The Blaine County commissioners backed a new tax-break ordinance with a resolution on Tuesday ensuring that exemptions will only go toward what the board deemed the area’s greatest need: affordable housing.

The resolution put restrictions on the county’s adoption of a revamped state law giving the commissioners broad discretion to grant property-tax exemptions for commercial projects, including rental housing. The language limits consideration to “affordable rental housing projects located within Blaine County,” providing the board some direction as it weighs applications in the next month.

Those came in almost immediately after the county finalized its take on the state code just prior to the April 15 deadline to receive applications this year. The board has 30 days from the deadline to

decide on each in public hearings.

The state law took effect Jan. 1, 2018, dropping the investment required to qualify for an exemption from $2.5 million to $500,000, while opening up the invitation beyond heavy industry to “nonretail” uses, including so-called “commercial housing” developments maintaining five or more rentals. Counties can implement the measure as they see fit, with the commissioners deciding which projects qualify, for how much they’re exempt and for how long up to five years.

Counties can choose to add specific criteria, focus on certain areas or target certain industries, according to Commissioner Jacob Greenberg.

Though the board has the power to pull the exemption during the five-year window, it has no control over what becomes of the project after that time. If an affordable unit can command higher rents, or easily be renovated into a luxury one, all the developer needs is patience.

“The criteria should be, ‘Does this project provide lasting affordable housing?’” said Commissioner Angenie McCleary. “I’m fine with it being broad. Given our time frame, it’s the only viable solution I see right now.”

The resolution was unanimously approved.

“I think this lays out a template for us to work on,” Commissioner Dick Fosbury said. “It’s got all the tools we need. I think we can be transparent, and, even with a difference of opinion, we can accomplish our goal of providing some rental housing in Blaine County.”

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