Warrenton CBD

The Warrenton Planning Commission rejected a proposal to increase the residential density -- from 25 units per acre to 50 units per acre -- in Warrenton's Central Business District (CBD).

The Warrenton Planning Commission voted down a proposal Tuesday that would have allowed property owners to double the number of apartments per acre within the Central Business District.

During the commission’s Aug. 16 meeting, commissioners were split 3-3 on a proposal to amend the zoning ordinance, allowing for increased residential density – from 25 per acre to 50 per acre – between S. 5th to Diagonal streets and John E. Mann to E Franklin streets with a special-use permit.

The motion to adopt the amendment failed because there was not a majority.

During the meeting, Chris Mothersead, who was the former director of planning and development for the town of Warrenton, spoke to the commission on behalf of the applicant Malcolm Alls, the owner of Alls Real Estate. Previously, Mothersead had come before the council with the same proposal in November 2021 and again in January.

Mothersead told commissioners the primary reason for the text amendment was because the pandemic had contributed to a rapid decline in retail sales and office employment over the last few years, resulting in increased office vacancy rates.

Consequently, he said property owners have had difficulty paying their debts, especially for older buildings located in the town's historic district.

“The loss of office rent for 3-5 offices in the upper floors means 40% decline or more in income with its resultant loss in sales tax, BPOL tax and increased difficulty in paying real estate tax,” Mothersead said in his statement of justification.

According to Mothersead, the text amendment would have helped alleviate the financial strain on property owners downtown by allowing for more mixed-use development in which the ground floors would remain retail, and the upper floors of buildings become residential.

“The new density allows for better use of the building and the upper floors and provides for the financial support of the buildings,” Mothersead told commissioners Tuesday. “The alternative ... is deterioration and potential demolition, especially for historic structures ... ”

Following Mothersead’s presentation Tuesday, commissioners Ryan Stewart, Ali Zarabi and Steve Ainsworth, who voted in favor of the proposal, said they thought the idea would be a “great opportunity” for property owners.

Commissioners Susan Rae Helander, James Lawrence and Gerald Johnston, who voted against the amendment, cited various reasons for why they were against the proposal. But they said their main concern was about whether Warrenton’s infrastructure -- such as parking, water and sewer and traffic -- would be able to accommodate the increased number of people who would move downtown.

“And I'm just afraid if we let everything come in without addressing the infrastructure, we're gonna have a mess here,” Johnston said. “And I would like to see a little bit more controlled growth.”

Mothersead said in the statement of justification that if the amendment passed, approximately 105 units would be added, and the estimated added population would be between 189-262 people.

Furthermore, he noted in the justification that the average 1-2 bedroom apartment would generally contain two residents producing about 120-180 gallons per day (60-80 gal/person).

“This is a 2-3 fold increase or, as applied to the assumed residential growth on Main Street, about 19,500 gallons per day for the entire area,” Mothersead said. “The Public Works Department of Warrenton has indicated that such impacts would be easily accommodated in the existing sewer and water systems.”

Lawrence, who is vice chair of the commission, expressed concern about the availability of affordable housing downtown and accused the applicant of not making an effort to address the issue adequately.

“The applicant has had a really long time of kicking this around with the town, and each meeting we've expressed this concern,” he said. “And each time the applicants come back without addressing it.”

Mothersead noted in the justification that the apartments would “tend to be 1 or 2 bedroom units that rent for $1200-1500 per month. Such units are affordable in relation to the housing stock and appeal to single occupancy, couples and millennials.”

However, Lawrence rebuked the notion that $1,200-$1,500 a month for a 1-2 bedroom apartment qualified as affordable in Warrenton.

“I think it's the first thing you look for when you increase density, you say, ‘Are they setting aside any affordable housing?’ And I think the repeated refusal to work on that and instead ask us to work on it – when we've been repeatedly saying that's our concern here – to me, it's a mistake on your part to not address the affordable housing,” Lawrence said. “And it's disappointing.”

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