BLUFFDALE — Compelled by court order and a fast-approaching deadline, city officials unveiled a rough draft of a revised plan to conform with the state’s affordable housing laws.
By a unanimous vote, the city’s six-member Planning Commission put its stamp of approval Tuesday on the 25-page plan, which is now headed before the City Council.
Bluffdale officials are under pressure to update the plan by March 31 after a 3rd District Court judge ruled last month that the city’s previous moderate-income housing plan did not meet the requirements of a 1996 state law mandating all Utah communities to provide a variety of housing types.
Bluffdale City Attorney Kevin Watkins and another adviser told Planning Commission members at Tuesday’s public hearing that they are confident the latest plan now passes legal muster. But Mike Hutchings, the attorney who successfully sued the city last year on behalf of Anderson Development to win the court order, told commissioners and about 20 residents that the updated plan is no better than the previously rejected one.
"It seems to me that it really does nothing," said Hutchings, a former district court judge of 16 years. "It would not produce an appreciable difference in moderate housing in Bluffdale city. There’s a lot of talk in there but no real commitment. I submit the plan you have before you does nothing more than maintain the status quo that has existed in the city for the last 21 years."
Under state law, Bluffdale immediately needs 175 moderate-income housing units — defined as a house that costs no more than $117,318 or a two-bedroom apartment whose rent could not exceed $818. The city of approximately 4,280 residents then would have to add 200 more affordable housing units by 2005.
To remedy Bluffdale’s moderate-income housing scarcity, Sorensen prescribed that the City Council approve more high-density and accessory apartment zoning in the future. Yet rather than explicitly put such recommendations in his plan, Sorensen said he would defer to the City Council and Planning Commission on such changes.
And as of Tuesday, there were no substantive or concrete zoning changes in the city’s plan, although commission member Steve Levesque indicated there could be some in the future.
Hutchings, however, is skeptical of such promises.
"They can say a lot of things," Hutchings said, "but will they do them? So far they have not."
Historically, Bluffdale has been predominantly homogenous in its demographics and housing types. More than 82 percent of Bluffdale’s residentially zoned areas sit on either one- or five-acre lots. What’s more, no racial minorities lived among the more than 2,152 residents who lived in Bluffdale as of the 1990 Census.
Hutchings said that even if the city should allow moderate-income housing units on 10,000-square-foot lots — a quarter of an acre — the land would almost certainly prove far too expensive for lower-income families to afford. By Sorensen’s estimate, 10,000-square-foot lots typically support homes in the $256,000 and $320,000 range, which would price out the very clients Bluffdale is now forced to accommodate.
Bluffdale’s residents overwhelmingly oppose the state-ordered housing reform in their neighborhood. There also remains a strong undercurrent of discontent by some of the city’s politicians with 3rd District Judge Matthew B. Durrant’s ruling last month. When Bluffdale’s commissioners deliberated Tuesday over whether to go back to drawing board, planning commission member Blake Waters implied Durrant had made the wrong decision, saying the city’s earlier moderate-income housing plan "met the (state) requirements."
"District court decisions are not always right, that’s why we have a Supreme Court," Watkins told him. "If it takes going that far, my understanding is we’re prepared to go that far."
Durrant was appointed to the Utah Supreme Court last month. Bluffdale city officials say they will soon show their plan to the Utah Department of Economic Development for feedback. Sorensen said if state officials with that agency propose changes, "then we should make changes."
Watkins, meanwhile, said that Bluffdale’s affordable housing plan will likely be tinkered with even more and assured that "by the time this gets to the City Council it will be something that comports with the (state) requirements."