Aura Development and Rezone
History, Background, and Lessons Learned
Friends of Flagstaff’s Future (F3)
The Aura Development and Rezone project was both complex and unusual in nature. It holds important lessons for F3, our elected officials, and the community of Flagstaff. The project is a case study in competing values. Council had to deal with how the values of fairness, affordability, housing density, neighborhood character, and commitment to the Regional Plan can conflict with each other. We hope this examination of the Aura Project will inform our members and the Flagstaff community about the difficulties of the rezoning process while providing some suggestions for dealing with future rezones for dense development.
The Aura apartment project, located at 151 W. High Country Trail (just off of Lake Mary Road) is a project by Trinsic Acquisition Company LLC (Trinsic) (see Map 1). The property is currently owned by Auza Flagstaff LLC (Auza). The council on July 6, 2021 gave approval for the requested rezone from Estate Residential (ER) to Medium Density Residential (MR) allowing the project to proceed.
The 11-acre parcel for the Aura project is divided by High Country Trail, resulting in two acres located north of the road, and nine acres south of the road (see Map 2). The parcel is also encumbered by an electric utility easement for an existing transmission line adjacent to the south side of the roadway; no structures can be built in this electrical easement. In addition, the current owner, Auza, insists that the two acres north of High Country Trail be for their sole use, even though it is part of the sale to Trinsic. Due to these limitations, all of the proposed 2 and 3-story apartment buildings are pushed to the south end of the property on the south side of High Country Trail.
The 11-acre parcel is part of a larger tract of land also owned by Auza and lying north and west of the 2-acre parcel North of High Country Trail. A single family residence is currently the only home on the Auza property. It currently encroaches slightly on to the 11-acre parcel being considered for development. Aura is adjacent on two sides to Ponderosa Trails, a single family home subdivision. There are Medium Density and High Density apartment complexes near AURA on High Country Trails and Lake Mary Road. Residents of the single family homes in Ponderosa Trails objected to the density of the project, while affordable housing advocates supported it.
The Zoning Code, Density Bonuses, and the 2030 Flagstaff Regional Plan
In the Flagstaff Zoning Code, ER zoning allows for one unit per acre while the MR zone allows for six to nine units per acre in accordance with the RPO (Resource Protection Area).
The City allows for density bonuses for developments that provide affordable housing and implement sustainable building practices. Per Arizona state law, cities cannot require either affordable housing or sustainable building practices in private developments. Thus, incentives in the form of density bonuses are one of the few ways Flagstaff can get affordable housing and sustainability in our community.
The Aura parcel is 11 acres, which at the maximum allowance for MR zoning, allows for 99 units to be built. With the application of a 20% affordable housing bonus, the developer originally proposed to provide 20 units of affordable housing at 80% AMI* for a 30 year span of time. As a result, the developer received a density bonus of 45 additional units. By agreeing to meet the sustainability standard, the developer was allowed 25 more units, leading to a total allowable density of 169 units (99 units + 45 units + 25 units).
The developer originally proposed to build 160 units. This results in a density of 14.5 units per acre on the 11 acres. If you were to look at the 9 acres actually available to the developer for this project (not including the 2 acres located north of the road) the density is 17.8 units per acre.
In the 2030 Flagstaff Regional Plan, this 11-acre parcel is considered “Suburban” and allowed a maximum density of 13 units per acre.
The Project History
Other proposals and modifications for the Aura apartment complex have been presented to City staff, the City Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), and City Council dating back to 2019. Trinsic submitted a plan for a larger project (with more units) in the same location as the current project but including more of the Auza tract in May, 2019 that City staff and P&Z denied. At that time, Trinsic did not proceed to Council. The revised 160 unit project was submitted to the City Council on June 1, 2021 with City staff approval but P&Z denial.
As stated, initially the development included 160 units with 20 affordable housing units (at 80% AMI for 30 years) and sustainability features. The Council expressed objections to the project in their June 1, 2021 Council meeting because of the two-acre set-aside for the seller north of High Country Trail and the perceived high density of units in spite of the calculated density of the project. At this June meeting, Council approved the rezoning proposal in the First Read (two reads are required at different meetings for approval) with the added amendment that the two acres located north of High Country Trail not be included in the density calculation for the project. Instead, the density calculation and density bonus would be based on the acreage of the southern nine acres of the parcel only. This resulted in the amendment specifying that only 137 units could be built by the developer on this parcel and fewer affordable units.
Trinsic did not comply with the council demands and instead, at the Second Read on July 6, 2021 they had a revised proposal that maintained their 160 units but now included 12 additional affordable units for a total of 32 affordable housing units (20 units available at 80% AMI and 12 units at 70% AMI). All affordable housing units would remain for a period of 60 years after the units are placed into service (Final Aura Development Agreement, June 23, 2021).This was presented to Council in the form of a proposed revised Development Agreement. Council withdrew their proposal demanding 137 units and approved the revised Aura Project at the Second Read.
Summary of F3’s Concerns
Friends of Flagstaff’s Future reviewed all project documents, conducted a site visit to the parcel and met with many of the people involved including City Council members, staff, affordable housing advocates, and a member of the Ponderosa Trails Homeowners Association. F3 recognizes the affordable housing and sustainability goals featured in the Aura apartment complex. We recognize that one – and two-bedroom apartments are very much needed in Flagstaff, and the 32 affordable units proposed for this project would assist Flagstaff in addressing our Affordable Housing Emergency.
