City looks at development loopholes


— The newest buildings under construction at The Moraines, a townhome project at the corner of Steamboat Boulevard and Clubhouse Drive, offer a stark contrast to the finished townhome buildings sitting next to them, approved and built a full 20 years ago.

The two groups of buildings are actually part of the same development, which began in 1979 and was left on hold before a new group of developers took over.

The original developers were able to halt construction on their development because they had completed phase one of the project and thereby had perpetual "vesting" on their proposed development. Once a developer completes phase one of his development, the approval of his permit becomes permanently vested, meaning he can build the remaining buildings when he deems it appropriate or, as might have occurred with The Moraines project if new developers hadn't picked up the ball, never finish the development at all.

Projects approved by the city are often approved to be built in different phases, the first of which often includes at least the first residential building and the amenities included in the project (such as a swimming pool). To become permanently vested, a project needs only to complete phase one within two years of getting a development permit.

The Moraines received its initial development permit in 1979, but the developers built only three of the 16 buildings approved plus a swimming pool and tennis courts. Last year, a new group of developers took over the project and, although they could have built the development based on the old plans, decided to go to the city to change the permit.

In accordance with changes in the market, the developers decided to reduce the number of units available, making the units larger in the process.

The original permit would have allowed for 68 units on the parcel, a density the city would not likely have approved under current conditions. In fact, when The Moraines went back to the city to attempt to lower that number to 58 units, the city still felt the development would be too dense.

Planner Scott Woodford said The Moraines is one manifestation of what the planning department feels is a problem with phasing and vesting rights in the current Community Development Code. Once phase one is complete, the city can do nothing about the remaining phases, even if the City Council had anticipated seeing the entire development when it first approved the site plans. Although The Moraines did end up going before the City Council to try to change its permit, it could have simply built the townhomes based on standards set more than 20 years ago.

The ability to build based on old standards gives the developers a "bargaining chip," according to both the consultants and the city planners. If the developers want to be approved for a new application that differs from the old one but may in fact be more desirable to the city, the developer can threaten the city with building a development based on old standards if the city does not approve the permit for a new development.

As the city's consultants noted in a position paper, the goals of the community may have changed in the interim between a project's approval and its actual construction.

"It's an issue when we find a project that's no longer in conformity with the city's community plans," said Planner Tracey Hughes, "or the building climate has changed and it may not seem to be as appropriate as it once was."

Although the new requirements for phasing and vesting in the new CD Code have not yet been nailed down, they will likely become somewhat more rigorous, Planning Director Wendie Schulenberg said.

The new code will likely include a limit on the length of time a project can be vested, Schulenberg said.

Developers who have been able to adjust their building schedules, however, may find the new rules restrictive.

"To the residents of Steamboat Springs, I suspect it is desirable to not vest properties indefinitely," said Douglas Speirn-Smith, one of the developers of The Moraines. "But from a developer's point of view, it's nice to know that if you start your development and proceed in a truly efficient fashion, you don't have to go back to the city when the rules change."

Phasing requirements, as well, will likely be altered in the new code. Under the current code, a development that has not completed its first phase after two years must conform only with the Community Plan to receive an extension on its permit. If the project is in compliance with the plan it can virtually receive an unlimited number of extensions.


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