Planning Commission recommends changes to benefit affordable housing

Suggestions to be considered by City Council

PORT TOWNSEND — The Port Townsend Planning Commission is making a series of recommendations to the City Council with the hope that municipal code changes will make it easier for developers to build affordable housing units.

Planning commissioners recommended five text amendments during a special meeting Monday night that will be forwarded to the City Council for consideration.

The council, which will elect a mayor and deputy mayor when it meets at 6:30 p.m. Monday, will make the final decisions on code amendments.

The planning commission has recommended updates to rules surrounding modulation, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and cottage housing.

It also wants to allow fourplexes in the largest-density residential zone (R-IV), and it has proposed to eliminate the definition of “family” throughout the code because of how it has been used in other jurisdictions to discriminate against certain groups of people.

The largest discussion item surrounded modulation, a concept meant to break up exterior walls that face a primary street to prevent the look of long, flat structures.

The planning commission voted to extend the maximum allowable wall length from 20 feet to 30 feet and to include a section that only relates to modulation when it is larger than 1,000 gross square feet.

That would allow smaller homes or ADUs to be exempt from the requirement, something planning commission vice chair Rick Jahnke promoted.

“I went back to the ordinance in 2010 when this got passed,” he said. “The recession was hitting, but Port Townsend was becoming very popular. The worry was, people were buying up small homes and building McMansions.

“This whole thing came about because people were worried about too large of homes rather than too small of homes.”

Another unintended consequence surfaced when former City Council member Bob Gray tried to build a garage.

Gray, whose second four-term term on the council expired Tuesday, spoke during public comment and said one of the walls of his garage faces the street.

“I don’t think the issue is the size of the wall,” he said. “The issue is how you can comply with the requirement if it’s just a flat wall.”

Gray said he wanted to build a fence to break up the look of the flat surface, but that wasn’t going to satisfy the code. He also said he has a 70-foot tree on the property, but planners didn’t consider that to work either.

Gray said options that were suggested included building a trellis or to add landscaping or a window box.

“I share the frustration at times in terms of sometimes there’s a simple solution, and other times there’s not,” said Lance Bailey, the city’s development services director.

Bailey called landscaping and window boxes “sight manipulation,” but he said they’re easily removable, and residents add them at times just to comply.

“This is something that’s intended to be permanent,” Bailey said.

“If it’s something we should require to achieve just for a permit, then it’s something we should enforce just from an equity standpoint,” he added.

Planning commissioner Monica MickHager, who will be sworn in Monday as a new City Council member along with Owen Rowe, the board president for the Food Co-op, said she had been thinking for weeks about modulation.

“Who this hurts the most is low-income, workforce housing and affordable housing, and that was not our intent,” said MickHager, who sat on the planning commission when the 2010 recommendations were made.

“If you’re under 1,000 square feet, then you’re safe,” she said. “It really helps us to work our way back to affordable housing that is inclusive.”

Planning commissioner Aislinn Palmer lobbied for a change in the maximum size of ADUs from 800 square feet to 1,000 square feet, whether it’s attached to a primary residence or detached.

The maximum size allowed in unincorporated Jefferson County is 1,200 square feet.

Bailey thought that was too large within city limits and said the intent is to be able to tell which one is a primary residence.

“The ideal lot, and we have a lot of them here, is if you’re looking at it and it’s a house with a detached ADU, it should be really clear which one is the ADU,” he said.

Cottage housing changes included a chart that displayed how many units were allowed in multiple residential zones, although Bailey said they aren’t really “affordable” options.

“The affordable housing discussion is to be had in other realms,” he said. “This is equalizing some things here with the cottage housing for those who want to do it.”

Planning commissioner Viki Sonntag said it may be a route for people to have shared amenities or for tiny house communities.

Meanwhile, the city currently allows only multi-family structures in the R-IV zone, although Jahnke said the last apartment building was built in 2006.

The commission’s recommendation is to allow fourplexes to be built there, structures previously considered single-family dwellings.

Bailey didn’t like the idea of dropping all the way down to allow duplexes, but the commission wanted to look at increasing density in that particular zone.

“Crossing that threshold and moving to a fourplex might be a good incremental change,” Bailey said.

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Jefferson County Managing Editor Brian McLean can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 6, or at [email protected].

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