Impact fees debate sparks suit

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— The petitioners attempting to force impact fees to a vote won't take no for an answer.

Thirty days after the city denied their petition asking the city to repeal the fees or bring them to a vote, the five petitioners filed suit against the city in district court Thursday to have that decision overturned.

The petitioners are not looking for monetary damages from the city but are hoping to have their efforts validated by the court and force either a city-wide vote or a repeal of the fees.

They will have to serve each of the council members individually, as well as the city manager and city clerk.

The fees, which are charged to new development and cover the city's capital costs caused by new development, were approved by the City Council on June 19 and did not legally need to go to a city-wide vote.

The petitioners argued that the fees are not necessarily justified and should go to a vote of the people, given their importance and cost to the Steamboat community.

The fees are charged on all new development, costing the builder of a new single-family detached home about $4,000.

The city, however, claims the fees are easily justified and long overdue.

City Council members say that without them the city has been subsidizing growth by paying for new capital expenditures created by growth out of its general fund. Many other jurisdictions in Colorado also have impact fees, city officials note.

Beyond the debate over the merits of impact fees, however, the suit deals with a conflict between the city charter and the state constitution about how many signatures are needed to force a vote on a referendum.

The petitioners' argument hinges on a discrepancy between the city charter and the state constitution in terms of how many signatures each requires to force a vote on an issue through the referendum process.

The charter demands 20 percent of the registered voters at the last municipal election sign, while the constitution asks for "no more than 10 percent" of voters. Because the petitioners had 889 signatures out of an electorate of 7,980, they fell between the 10 and 20 percent requirements and triggered the debate.

"The facts are pretty much undisputed. It's just a legal issue whether it's 10 percent or 20 percent," said Attorney Bob Weiss, who is representing the petitioners.

City Attorney Tony Lettunich said the constitution allows the city broad powers through its city charter in determining the rules of referendum.

He said he thinks the conflict is actually between two sections in the constitution one empowering home-rule cities to determine residents' referendum powers, and one saying the petitioners only need 10 percent of the electors to sign.

"As an elected public official who took an oath to uphold the city charter, I don't think I have a choice," said City Council President Pro Tem Kathy Connell.

The petitioners, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, claim the constitution should take precedence and that the city's requirement is unconstitutional.

Weiss notes that city officials have claimed publicly that the matter can probably only be decided for certain in the courts.

"The bottom line is: let's just bring it to a vote," said Chris Klemz, one of the petitioners. "What are they scared of?"

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