Steamboat Springs Boulder Architect Eric Smith said Wednesday he believes a moratorium on major development permit submittals invoked by Steamboat Springs City Council Tuesday night could have a significant impact on next summer's construction season.
Although he is based in Boulder, Smith's architectural firm does 85 percent of its business in Steamboat. And it's safe to say that no single firm has brought more multi-family housing projects and commercial buildings through the city permit process in the last three years than Smith's.
Within 18 hours of City Council's unanimous vote, Smith said he had advised three architects in his firm that their jobs could be jeopardized. He also sent letters to 10 clients who were working toward submitting documents for major development permits in the city of Steamboat, to let them know what had happened.
"It's tough. I sympathize with planning staff," Smith said. "But this is pretty extreme."
Smith said it currently takes six to eight months for a major development to work its way through the city planning process. Once that is accomplished, he must still build in time for creation of detailed construction documents leading to the building permit process and bidding the project.
The city's 90-day moratorium definitely has the potential to impact projects scheduled for construction in the spring, Smith said. Clients who hoped to begin building in April need to be entering the process now, he said.
"It takes so long, we're telling clients they need to be hurrying now," Smith said. His firm had just completed documents and site plans for the new Ski Haus building at the corner of U.S. 40 and Pine Grove Road, Smith said, adding that he had planned to deliver them to city hall on Thursday. The moratorium suspends those plans.
Planning functions uncertain
City Planning Director Wendie Schulenburg said Wednesday some of the details of how the moratorium will be put into effect have yet to be worked out. The moratorium was precipitated by the resignation of city planner Kathleen Easley. Her departure in two weeks (she will take vacation next week, so she'll actually only work one more week) will leave the city with three planners in addition to Schulenburg. Only two of the three have consistently handled major development permits. Easley and city planner Scott Woodford has been handling the majority of the major permits this year.
Schulenburg plans to consult with City Council on Aug. 1 about how projects in the pre-application phase, or conceptual phase, of the city planning process will be impacted by the moratorium. The city also wants to take a close look at whether or not affordable housing projects will be included in the moratorium, Schulenburg said.
"This is a work in progress," Schulenburg said. She added that the city must still decide how it will handle developers who might come in the front door with major development permit submittals during the moratorium. It isn't clear if the city will log their projects in the order they arrive, or whether developers will be asked to come back on Oct. 19, when the moratorium is scheduled to expire.
"I would be concerned about accepting an application and putting it on the shelf for three months," Schulenburg said.
Seven development projects are currently waiting to be assigned a staff planner, and of that number, two are seeking major development permits: Copper Ridge Business Park filing 4, submitted July 7, and a project called "Blackhawk," which was submitted July 17. Those developments made it under the wire before the moratorium, Schulenburg said.
Schulenburg, who has worked as a municipal planner in the states of Washington and California, said she has never worked in a city before that put a moratorium in place. In other cities, Schulenburg said, the planning department has been able to hire consultants to make up staff shortages and bill the consultant's fees directly to the developers.
Steamboat does not have a fee structure in place that would permit that, Schulenburg said. Nor does it have access to the base of consulting firms that would be available in more densely populated regions of the country.
Planning commissioner supportive
Shelley Pastachak, chairwoman of the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission, said she fully supports the planning staff if they feel the moratorium is necessary. But she wouldn't support the stop for any longer than 90 days.
"I think it seems like a drastic measure, given what we've been through during the last two years," Pastachak said. She explained that during a five-month period in the last two years, the city continued processing major development permits although it did not have either a planning director or an assistant planning director.
"I really hope they've thought through the unintended consequences," Pastachak said. "I seriously don't think it is going to devastate too many people, as long as (this is) not just the beginning."
Pastachak said Planning Commission will benefit from the moratorium, if giving the planning staff time to hire and train additional personnel results in reports on development permits that are more thorough. She praised the work of Easley.
"To replace her will be a pretty big impact," Pastachak said.
Developers could take big hit
Developer Byron Chrisman, who recently contracted to sell just under eight acres on the city's west side to the Target Corp., is concerned about the impact the moratorium could have that sale and on other developers who have large sums of money invested in their projects.
"It's just crazy," Chrisman said. "I don't think it's appropriate to play with people's lives this way, with millions of dollars at stake."
Chrisman, who brought the Curve Development commercial subdivision through the planning process, believes the city should continue processing major development permits at a pace it can handle, rather than imposing a moratorium.
"They should at least say, 'We'll take them and put them in line and do what we can do as quickly as we can do it,'" Chrisman said.
Chrisman pointed out that delays cost developers money simply because of the carrying costs of undeveloped land. For purposes of discussion, Chrisman said, assume his deal with Target was worth $2.5 million. And even if his carrying costs for debt service or property taxes was worth just 1 percent, he could stand to lose $25,000 for every month's delay.
Smith said he believes the city needs to do some real soul-searching about the reasons for the high rate of turnover in the planning department.
"It's really critical in my mind to have some consistency of staff carry through in planning," Smith said. Without veteran staffers who have the benefit of perspective, Smith said, developers must constantly adjust to new interpretations of the city code.
Smith also cautioned the city should carefully consider the impact the moratorium could have on the local economy if it slows construction next summer.
"It could have a bigger impact on the economy than they realize," Smith said. "It could affect use taxes and sales taxes."
To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org