail space along Main Street (to comply with the town's recently enacted "Tourist Overlay Zone") and six rental units.

The addition of commercial retail space would also make affordable housing possible, according to Mantz.

"Anyone can purchase and live in any of these," Mantz told the council during a work session prior to the special meeting. "With the changes that we made to this, we solved a lot of problems."

Parking was still a sticking point for the council, however.

Mayor Linda Calhoun said, "It bothers me to have a project coming in -- and this is probably a multimillion-dollar project -- that you guys did not consider the ordinances before you came in. ... Why would you not design your project to meet the code?"

Mantz replied, "The price of the land. The pods need to be revenue generators. We feel having 53 [parking spaces] for 31 [pods or homes] is pretty good."

"You have to have enough room for when they pull in with their trailers," Councilor George Woerndle noted in reference to tourists who come to town hauling recreational off-highway vehicles (ROVs). Following a change in state law, the town passed an ordinance last summer allowing the use of ROVs on some town streets.

Mantz is the owner of Red River Real Estate, which also handles bookings for condos and homes around Red River, many of which also have limited parking. In those cases, he said, renters are required to park their trailers at the municipal parking lot in the east 100 block of River Street, which is also outlined in the town's ROV ordinance.

"They don't want to unload [at the municipal parking lot]," Woerndle said.

"They do for Claim Jumper [condominiums on Pioneer Road]," Mantz replied. "We have a lot of properties that unload at the municipal lot."

Councilor Steve Cherry asked, "Is there any option to tighten up and add some more parking?"

"We could chop three houses off and add more parking," Mantz replied.

The discussion then moved to the need for more housing for the town's workforce and how best to provide utilities to the project before circling back to parking.

Woerndle suggested the group "eliminate pods and eliminate retail to add parking."

"Then affordable housing becomes too expensive," Radle replied. "It's just going to ruin the aesthetics and raise the cost of the units."

"Parking is a premium here," Calhoun noted. She added variances allowing less parking than is required by town ordinance would lead to long-term problems for the town, which could eventually hurt the town's growth and prosperity.

"That's what I'm afraid of," Councilor Ben Richey said. "This will come back to bite the town, big time!"

Immediately following the work session, the matter was discussed in the special meeting. In reference to the Pioneer Lodge property, which will be demolished for the project, Richey said, "You're talking about putting 30 people out of a place to live."

Calhoun noted, "Perhaps what we need to do is schedule another meeting to discuss the housing issue."

The council voted unanimously to defeat the variance request telling the developers to revise their plan and resubmit to the town Planning and Zoning Commission.

The Chronicle later asked Planning and Zoning Administrator Ed Saint whether town zoning requires any developer of commercial real estate to include affordable housing. Saint replied no such zoning exists.

During an interview with The Chronicle Tuesday (Sept. 19), Mantz expressed his frustration with the vote. "Other than a handful of days out of every year, Red River does not have a parking problem."

When asked about his group's next step, Mantz replied, "We had to remove four of the six employee housing units and replace them with parking spots."

Referencing a commercial property the developers are purchasing next to the Pioneer Lodge, Mantz said, "That lot was not cheap. There's probably better places to work on employee housing [in town]. We basically took six houses off the market to provide employee housing. There's no financial incentive to do that. That was a hard sell for my investor. If you're normally selling them for $140,000-$170,000, think about how many months it takes to recoup that at $700 a month."

Referencing the possibility for affordable housing, Mantz noted, "That's the frustrating thing - $150,000 per house is less than $1,000 a month [for a mortgage]. It's still less than anything in town.

"I don't have any ill will toward anyone. There was a just such a focus on parking. The good parts of the proposal went away with the parking problem. I lived in Aspen, where employees had to drive an hour and a half to work. I think it takes away the charm of the city when you don't have that local mix."

Mantz also said his project is good for Red River's economy. "Once those retail spaces are full, we feel this project has the potential to create 25 jobs: housekeeping, maintenance and employees for the retail spaces. Plus we'll have 35 construction workers to build the project."

Woerndle told The Chronicle Thursday (Sept. 21), "If we have parking problems in high season, we have a problem. You have to be able to address that problem. A few years ago, they cut back on the number of parking spaces required for restaurants and shops. If you cut back on lodges, too, then you have a problem. If there's not enough parking where they're staying, then they go out onto the street and the streets are already crowded because of the shops and restaurants. A lot of people told me they want me to uphold the ordinance for parking. I don't think [town zoning] is over restrictive. There's other communities with stricter zoning than Red River and they enforce zoning better than Red River does. It's nothing personal. I think [The Silver Strike] project is fine, they just need to comply with zoning."

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