Council to decide on Philip, Dixie plan

September 30, 2018

If you’re concerned about North Platte’s housing needs, you couldn’t pick a better meeting to follow than Tuesday night’s regular City Council meeting.

Four proposals to build or repair homes will monopolize the council’s agenda, headlined by the climactic decisions on the West Philip and Dixie housing development after six weeks of intense discussion.

The council’s meeting will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall, 211 W. Third St. It follows a week of adjustments to North Platte homebuilder Lonnie Parsons’ proposal and the release of preliminary findings from the first countywide housing study since 2010.

Regardless of the council’s decision on whether to build 37 homes — down from 41 — at West Philip and South Dixie avenues, the quantity and quality of North Platte’s housing stock will continue to demand public attention, several community leaders say.

“I think all of us have become far more cognizant of the challenges of bringing housing into the community (and) realize more flexibility is necessary,” said Gary Person, president and chief executive officer of the North Platte Area Chamber and Development Corp.

For the past six weeks, the West Philip and Dixie project has commanded the community’s attention.

It would fill an 8-acre tract that sat empty as sizable newer homes on larger lots surrounded it. At least three other housing plans have been offered since Parkview Community Church of the Nazarene scrapped plans to build a new church there. It instead moved in 2008 into the former Elks Lodge hall across from Cody Park.

Parsons’ proposal targets one highly publicized aspect of North Platte’s housing shortage: newer but smaller and somewhat less expensive homes for young adults filling relatively well-paying jobs.

He’s seeking $1.688 million in tax increment financing to have a chance to eventually recover the site’s purchase price and the cost of installing streets, sidewalks and utilities. The North Platte Area Chamber and Development Corp. has approved construction incentives for Parsons’ first 27 homes under Phase II of the public-private Shot in the Arm program.

North Platte’s and Lincoln County’s combined effective sales-rental vacancy rate stands at about 3.4 percent, half the rate for a healthy housing market, according to the nearly finished housing study by Marvin Planning Consultants of David City.

Several major employers, most notably Great Plains Health, have said for months that promising young medical professionals have turned down jobs — or left jobs sooner than expected — out of frustration in finding high-quality starter housing they can afford.

“Are we going to make the changes that will make us grow as a community, or are we going to not change or change more slowly?” said Brandon Kelliher, a North Platte native and GPH chief information officer.

Dancer Properties’ $11.5 million West Philip and Dixie project envisions single-family, three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes with attached garages. Parsons has said the homes would sell at and above $200,000.

But there would be more of them, on somewhat smaller lots and at somewhat cheaper prices, than in surrounding neighborhoods. That’s where much of the controversy lies.

Neighbors have repeatedly turned out in force to protest that Parsons’ plan crams too many homes into the space. In their minds, that means lower property values when they want to sell.

Tom Phifer, one of the most outspoken neighbors at public meetings, said he’s surrounded by veterans of both blue-collar and white-collar jobs who have worked their way up through several homes just as he and his wife, Mona, have done.

“To me, this is a ‘put your roots down and stay’ neighborhood,” said the 69-year-old retired Union Pacific conductor, who lives across Dixie from the would-be project site.

Neighbors also have been frustrated, said Phifer and fellow U.P. retiree Terry Sigler, that project details have dribbled out — rather than being presented in detail in public testimony — since its debut at the Aug. 22 CRA meeting.

Parsons has spoken relatively little, preferring to respond to city leaders’ questions, as opponents urged the council in lengthy public hearings to defeat an ordinance changing the site’s zoning from low-density R-1 to the slightly more dense R-2.

Several modifications to Parsons’ plan were recommended at last week’s Planning Commission and CRA meetings, receiving at least tacit support from him and the site’s neighbors.

But council members Tuesday must first take their final vote on the rezoning. If they defeat it, the project dies there.

If they approve rezoning and vote to vacate the site’s current plat, council members will move on to a fourth and final public hearing. Besides Parsons’ TIF request, they’ll review the Planning Commission’s calls for four fewer lots, privacy fencing along West Philip Avenue and sidewalks throughout the tract, including the Dixie Avenue side.

The commission also informally decided Tuesday to ask City Engineer Tom Werblow to make widening of Dixie north of the tract a top priority in North Platte’s next one- and six-year road plan.

Neighbors, who successfully killed a paving district to widen Dixie some years ago, believe the paved but narrow street would pose dangers for motorists and children walking north to Eisenhower Elementary School.

But if the council approves the housing project, City Administrator Jim Hawks said, he would work to widen Dixie during the next year. It could be paid for with funds from a proposed half-cent sales tax increase for infrastructure — if voters approve that plan Nov. 6 — or by issuing revenue bonds.

“If that’s what we need to do, that’s what we need to do,” Hawks said.

Neighbors have been somewhat more subdued after the Planning Commission’s 6-2 vote last week to modify the project. They’re grateful for the changes but still think the plan has too many houses, Phifer and Sigler said.

“I’d like to have larger lots, but if that’s what the people want, that’s what they want,” said Sigler, 67, who has focused his public comments on safety concerns. “I think it’s going to be a real mess (for motorists) going out on Dixie.”

The Phifers lived near Sigler for years along West F Street. They built their current home on Dixie’s east side three years ago after his plans to build inside the empty tract under a previous housing plan fell apart, he said.

After six weeks of debate, the revised plan “could be worse,” he said. “But little things bother me.”

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