Sun Valley leaders took the first formal step last week toward making changes to city code that would allow limited development on steep areas of some uneven or hillside lots.
City Council members voted 4-0 on Thursday, Oct. 7, to approve the first reading of the revised “hillside ordinance,” a set of regulations that has prohibited development on or encroachment into land areas with 25% slope or greater. To change the code, the City Council must approve and conduct three readings of the revised ordinance.
The vote came after the City Council delayed taking action in two previous meetings to have the Community Development Department make additional revisions to the proposed rule.
The changes suggested by Community Development Director Brittany Skelton would allow the city—either through review by planning staff or, in some required cases, the Planning and Zoning Commission—to approve small-scale encroachment into parts of lots that exceed 25% in grade.
If the amendments to the code are fully approved by the City Council, the city would have the ability to approve the encroachments in limited cases if the development is in line with the “intent and purpose” of the city’s existing hillside development regulations. The stated goals of the existing regulations include “protecting natural landmarks and prominent natural features of hillsides, ridges … and the natural skyline,” as well as “directing development to areas of least slope on hillside property.”
The primary reason for the proposed changes is to create an administrative review and approval process for the limited encroachments onto steep slopes, instead of the city having to review and grant code variance requests from landowners to permit what it deems to be reasonable development. Some approved variances have been for driveways and to allow safe and effective access for emergency vehicles. Others have allowed a residence to encroach into an undulation on a lot.
The number of requests for variances to the prohibition on development on grades higher than 25% has soared in 2021, city staff have stated. The city should allow an easier way for approval of minor encroachments than requiring a variance, Skelton has said.
There are about 150 vacant, legal lots in the city, many of them featuring slopes.
The city’s hillside regulations have been credited with preserving pristine views and the natural features of hillsides and other prominent land areas. As in previous meetings, Skelton told the City Council that the proposed amendments to city code do not guarantee a right to encroach onto steeper slopes and are not intended to allow development “creep” farther up hillsides and more into view.
Recent revisions to the new ordinance explicitly state those intentions, Skelton said.
“The intent of these proposed exemptions for encroachments in the 25% slope are not a given, they’re not by right, they’re not an entitlement,” she said.
The intent of the existing ordinance would not be diminished, Skelton said.
“These are not intended to be loopholes or used as such,” she said.
Councilman Keith Saks said he is concerned about whether future city planners or P&Z commissioners would have the same interpretation of the intent of the hillside regulations and what degree of encroachment would be appropriate.
“We don’t know in the future who will be making these decisions,” Saks said.
After the meeting, Saks said he has asked that a revised version of the ordinance for consideration of a second reading by the City Council include a notice and review process in which affected neighbors can express their concerns.
Councilman Brad DuFur said his initial reaction to potentially changing the hillside ordinance was “not to touch it,” but when he read the amendments, they made sense to him.
“I’ve been here for 30 years,” he said. “The last thing I want to see is buildings going higher on the hillside.”