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Lot-size ordinance brings density argument to boil

A long-simmering dispute over population density is about to come to a boil in the Gig Harbor City Council, which is considering an ordinance to increase the minimum lot size for some residential areas.

The ordinance, championed by council members Bob Himes and Jeni Woock, would increase the required minimum lot size in the R-1 single family zone from 7,200 to 7,500 square feet.

Although it’s a small change, the practical result would be fewer houses per acre.

That’s a good thing, said Woock.

“There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t get emails from citizens in the community complaining about the density,” Woock said. “This is one way we are listening to our community, who voted for us and sent us to take care of overcrowding.”

The proposed ordinance will have first reading at the Nov. 25 meeting.

It would also set minimum R-2 lot sizes at 5,800 square feet, and R-3 multifamily lots at 4,200 square feet.

Critics on the council, including members Spencer Hutchins and Michael Perrow, said the change in lot sizes conflicts with the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for increasing density to accommodate a growing population. It also may be illegal under the state Growth Management Act, they said.

“I can only imagine the goose egg on our staff, beating their head on the wall telling us to not do this,” Hutchins said.

The city’s planning staff has been lukewarm to the idea, although their report to the council on Monday was cautious.

“While staff is not fully supportive of moving forward with changes to residential minimum lot sizes in general due to inconsistencies with the Comprehension Plan and potential state law, the lot size proposed in this ordinance will likely not put the city at risk of any future liability,” wrote planning director Katrina Knutson.

Council Member Michael Perrow agreed with Hutchins, describing the proposed ordinance as a solution in search of a problem.

“We wasted enormous amount of staff time by denying that staff was accurate,” Perrow said. “We can bring this forward on the 25th, but it will continue to waste time.”

Perrow said the original ordinance not only went against the comprehension plan, but was also illegal, as the goal of the ordinance was to decrease density in the city.

Himes argued that nothing about the ordinance is illegal.

“This highly controversial thing has been adopted in quite a few a places,” Himes said. “The idea that this is a crazy novel experiment subject to legal action is fake.”

The ordinance has drawn fire from builders and developers.

Jessie Gamble, a representative of the Master Builders’ Association, reminded the council that Gig Harbor already has the highest rent and highest home cost in Pierce County, and raising minimum lot size will only make that situation worse.

The ordinance is “out of whack” with the city’s own comprehensive plan, she argued.

Builder Kurt Wilson of Soundbuilt Homes sent a scorching letter to council members, accusing them of wanting to decrease density “by deception.”

“Unreal,” he wrote. “You guys just won’t stop with this nonsense.”

“If a zone calls for a certain range of density, the regulations should be such that it’s achievable,” he told the council. “Otherwise your comprehensive plan and zoning code must be deemed misleading and intentionally deceptive. “

The proposed ordinance also drew an unusual email from Lindsey Sehmel, formerly the city’s chief planner and now planning director of Lincoln City, Ore.

She, too, noted that the plan conflicts with the city’s comprehensive plan, and may have unintended consequences, such as encouraging bigger houses on the larger lots, out of scale with the “small-town” feel residents want.

“As Gig Harbor is all too aware, builders look to maximize the building footprint, and larger lot sizes will create larger houses,” she wrote.

And she echoed other warnings about raising the cost of housing.

“Land is expensive in Gig Harbor, establishing a minimum lot size greater than what is already effective will increase the costs of this housing for single-family residences.”

In other news, the Gig Harbor City Council:

  • Adopted an ordinance that allows community recreation halls in the city’s WC Waterfront Commercial Zone as a conditionally permitted use. While the amendment would apply to all properties within the WC, the Public Works Department and the Gig Harbor Boat shop are proposing to rehabilitate Eddon Boatyard House to use the main floor as a community recreation hall.

  • Approved a resolution that expresses the sense of the city council that compensation for city elected officials should not be increased. The resolutions states that city officials are first and foremost,citizen servants and financial compensation is should not be a motivational factor for citizens deciding to seek elected office.

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