Council: Yes to Hotel Tax Measure, No on Housing Measure

A tax increase could generate an additional $2 million for the city, should voters approve. But a measure to gauge residents' views on the size of homes was deemed too complex.

Mayor Casey Tanaka’s passed 5-0.

But the motion to place the floor area ratio (FAR) reduction measure on the Nov. 6 ballot didn't even muster a second.

The main objection was that nobody could grasp it, not even Jim Strickland, a former planning commissioner who headed the community's Residential Standards Improvement Project, which helped write the current codes.

“Maybe I would support it if I could understand it,” Strickland told the council. “I don’t think anybody can understand it the way it is stated here.”

FAR measures the amount of space in a residence relative to the total lot size of the property, and has sparked debate in the community for years.

Planner Peter Fait presented a graph that showed the amount of livable area in homes that would be lost if the FAR was reduced as noted in the proposed measure, but Strickland still wasn’t convinced the ballot was the best way to proceed.

“This is going to be very complex for the public to understand,” he said.

Another resident, Susan Keith agreed. “I have great faith in the public, but this is too technical,” she said.

The residential improvement project not only changed the FAR, but setbacks and design features. The two-year planning process sought to “encourage neighborly consideration” in the construction of new homes, Strickland said

Its approval in mid-2005 didn’t stop “McMansions” from sprouting up where cottages once stood. In the 30 days before the law went into effect there was a scramble to get plans approved.

“Every person wanted to build a house or thought they wanted to build a house, hired an architect, brought in plans, and created a five-year backlog. It is only in recent years that we are seeing houses being build under the new plans and some are larger than people expected,” Strickland said.

It was this dissatisfaction that led Tanaka to seek an advisory vote, calling it “vital for public to take ownership of the problem. 

“I want to give the public a chance to drop a hammer on this issue,” he added.  “Without public input, the council will take a moderate approach.”

Hearing the feedback that his proposal was too complicated, he suggested simpler language:

“Are the homes being built too large? Should council take action to reduce the bulk and mass of these homes?”

Yet Councilman Mike Woiwode raised another concern: “What if answer is no, because people don’t understand it? Do we walk away from the problem?” he asked.

Councilwoman Barbara Denny had no such qualms. “We already know people think it’s a problem,” she said.  “I don’t see what would be gained by putting it on the ballot.”

The hotel measure would raise the the city's transient occupancy tax from 8 to 10 percent, generating $2.2 million for the community, according to estimates, should voters approve. 

The council supported placing that item on the ballot with little debate and no public comment. 


This story has been amended to reflect Jim Strickland's correct position, as one-time head of the residential improvement project.


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