Tom Clyde: The allocation of resources
While the Utah legislature is rife with bad ideas and petty politics, we need to look elsewhere for real legislative drama with a lesson we might be able to bring back to Park City.
Oregon has made news this last month with a couple of legislative moves. The first was a climate change bill. I don’t know what it would do, but it contained the frightening words “climate change.” The bill passed the House, and when it went to the Senate, it appeared that the votes were there to pass the bill.
The Republicans in the Senate freaked out because the only thing Republicans fear more than taxes is science. They didn’t have the votes to stop it, so all they could do was boycott. Without a quorum there, the Senate couldn’t vote on the bill.
So, they bugged out to their bunkers in Idaho and Montana and hid. The governor tried to arrest them and haul them back to work, but they were in other states. After a week, in which some of the absent Republicans threatened violence if the state troopers attempted to arrest them – one legislator said they should only send bachelor law enforcement because they would not be taken in without a fight to the death – the Democrats pulled the bill.
The Republicans came home, and the next day, it was business as usual.
After that stunt, the newly unified legislature passed bipartisan legislation that prohibits single family zoning in most of Oregon. In towns over 10,000 people, the lowest density a city council can zone for is duplexes. In cities over 25,000, every residential zone has to allow for duplexes, triplexes, and four-plexes. But there are no more zones for single family houses. People can still build single family houses, but the zoning has to allow at least duplexes.
The goal was to increase density, which in turn, should decrease sprawl. There’s less reason to pave over farmland on the edges of town when you can put more people within the existing town. In theory, that reduces traffic on a regional level while increasing it on a neighborhood basis and makes transit more viable. It is also supposed to bring down housing costs.
Back east, Salt Lake City did something similar by allowing accessory dwellings pretty much everywhere. The ordinance hasn’t been in place long enough to see if it makes a difference, but so far, the only housing news from Salt Lake is that rents and prices continue to rise. There hasn’t been a huge move to stick a shipping container in the back yard and go into the rental business.
It’s unclear how big an impact a change like that could have. The Oregon law doesn’t require conversion of existing single family houses into duplexes. In subdivisions with covenants restricting the use to single family, it’s likely conversions or construction of new accessory units won’t happen until the covenants are amended or expire. It would be up to the local cities to determine things like additional parking requirements for single family houses that get subdivided into duplexes. Banks like to lend on single family houses. They don’t much like multi-family projects, which often get treated as commercial loans rather than a traditional mortgage. It sounds revolutionary, but in the end, it might not make a lot of difference.
But you have to wonder what would happen around here if our stock of 6,000 square foot houses got subdivided into houses with accessory units inside. Most of what’s been built in the last 20 years is big enough that there is space to carve out a studio or one-bedroom apartment without anybody missing square footage. How many seasonal employees who are now commuting long distances would find housing in town in one of the thousands of empty bedrooms that already exist? Would that just replace traffic jams at Kimball Junction with traffic jams in Park Meadows? They might get by without a car, or leave the car parked – probably on the street, in the way of snow plows – and take the bus to work.
Of course, there’s a big difference between a studio apartment and a full duplex setup with another whole family there instead of just one or two people.
It looks like a reasonable idea on paper. But when it comes to sharing a common wall with a couple of headbanger resort employees or a family with a bunch of kids, it clearly takes some compromises. My nearest neighbors are 100 yards away, and they aren’t there very often. They are nice, quiet, old people. It’s still quite annoying when they are here. The idea of them being only two sheets of drywall away, rather than down the street, would take some getting used to.
Subdivision covenants would make duplex conversion difficult to pull off in Park City. The idea hasn’t been popular. But it might be worth looking at.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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Tom Clyde has a lot to worry about these days, with the coronavirus pandemic, the uncertain economy and airplane parts falling from the sky. Add mountain lions to the list.