Town Council votes to raise building height limit to 65 feet

Residents concerned about light pollution, development race

Buildings up to or exceeding 65 feet could be coming to Tusayan after new ordinance passes.

Photo courtesy of Town of Tusayan

Buildings up to or exceeding 65 feet could be coming to Tusayan after new ordinance passes.

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Following a long, sometimes sharp debate at the April 19 meeting, the council voted unanimously to accept the planning and zoning commission’s recommendation to raise the town’s building limit to a height of 65 feet.

For perspective, the National Geographic IMAX building, currently the town’s tallest structure, stands 56.5 feet tall.

At a public hearing held April 18, the planning and zoning commission voted 3-1 to expand the height limit, but only for five zones, including two multi-family residential zones, a general commercial zone, a heavy commercial zone and a planned community zone. The planned community zone includes the town’s proposed affordable housing properties at Kotzin Ranch and Ten X Ranch, as well as property earmarked by Stilo Development U.S.A. for future development. The updated ordinance also states that the height limit of 65 feet may be exceeded on a case by case basis through a conditional use permit, which must also be approved by the town council.

Because the town is surrounded by Kaibab National Forest, efforts to expand the town outward have been slow to get off the ground. The Forest Service has denied road easements necessary to begin residential development at both Kotzin Ranch and Ten X Ranch, two 20-acre plats east and west of town.

Lawrence Tomasello, the town’s contracted planner, said he took into account population density when making his presentation to the planning and zoning commission, and noted that since the town was unable to expand horizontally, the only way to make room for more housing within the town’s current footprint is to build upward. Bringing the limit up to 65 feet would allow apartment buildings to accommodate more families in residential zones and allow hotels to potentially add more rooms.

Tomasello said current buildings wishing to expand upward would be subject to specific regulations and upgrades to the existing structure.

“Just because we’re raising the height limits to 65 feet doesn’t mean everyone can do it,” he explained. “Each project is individual, and we have to look at things like infrastructure, fire safety and impact on resources.”

The impact on resources, particularly water, was a major concern among community members and conservationists in attendance. Alison Gitlin, representing the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, encouraged the council to gather more information before making a decision.

Gitlin cited concerns about the impact even a few maximum-height buildings would have on water use, as well as the impact of the lights associated with taller buildings.

Tusayan is designated as an International Dark Sky City — there are restrictions on the number and type of outdoor lights allowed within the town.

The town itself and Ten X are on low ground and may not cause much of a problem, Gitlin said, but since Kotzin Ranch is on a hill, a 65-foot structure there would clearly be visible from parts of Grand Canyon National Park, even as far away as the North Rim.

Chris Lehnertz, the park’s superintendent, sent a letter expressing similar concerns about the effects increased building heights would have on night sky views within the park.

“Many of the best protected night skies in the country are found within national park boundaries and the adjacent lands,” Lehnertz stated, requesting the town consult with the National Park Service about the impacts of the new zoning ordinance.

Tusayan resident Clarinda Vail, representing Red Feather Properties, also expressed several concerns, including the ‘canyon effect’ that causes pollutants to be trapped within the town, fire safety, aviation safety and the effect a potential development race would have on the property values of landowners who are unable to make such large-scale improvements.

Vail also expressed her frustration about the origin of the request for the height increase in the first place, citing a lack of information about who was involved.

Town manager Eric Duthie explained the height increase was placed on the agenda as part of the primary negotiations with the Stilo Development group. Duthie said at the time, the town agreed to place the item on the council’s agenda for discussion, but said a decision was not required as part of the process.

“The agreement was only that we would place it on the agenda and discuss it,” Duthie said. “Any consideration and decision is solely up to the council. They can accept, decline or modify planning and zoning’s recommendation, or they can do nothing.”

Still, Vail said, it’s a hard sell.

“I find it hard to believe that the council is just doing whatever they want,” she said. “We don’t know who has been involved in this from the beginning.”

Any decision is also permanent. Once the ordinance has been modified to allow increased building height, it can’t be lowered again.

Tomasello stressed that each project would be evaluated on a case by case basis by the planning and zoning commission, including new construction, augments to existing structures and conditional use permits requesting a build height more than 65 feet.

“If you have a structure that’s going to exceed the 65 foot limit because of a few feet on a pitched roof, that’s different than trying to get an entire extra story out of a building with a flat roof,” he explained.

Conditional use permits granted by the planning and zoning commission can be appealed to the town council.

In spite of the concerns, the council voted to extend the height limit, citing the ability to provide more multi-family housing and the potential for increased tourism business.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Mayor Craig Sanderson. “We’re serving the public and visitors to the Grand Canyon by giving them more room to stay here, instead of Williams or Flagstaff.”

The council also discussed the ongoing development of the planned sports complex. James Towsley from Hellas Construction gave the council an overview of the planned complex, which includes baseball and softball fields, a soccer field and a rubberized track.

The estimated price tag for the complex is $4,989,712, including all materials and labor.

Towsley also offered some cost-saving measures, including shaving two lanes off the track (six lanes instead of eight) and reducing the size of the baseball field. Those two measures alone would greatly reduce the amount of fill material that must be imported to make the area level. Towsley said the firm was also considering bringing in crushing machines and using rock located onsite as drainage material.

The council decided to table the measure to give Hellas enough time to provide an updated site plan and cost. Towsley said a few weeks’ delay wouldn’t compromise the town’s late August opening timetable, and said the firm could still have all athletic fields operational by the time school starts, although infrastructure such as parking lots may not be complete.

The council also voted to allow the town manager to award a contract for the development of a Trail Master Plan to design a trail system in and through the town. The contract only includes the planning process; construction of the trails will be considered at a later date.

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