PORT TOWNSEND — The Port Townsend City Council approved the first reading of a raft of zoning changes to the city’s building codes even as members of the public called for a greater emphasis on affordability.
Port Townsend and many other municipalities are moving to take advantage of a state law that allows them to forgo the appeals process under the state Environmental Protection Act and Growth Management Act if changes to zoning codes are made before April 1.
At a regular meeting Monday evening, city council members unanimously approved the first reading of dozens of recommended changes to zoning codes previously suggested by the Port Townsend Planning Commission.
The changes are aimed at creating what’s being called “tactical infill” housing and are meant to allow greater flexibility for property owners to add housing units to residential and commercial areas through things like accessory dwelling units or tiny homes.
Members unanimously approved the first reading of the changes, which will be finalized at the city council’s next meeting on March 27.
However, dozens of public comments were made at the meeting and in writing, urging the council to include mandatory affordability requirements in the zoning changes and arguing that adding supply to the housing stock does not necessarily lead to lower home and rental prices.
“The public statements from the beginning of the tactical infill process have highlighted the importance of and the need for affordable housing,” said Kim Herman, a Bellingham resident and former executive director of the Washington State Housing Finance Commission.
“The problem is that none of the provisions before you require the development of affordable housing. What the planning commission has focused on is the type of housing being developed, not the affordability of the housing being developed,” Herman said.
Herman is an affiliate of the Port Hadlock-based Housing Solutions Network, an affordable housing advocacy group that had several members give testimony Monday.
Almost all of the dozens of commentators urged council members to adopt some kind of requirements for affordable housing, and no commentators opposed the proposed changes.
Proposed changes to the zoning code include allowing homeowners to add up to two accessory dwelling units, removing certain off-street parking requirements and allowing the installation of tiny homes on wheels as additional housing units.
Code changes would also remove certain design elements for cottage-style housing, remove quantity requirements for attached housing such as townhomes and allow for employers to provide housing for employees in commercial zones.
The proposed changes would also allow for communities of tiny homes on wheels in certain commercial districts.
Responding to calls for mandated affordability, city staff and council members stressed the zoning changes were the first step in a larger, more long-term effort to make housing more affordable in the city.
“This is step one in our housing strategy,” said Emma Bolin, director of planning and community development. “Our next step is exploring how mandatory affordability won’t make our vacancy rate worse, or worse, result in no units, so that’s really important to get right.”
Council members noted the complications of getting additional housing built, citing the high costs of construction and the lack of available workers in the county. Several council members noted the proposed changes were being made ahead of the April 1 deadline and that additional zoning changes would be examined in the coming months.
“This was low-hanging fruit. This was one part of what is going to be a multi-step process, and we are already working on what we’re calling the April 2 changes,” said council member Libby Urner Wennstrom.
“So saying, ‘Oh, you can’t do anything if you don’t address permanent affordability in these existing changes to your zoning code,’ it seems like the baby is getting thrown out with the bathwater,” Urner Wennstrom said.
Members said that, following the April 1 deadline for code changes, the council would do a “deep dive” on researching affordability models that don’t also inadvertently discourage the construction of additional housing.
Council members also voted to keep public comment on the proposed changes open until 4:30 p.m. on March 27.
Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.