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NL Planning & Zoning considers future of multifamily housing… again

NORTH LIBERTY– North Liberty’s long-standing debate on multifamily housing is still on the table.
North Liberty’s Planning & Zoning (P&Z) Commission reopened the topic during an informal work session at its Jan. 2 meeting. No action was proposed or considered, but City Planner Dean Wheatley said the commission informally discussed reasons behind its recent votes to deny multifamily development proposals, and to try to establish guidance staff can give developers for future proposals.
“Ultimately that guidance will need to be endorsed and refined by city council,” Wheatley added.
While the meeting was open to the public, Wheatley said the commission decided not to televise the work session in order to encourage as much open dialogue as possible.
“We were attempting to create a more informal atmosphere for discussion,” Wheatley said. While the conversation flowed freely, the commission reached no consensus about what to do with multifamily housing.
The city’s quantity of multifamily housing has been an on-going theme since the city’s population boom began. It was a point of public contention between candidates in the 2005 city council election, and in 2007, the North Liberty City Council voted to place a 60-day moratorium on all new multifamily residential site plans in order to review related design standards. The council dropped the moratorium after learning it would require amending the city’s zoning code, and instead adopted new design standards to address the council’s concerns over the quality and appearance of multifamily housing developments.
More recently, North Liberty has seen a lot of demand for affordable housing as its population grew from 5,000 in 2000 to over 13,000 today. The amount of land zoned for multifamily housing in North Liberty has steadily dwindled, and the number of developers seeking to rezone properties for multifamily development has increased, prompting North Liberty’s planning department, its P&Z commission and city council to review the city’s Land Use Plan to determine where more residential neighborhoods might fit. In 2011, the two groups met to talk about future land use in North Liberty.
The general consensus at that time was to save commercial-zoned properties for commercial uses, but at least two developers in attendance said there was too much commercial property already available, some of which has been sitting on the market for years.
Prior to last week’s P&Z meeting, Wheatley and commission member Josh Covert prepared more recent statistical data on the city’s population, current housing stock and occupancy rates, as well as comparative data from other similar-size cities, to help commissioners in their consideration of North Liberty’s enduring question about multifamily housing.
Specifically, how much is enough, and when is it too much?
The city is still searching for an answer.
P&Z is an appointed advisory board charged with hearing requests for zoning and rezoning, subdivision plats and site plans, then making recommendations to the council for denial, approval, or conditions for approval on those requests. With these responsibilities, P&Z has influence over how and where the city grows, including its residential development.
Last week, P&Z commissioners used data to launch the discussion anew, examining things like the current available housing stock in North Liberty, median home prices, and sales and population trends.
“With multifamily, whether it’s perception or truth, the thought is that there is quite a bit of it,” said P&Z chair Dave Moore. “There are people on both ends of the spectrum, those who don’t want to see more and those who say the market is demanding it. We are trying to establish a baseline so we can move forward with making recommendations to the council.”
Moore said P&Z recognizes there are not a lot of moderately-priced homes in North Liberty, and those that are priced between $80,000 to $120,000 are often condos.
Commissioner Covert, who works as a realtor, said there is a demand for more affordable housing in North Liberty.
“It is a desired product,” Covert said, with so many people who move here for temporary jobs or schooling at the University of Iowa. Often, purchasing a multifamily unit can be more affordable than renting an apartment or house, he noted. “So you see a lot of people buy them for the short term. The bad part is we keep over saturating the number of condos in the area, so when those people are ready to sell in three or four years, there is such an overabundance of condos on the market it starts to affect sale price. Few people want to buy an existing home when they can get new for almost the same price.”
Other commission members are concerned about having too many duplexes with very high price tags, Moore said. Covert agreed.
“Developers and builders are upping the bar on everything they build,” Covert said. “It is amazing as to how much detail they are putting into the newer condos in North Liberty, to make them a desired product.”
P&Z commission asked for more current data on home sales and rental numbers, as well as past data, in order to discern cyclical trends. Concrete numbers will be available later this spring, Moore indicated. But it’s not just market trends that guide P&Z’s decisions on site plans and zoning requests, he noted.
“We also consider the design, green space, amenities, the look and appearance of property,” he said. “The more information a developer can give us about how the development will look and function, the better.”
Covert said debating the quantity and quality of North Liberty’s multifamily housing has become a much more difficult conversation than he ever anticipated.
“I thought I had my mind made up, but when I look at the numbers compared to other areas and the current active units on the market, there is a lot more information we need before anything is decided,” Covert said. “But if we limit multifamily housing, we are asking landowners not to make any more money right now, to wait until the market turns around, and I don’t think it is my position to make that call for someone.”
Meanwhile, the commission will continue to mull over whether the future of multifamily housing should be further dictated– or even restricted– by policy or code. Options might include creating new, lower-density zoning classifications for multifamily development, creating a classification to make single-family residential more affordable, or capping the number of recommended multifamily approvals.
Moore said it is a duty he and his fellow commissioners take seriously.
“Most of us are a little humbled to know the decisions we make now will impact things 10 to 15 years down the road,” said Moore. “We are trying to look that far ahead, and make sure that what does go through is something that will stay looking nice for years to come.”
North Liberty P&Z meets the first Tuesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in city council chambers. The meetings are open to the public.