Housing in HR: City tackles building density, height and affordability concerns


News staff writer

September 23, 2006

The City of Hood River is finalizing new zoning rules that are intended to preserve the quality of life for residents during a time of growth.

During the past few months, planning staffers have crafted guidelines to eliminate the “closed in” feeling of many neighborhoods. And provide area workers with housing that fits within middle-income budgets.

“I think that we’re on schedule to take the citizens’ concerns that came out of our visioning process and address them as ordinances,” said Cindy Walbridge, planning director.

On Monday, she will deliver the final affordable housing report to the City Council. The elected body convenes at 6 p.m. in the municipal courtroom at the junction of Second and State streets.

The report was developed over a five-month period by government leaders, business representatives and citizens. Walbridge chaired the committee that was tasked with defining the issues and making recommendations for change. She will be joined at the Sept. 25 council meeting by David Meriwether, county administrator and Richard Sassara, director of HOPE (Housing for People).

Some of the committee’s findings are that between 65-80 percent of the county’s population cannot afford a median-priced home in town. Another 20 percent of residents need to spend 50 percent of their monthly income to qualify for the average home, well above the 35 percent recommended by financial experts.

Last fall, Mike Benedict, planning director, spoke at a housing conference about the issue. He said the mortgage payment for a $280,000 house would be $1,700 per month on a 30-year loan at six percent interests. He said that cost was making it impossible for many Hood River families to realize the American dream of home ownership.

At the Sept. 25 meeting, the council is also expected to approve one alternative to provide more worker housing. Ordinance 1912 allows landowners to build an accessory dwelling of no more than 800 square feet. The secondary unit is intended to be used as a long-term rental or provide private quarters for an aging or needy family member.

Walbridge was directed by the council to include language that ensures the unit does not become a vacation rental. To streamline the building process, no architectural elements are required in construction of the dwelling that necessitates a public hearing process.

However, neighbors will be given an added say in the erection of townhouses as of Sept. 28. The council has already decided that the structures should be allowed only with a conditional use permit. They wanted to give adjacent property owners more of a voice on these projects.

Also in effect on Sept. 28 will be a limitation on the area of a lot that a single-family residence can cover. The council has decided not to allow a structure to take up more than 40 percent of the property, or 43 percent with a front porch and 48 percent with a rear garage. Homeowners will be able to deduct 50 percent from the length of a driveway if the surface is permeable and leads to a rear garage.

Next week, new bed and breakfast establishments will be required to screen parking as much as possible from a street view. Vehicles must now be placed to the rear or side of the building.

On Wednesday, Oct. 4, the planning commission will look at lowering the height of all new residences from 35 to 28 feet. That discussion begins at 5:30 p.m. in the municipal courtroom. The city has received numerous complaints that these structures have become too tall and “eclipse” surrounding homes.

No change is proposed for the height of multi-family dwellings. Apartment complexes, many of which provide low-income housing, are allowed to remain at three stories.

On Oct. 4, the planning commission will also discuss how many dwellings should be allowed in a planned unit development.

Another major concern expressed in the city’s visioning survey last year was how elevation was measured for new construction. Some residents felt that developers had already added numerous feet of fill material before the grade was set. And that allowed some homes to be significantly higher than the allowable 35 feet.

Dave Bick, city engineering, has “tightened up” written standards to eliminate about any doubt how an allowable height is measured.

He said elevations and grade are to be based on the contours already diagramed on an aerial topographical map in his office. And a property owner must obtain a permit before hauling 50 cubic yards or more of soil onto the site.

The revisions to the engineering guidelines go into effect on Sunday, Oct. 1.

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