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7:32 PM Mon, Nov. 12th

Building height rules pose problem; Prescott planners study definitions, requirements

PRESCOTT – The hilly terrain that surrounds Prescott poses a dilemma for the community: how to build homes that fit well on steep slopes, but don't obliterate the beauty that attracts people to the area.

In recent years, the city apparently reacted to that dilemma by adopting restrictions that aim to reduce the height of homes that straddle Prescott's hills.

But do those restrictions make portions of the yet-undeveloped land in Prescott – much of which has a steep grade – virtually undevelopable?

That was a question that the Prescott Planning and Zoning Commission grappled with this past week during its study-session discussion of the city code's height definitions and other height requirements.

The commission decided the questions were too complex for them to decide in a single session. They asked city staff to set up a workshop in the future that will allow them to devote more time to the issue. The city has not yet set a date for the meeting.

But in the meantime, city staff will be researching how other mountainside communities deal with building height restrictions.

Building height first came to the forefront in Prescott in the early 1990s, when architect Sukumar Pal submitted plans to build a multi-level home near Thumb Butte. That controversial building project led to a new round of restriction changes.

Then again in 1997, the city re-evaluated its height restrictions after residents complained about the appearance of the many homes in the community that stand on stilts.

"There was sort of a hue and cry in the community that prompted (the 1997) restrictions," said Julie Pindzola, long-range planner for the city.

The existing restrictions limit buildings to a height of 35 feet. It also requires the measurement to start on the downhill side of the home – at the lowest natural grade.

In May, the Prescott Board of Adjustment heard its first request for a variance from the revised restrictions. A home was under construction in the Summit Pointe subdivision that could exceed the 35-foot height limit by nearly 20 feet. The Board of Adjustment approved a variance that would allow the house to exceed the 35-foot limit by only a foot and a half.

That decision apparently prompted a number of local builders to call City Hall to complain about the new restrictions.

"…Staff has received numerous phone calls from local builders indicating their potential inability to meet the residential building height requirement on steeply sloping platted lots," stated a memo to the commission from the city's Community Development Department.

Several commissioners agreed that the city's current practice of measuring from the lowest natural point may not be practical.

Commissioner Tom Menser, who is an architect, said Prescott's restrictions are unique among communities in which he has worked.

"I've never seen one that measures from the low side of the house only," Menser said.

Other commissioners suggested that the city should begin its measurements from the finished low point, rather than the natural grade. Commissioner Len Scamardo, for instance, said measuring from the finished grade would be more logical because that is what people will see from below.

But Bill Williamson, the president of the Summit Pointe homeowners group, urged the commission to look into all aspects of the situation before coming to any conclusions.

"My suggestion, when you look at this, is do research, research, research, and more research," Williamson said.

He suggested reviewing the codes of other mountain communities, such as Boulder, Colo.

According to Williamson, the commission should also consider the question, "Are there some lots that are not buildable?"

Added Williamson: "I would like to live in a community where each home that's built adds to the community, not subtracts from it."

Whatever the city decides to do with its height restrictions, said local architect Herb Kaiser, "let's keep it simple."

The commission agreed that the workshop on the matter should include comments from local designers and builders.