Originally Published in the Arizona Daily Sun | November 3, 2016

A revival of both new and long-delayed “zombie” housing projects in Coconino County has spurred officials to get to work updating the county’s outdated subdivision code.

While many changes are smaller housekeeping items, one new idea on the table is a set of conservation-oriented standards that, if followed, would allow a developer to opt out of the usual public hearing process, said Jay Christelman, director of the county’s community development department.

The standards, which would only be allowed only in residential zones, would require elements like open space and buffer zones that the county wants to see, Christelman said. They also provide property owners a more predictable path than the usual process of going before the planning and zoning commission and the board of supervisors, where a host of conditions can be imposed on the project. The hope is to provide developers and landowners a logistically easier way to develop their property that would be an alternative to splitting their lots and selling off the smaller parcels to make a profit. So-called wildcat lot splits are allowed by state law as long as they are divided into five parcels or fewer and come with very few legal requirements, which means the county ends up with a disjointed patchwork of property boundaries, utility easements, road access and drainages, Christelman said.

“We see it all over the place,” he said.

Lots that are split and sold again and again have created chronic issues in some places, Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan said during a Tuesday board meeting about the subdivision ordinance changes.

“If you look at what transpired in Doney Park, some of the roadway and utility planning has been a real problem,” Ryan said.

The conservation subdivision standards would generally incentivize cluster-oriented building patterns that leave larger chunks of land undeveloped and would be the same or lower density as what the area’s zoning requires. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday threw out other ideas for those standards including forest access, open space and a buffer around the outside of the subdivision.

As Christelman proposed the idea, a developer would need to have a public meeting and get the approval of more than 51 percent of residents to move ahead with a conservation subdivision.

The boardmembers also spoke about doing more to require affordable housing concessions from developers when they request exceptions to the zoning code. If a developer wanted a higher density than what’s allowed, for example, then supervisors could mandate that the extra homes must be designated affordable housing.

Allowing the addition of a few extra lots could benefit a developer to the tune of “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Supervisor Art Babbott said, pointing out that the county should try to get something in return.

Also proposed on Tuesday was to incorporate into county code a requirement for subdividers to create a management plan addressing wildfire fuels, forest health and weed management. Babbott also expressed the desire to make it a requirement for new subdivisions get certified in the Firewise program that lays out certain steps for a community to minimize wildfire risk. A final decision on that has yet to be made.