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A density bonus is not a coupon good for one free subdivision unit or money kicked back for building up a vacant lot - although some may see it that way.

It's not necessarily a bad thing.However, at least two council members have complained about density bonus requests in recent City Council meetings, and it's a common topic of hot debate in the council chambers.

"I'm against granting density bonuses anyway unless there's a real hardship," said Councilman Timothy Christensen as the council dealt with a project known as Hill Haven.

"I also have a tough time with density bonuses," said Councilman Stephen Sandstrom, adding that the purpose of offering a bonus in exchange for an amenity needs to be tailor-made to a situation.

A density bonus is a city's way of trying to balance the scales when it requires a developer to spend more money than he originally planned on a project, said Bob Moore, of the city's development services department.

Ideally, when a developer wants to offer an amenity or two to his clientele, the city can make it possible for him to do so and still meet his profit margin - by allowing extra units in the project.

The city wins because its residents get a better, more aesthetically pleasing result, and the developer wins because he can still make money.

That's the theory. The problems come when differing ideas of what makes an amenity or a quality project bump up against other opinions.

The amenity can be as elaborate as a swimming pool or as simple as planting an extra row of trees. Moore said the "list" can stretch with the imagination and, in fact, is best if tailored to a specific project as part of a total package.

"We really don't like to use a list," said Moore, "because then we get developers who come in as if it's a checklist and say, `See, we did this and this and this, so we get a bonus.' "

Too often, the picture of what constitutes a density bonus is vague in a city official's mind or differs sharply from the vision the developer can shape within his budget.

The city holds a bond from a developer to ensure the amenities promised are delivered, but sometimes what looks like an amenity turns out to be a liability - such as a pool for a complex with lots of small children. Other times, what seems nonessential turns out to lessen a project's overall impact on the city.

Whenever a project gets a density bonus, it must be approved by the City Council after it has passed through the Planning Commission.

"Density bonuses are not new; they've been around 20 years or more in Orem," said Moore. "The whole purpose behind it is to recognize the need to compensate those who spend the extra money to build a good project."

But it's not uncommon for a council to start feeling pressured by developers who want them to guarantee a profit after they've purchased expensive land.

When a council begins to feel bombarded with density bonus requests, it's time "to come back and revisit" the ordinance, Moore said.

In Orem's case, the density allowances were all increased three to four years ago, allowing builders to build more units per acre without having to ask for extra units. That cut down on requests for a time, but the increased growth and inflated prices have brought developers back to the council for more.

Right now, about 15 to 20 percent of all requests for development want a density bonus. In addition, Orem is looking at relatively little land left for development.

"The farmers are making more money by planting asphalt," he said.

"There are so many requests, and the council is not comfortable with density bonuses," said Moore. "We're going to be looking at the ordinance again here in a little while."