Even while City Councilman Loui Antonucci was running for office almost two years ago, he heard complaints about the city's red tape that made everything from developing a subdivision to adding a sundeck a sticky proposition.
The complaints have only grown since.
On Tuesday, those concerns came to a head when a group of developers and builders aired their grievances to the City Council.
They complained about a complicated code that makes it too expensive and timely to do projects and a planning department that is not service-oriented.
When Tom Fox, the owner of one of the larger construction companies in town, spoke before the council, he said the codebook could be seen as either a book of obstacles or a book of opportunities.
"It has gotten to the point really where this book is a book of obstacles," Fox said.
He pointed to the conflicting demands made by the city's planning department and its public works department, and time and money spent changing plans to meet the needs of each.
Ed MacArthur, owner of Native Excavating, said that six or seven years ago, developers could walk into the planning department and feel welcomed, and if the planners did not feel their proposal was going to work, they helped find something that would.
"What we are told now is to go back, work with the plan, this doesn't meet our code," MacArthur said. "I think something needs to change."
The developers' concerns have been on the council's mind for a while. At its annual December retreat, the council put fixing the Community Development Code at the top of its list of goals.
"What is happening (is that) we are confronting difficult building sites, the code needs work and planning staff is trying to uphold the code," Antonucci said. "When you put all of that together, you have situations that get pretty heated."
Antonucci sees problems in three areas: the complexity of the code has caused frustrations, the planning director is not given enough discretion to approve smaller projects without requiring the time and expense of sending plans to the Planning Commission and council, and developers cannot track their plans as the documents move through different city departments.
The city's process has left some developers saying they will never do another project in Steamboat Springs again -- and some were people who had worked in the highly regulated environments of Aspen and Denver, Antonucci said.
After more than five years of public meetings and working groups, the City Council approved the Community Development Code in September 2001. The Planning Commission had made a commitment to review the code every six months.
The Planning Commission's next review is scheduled to begin Monday.
Assistant Planning Director Tim McHarg said the adopted code is much improved over the old one. Looking at 22 projects, McHarg said it took an average of five weeks longer to process plans under the old code. And, the updated code provides clearer direction on what is and is not allowed.
"We have a CDC that is infinitely more clear and specific than the old code," McHarg said. "The old code was completely nebulous about everything."
Under the old code, McHarg said most uses had to go through the planning process as conditional uses and negotiating played a large role in getting plans approved by the Planning Commission and council. Now, a property owner can look at the code and have clear direction for what can be built, McHarg said.
"Land-use regulation is just that, regulation. A lot of people get frustrated by the fact we occasionally have to say, no, that is not consistent with the code," McHarg said.
While the city sees the code as an improvement, Deputy City Manager Wendy DuBord conceded it is not perfect. The city had instituted a review process long before Tuesday's complaints, she said.
"There are problems none of us could foresee," DuBord said. "I don't think they are major really, minor things. They may be major to a couple of individual developers, but I don't think they are a huge problem."
DuBord also said those who spoke Tuesday night were a small percentage of the people who use the planning department. And part of the city's job is to represent those who don't come into the planning department: the majority of residents who want to see landscaping, sidewalks and high-quality development.
McHarg said while some developers might be looking at what will sell in the next quarter, the planner's job is to make sure the development will be sustainable 20, 30 or even 40 years from now.
"We are trying to think a little bit further out in advance," McHarg said.
A lot of good has come out of the new code and the problems are with just a small portion of it, McHarg said. He worries that the city might throw out a lot of what is working when it looks at making improvements.
The planning process may seem more difficult today because land that is being developed generally is harder to build on, he said. Undeveloped land within the city limits is a rare commodity and most of the land left has steep slopes, is in a floodplain or has wetland issues -- all factors that make the planning process more complicated.
"It is the leftover meatloaf in the back of the refrigerator that nobody wanted. That is what is left. It is a challenge to develop that stuff," McHarg said.
At Tuesday's meeting, Council President Kathy Connell proposed to look at creating an advisory commission and creating clearer communication between the city and developers.
"I firmly believe it takes two to tangle and it also takes two to untangle," Connell said.
Connell has fielded complaints about the development process and said the city needs to stopping talking about fixing the code and starting acting.
Almost a year ago, former Planning Director Wendie Schulenburg began discussions with Fox, who at the time was the president of Yampa Valley Construction Trade Association.
They agreed to form a group to look at the problem areas and solutions to the planning process.
In a memo, City Manager Paul Hughes told council he heard nothing about the meeting until last month when Jan Kaminski said he had taken over the project and proposed a community committee.
On Tuesday, the City Council will look at a proposal developed by Kaminski and Hughes for a committee that would serve as a clearinghouse for concerns about the city's code and permitting procedures. The committee would make recommendations on interpretations of the code, proposed changes to the code and proposed changes to the permit and review process.
The seven-member committee would be selected by council from nominations submitted by planners, architects, appraisers, civil engineers, landscape architects, attorneys, surveyors and construction trade representatives.
The planning director and city manager would serve as ex-officio, nonvoting members. The committee would end in two years, unless reauthorized by the city.
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