FAR restrictions go too far for developers

Series: Niwot moratorium | Story 4

March 20, 2019

In a move that caught some stakeholders off-guard, Boulder County Commissioners voted unanimously at their March 12 public hearing to extend Niwot’s development moratorium until April 23 in order to address, among other things, concerns from property owners about proposed limits on Floor Area Ratio (FAR) for the non-historic blocks of the NRCD.

FAR is a measure of a building’s above-grade floor area in relation to the total area of the lot it’s built upon. A FAR of 1.0 means that a 10,000 square foot lot can house a combination of structures with up to 10,000 total square feet of floor space. In its proposed update to the NRCD land use code, the county is proposing a FAR limit of 0.6 for Blocks 5 and 6, which many commercial developers consider “too restrictive.” The current land use regulations do not limit FAR in any part of the NRCD.

During his presentation to the Commissioners at the hearing, land use director Dale Case defended the staff’s use of FAR and other direct regulations on building size—lot coverage, height restrictions, and setbacks—to address the scale of development in a rural community such as Niwot, and said that having a consistent standard helps both residents and developers by “setting an expectation of what can be developed.”

“We are relaxing some of the requirements on the amount of parking that’s necessary on a parcel for different uses and for development, so in order to do that and still maintain the character of the area and not allow the parcels to get overbuilt, it’s important to have restrictions into the actual size and floor areas of those buildings. So it’s a tradeoff of doing that—not using parking as our mechanism to control the amount of structure, but actually have numbers that people understand.”

He said the staff reviewed several factors to determine an appropriate FAR for Blocks 5 and 6, and felt the 0.6 limit was in keeping with the character of the block and the existing scale of development, while also allowing room to grow on most of the properties.

“The current floor area ratios range from 0.1 to 0.58 at the Niwot Inn, so all under the 0.6,” he said. “When you look back at the review of the Niwot Inn...and what was approved, it was a very contentious project. The maximum that was appropriate for the district at that time was at that 0.58 level, and that is some of the justification and reasoning behind where we went with our number.”

Commercial property owners, however, had a decidedly different take.

“Decisions are being based on numbers, not creativity,” developer Bob von Eschen said during his speaking time at the hearing. Von Eschen is hoping to develop two properties near the junction of 2nd Avenue and Niwot Road, and said that a FAR limit of less than 1.0 will put those two developments in jeopardy. “These controls will kill these two projects. If I leave, if Bradford [Heap, owner of Colterra] leaves, who’s going to invest the money?”

Local developer Anne Postle, owner of three lots on Block 5 and the developer behind Southpaw Commons, spoke forthrightly to the commissioners about what she characterized as “the real impact of the new rules proposed by the land use staff.”

Using illustrations, she then discussed three potential configurations for a new development on the parcel at 280 2nd Avenue—one that conforms to the FAR limits, but has other drawbacks, and two that exceed the proposed limit, but offer other amenities and appear to conform with the size and scale of other structures on the block. She also decried the county’s graphical depiction of a 1.25 FAR limit—which is the figure preferred by the owners— as “deceptive and misleading at best,” and “garbage….to mislead and frighten the town.”

Before voting to table to proposed NRCD, the Commissioners directed land use staff to conduct additional analysis of the proposed FAR limits and the “ramifications” of setting them at intervals higher than 0.6 or eliminating them altogether. The Commissioners also asked staff to investigate whether developers can be incentivized to offer public amenities, such as public patio space or landscaping, in exchange for a greater FAR limit.


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