F3’s concerns included the long-term consequences for future rezonings of approving what is, in actuality, a high density development built on property that would be rezoned as medium density residential. According to the Aura Zoning Map Amendment Staff Report (November 24, 2020), the perceived experience would be 17.8 units per acre if 160 units are built on the southern nine acres. The end result is that the developer was proposing to build what is essentially a high density apartment complex in designated Existing Suburban outside of an activity center. This is not in line with our Regional Plan.
F3 was also concerned that the two acres of the parcel located on the north side of High Country Trail were being used for the density calculations (thus increasing the allowable density of units) while remaining in the seller’s “possession.” City staff did not raise concerns about the two acres in their report to the Council in 2021, however, when the larger Aura Project was presented to P&Z in 2019, City staff were very concerned about a larger area on the north side of High Country being set aside for the sole use of the occupant of the single family dwelling.
The revised Trinsic project plan of 2021 no longer included the acreage encompassing the existing house, but the house does encroach onto the two-acre parcel used for density calculations for the Aura project and this acreage was still to be for the sole use of the current owner (rather than for use by Aura residents) with restrictions on development. The two-acre parcel was also used to meet the majority of the tree protection requirements for the Aura project, thereby grouping trees to the north of High Country Trail rather than providing dispersed trees near the buildings.
F3 examined this situation closely and felt that this was a de-facto split of the property that allowed the current owner to retain all use of the property while allowing the two acres to be used by the developer for density calculation and resource protection requirements.
Many on Council felt the need to reverse themselves at the Second Read in July because of the increase in affordable housing units provided by the Aura project and the need within Flagstaff for one- and two- bedroom apartments. It is clear to F3 that rezonings are often a subjective process that are dependent on what decision-makers value at any given time. While we recognize that circumstances can shift and Flagstaff’s Regional Plan needs to accommodate reasonable changes, F3 believes that the Regional Plan is an important public document that should not be modified easily or often. Any decision that requires a modification of the Regional Plan must be carefully and thoroughly vetted with the public and a strong case must be made for any modifications in the plan.
In addition, while we appreciate and support the efforts of affordable housing activists in our community some of those supporters referred to the objecting neighbors and others who had concerns about this project as NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard). F3 objects to the term NIMBY. The neighbor’s voices are as legitimate as any other concerned citizens and should not be denigrated. City staff made it clear to F3 that the neighbor’s comments were important and, in the end, made for a better project in the final proposal because Aura responded to their concerns and revised the project to address some of them.
What are the lessons learned?
F3 understands that it’s difficult when community values are in conflict. But, F3 believes we should respect the intent of the Regional Plan that our community voted for and depends on. The Regional Plan ensures transparency in decision making. There is a process for amending it when necessary and that process ought to be followed.
As our community will soon start the slow process of updating our Regional Plan for the next 10-year timeframe, we will be faced with the need to balance density, affordability, sustainability and other values. These values are not necessarily in conflict, but honoring them will require that we have a carefully crafted Regional Plan that can guide us through challenging conversations. Developers will do what they can to achieve their goals; F3 and the citizens of Flagstaff must be able to ensure that our community values are safeguarded now and into the future.
F3 believes there are a number of issues that Council, Staff, and the public should be discussing in this regard:
- Should a “Major Plan Amendment” be required when density bonuses, given through the zoning process, exceed what the Regional Plan designation of a property allows (in this case, Suburban density in our current Regional Plan should not exceed 13%)?
- When there are encroachments onto properties slated for development, should these be resolved first by the lot split process to create the required setbacks?
- Should density bonuses continue to be unlimited as they currently are in Flagstaff? Some communities require a bonus limit of 35%. What would be an appropriate limit for Flagstaff especially given our great need for affordable housing? Such limits could be clearly spelled out in our zoning code. (This project was given a 70% bonus.)
- Should separate parcels, or portions of a parcel, proposed for development be retained by another party, by split or easement and be allowed to be used for calculating required Tree Resource Protection, Open Space and Density requirements?
Many of the legitimate concerns of the Council, neighbors, and Friends of Flagstaff’s Future raised during this rezoning process were the same as those raised by City staff during the 2019 rezoning process for the 2019 version of the Aura project. These issues should have been dealt with before bringing this project back to the Council. F3 is not convinced that the Aura project met the findings required for approval. F3 looks forward to strengthening the Regional Plan in light of the Aura development and rezone.
We welcome your questions and comments. Please email your feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org
*According to HUD (Housing and Urban Development), 80% Area Median Income (AMI) for Flagstaff in 2021 is $55,350 for a three person household (City of Flagstaff Housing Section, document dated 4/13/2021, available at https://www.flagstaffaz.gov/4372/Housing-Section). The exact figure for 70% AMI is not known however, the Arizona Department of Housing defines 60% AMI for Flagstaff as $41,520 for a three person household in 2021 (https://www.flagstaffaz.gov/4372/Housing-Section).
Map 1: Aura Site Plan (City staff presentation, April 6, 2021)
Map 2: Area Context, Aura Project Parcel (City staff presentation, April 6, 2021)