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Mills River retreats on affordable housing

Mills River Town Manager Jeff Wells points to an area of the town that might be suitable for higher density housing. Mills River Town Manager Jeff Wells points to an area of the town that might be suitable for higher density housing.

MILLS RIVER — Taking a tentative step toward higher density housing, the Mills River Town Board last week looked at a “middle ground” land-use proposal that would allow developments of quarter-acre lots for the first time.

With a few exceptions, the town’s zoning ordinance requires homes to be on lots that are three-quarters of acre or larger. The topic of affordable housing — and the council’s slow walk in that area —has highlighted the tension between the community’s fundamental desire to preserve its farming character and the need for lower cost housing for hundreds of workers who have found jobs in the town’s booming industrial base.
New Town Manager Jeff Wells prefaced his presentation on the topic last week by reminding council members that he had inherited the pending multifamily housing proposal when he came into the job, and that Mayor Larry Freeman had described it as a priority.
“One thing that became pretty clear to me is you’d been talking about housing in general and most specifically multifamily housing, affordable housing, workforce housing for a good long while and not really reaching any consensus,” he said.
Wells’ recommendation dramatically scaled back the 10-unit-per-acre multifamily zone that the Planning Board had proposed last fall after a 19-month study.
“Ten units per acre,” Wells said, “was completely out of context with what’s here in Mills River. I can’t think of any development in Mills River of that density. It just wasn’t right for Mills River at this time. Maybe at some time it will be but right now it’s not.”

The higher density housing would be allowed in the MR-30, MR-MU and MR-NC zoning districts and only outside the boundary that protects the Mills River watershed and covers about two-thirds of the town’s 22½-square-mile footprint. Each development would require a council-approved special-use permit and would have to be served by public water and sewer.
At three units per acres, the zoning would require:

• 15,000-square-foot minimum lots.

• Minimum lot width of 85 feet and maximum structure height of 35 feet.

• Minimum setbacks of 35 feet front, 10 feet side and 25 feet rear.

At four units per acre, the zoning would require:

• 10,000-square-foot minimum lots.

• Minimum lot width of 80 feet and maximum structure height of 35 feet.

• Minimum setbacks of 30 feet front, 10 feet side and 25 feet rear plus a 50-foot perimeter buffer around the development.

• Open space of 20 percent of the total acreage.

• Curb and guttering of streets.

Wells acknowledged that houses on quarter-acre lots probably could still be priced higher than working families could afford.

“I don’t think unless you do multifamily housing that you’re ever going to get down to that range (of monthly rent) that people have in mind,” he said.
Because of the watershed restrictions, the amount of land now served by public water and sewer and the town’s desire to preserve manufacturing zones for industry, the new higher density zone would be available on only a fraction of the town’s area — most likely between N.C. 280 and Glenn C. Marlow Elementary School.
Councilman Roger Snyder asked whether the higher density zoning would result in affordable housing.
“I’m not an expert but I can tell you what I think,” Wells said. “I don’t think it will be.”
“It would be possible to do some $200,000 (homes),” said Councilman Shanon Gonce, who is in the construction business. “I just don’t know that the quality would be there.”
The council is not expected to take up the proposed land-use category until after it adopts a 2015-16 budget. The change in the land development code would require a public hearing.