City looking to tighten application process

Reacting to outcome of Criste lawsuit, Steamboat's planning and zoning processes may become more stringent

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— The city of Steamboat Springs is reviewing the way it scrutinizes and processes building permit applications in the wake of a judge's ruling against the city last week.

City Attorney Tony Lettunich has put the development community and owner/contractors on notice that the city will have to become more rigid in the way it handles permit applications.

On May 31, District Court Judge Richard Doucette found the city at fault in its dispute with local chiropractor David Criste. Essentially, the judge said that although documents filed by Criste for a building permit to add onto his building on Oak Street were ambiguous, the city planning department should have caught the discrepancies before signing off on the permit.

Doucette's ruling in the mutual lawsuits between Criste and the city did not result in a financial reward. Instead, it meant the city must give Criste a certificate of occupancy. For his part, Criste will be required to complete promised improvements to the building's exterior.

In its suit, the city was seeking to make Criste modify his building addition to conform to his original development permit, which could have required him to tear down the second-story addition. That will not happen.

The Criste case is not over, however. He still has a suit pending in U.S. District Court in Denver, alleging his civil rights were violated by the city, and seeking unspecified monetary damages.

Lettunich made it clear this week that the city needs to apply the judge's ruling to the way it reviews applications, and not just building permit applications. A committee of city staffers from the legal department, city manager's office, planning and public works, along with the regional building department, are studying Doucette's ruling and what it means for their day-to-day work.

"The judge criticized the scrutiny given to building permit applications by the staff. The burden is on the city now, not on the applicants," Lettunich told City Council Tuesday. "The burden is on the city to catch any mistakes."

Lettunich predicted that review of applications would take more time in the future and therefore be more expensive. He said the city may want to consider increasing permit fees to cover that additional cost.

Lettunich said the net effect of Doucette's ruling could also mean more paperwork for developers and higher expectations of that paperwork by the city.

For example, Lettunich said in Criste's case, where he was seeking to add a second story onto his existing building, city staff in 1995 experienced some confusion about site plan drawings: which ones were for the addition and which were for the old building. That confusion contributed to the outcome of last week's lawsuit, Lettunich said.

"What this means is, there's going to be site plans rejected and sent back for being incomplete," Lettunich predicted. "Until you get it complete, it's going to be rejected. Now, the process is going to have to be a little more formal."

Lettunich said he interpreted Doucette's ruling to mean that, had the city not made the fateful decision to rescind a "stop-work order" imposed on the project back in August 1996, the judge might well have left it in place, and the outcome of the civil case might have been different.

City Councilman Ken Brenner said he thinks if the city responds correctly, it can strengthen its position in the future.

"In my view, this is a call to action," Brenner said. "If we don't perform, if we don't do the scrutiny, then we will live with nonconforming use, but if we do, we could be in in a stronger position than before."

Lettunich reacted by saying the judge's message was that the city has to move more aggressively in its enforcement of planning and zoning regulations, and not in a "noncommittal way."

Councilman Bud Romberg said if the city development process becomes more difficult to work through, the Criste case will have played a role.

"The development community can thank Mr. Criste for whatever increased stringency there is in the process," Romberg said.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210, or e-mail tomross@amigo.net

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