Battle over the big-box

Council, Planning Commission grapple with new ordinance

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The City Council voted to limit the size of big-box stores in specific areas of the city and to require stores larger than 12,000 square feet to go through a more subjective planning process.

The council was split on whether an ordinance should place a size cap on buildings within the city limits. It agreed to continue to look at using economic and community impact studies to assess the impact of big -box stores.

For 3 1/2 hours Tuesday night, the council and City Planning Commission grappled with what an ordinance managing large retail stores should entail.

As motions bounced back and forth and arbitrary numbers were thrown out on appropriate building sizes, the two boards agreed on little, and few of the decisions received unanimous consent from either board.

In the end, the council agreed to a three-prong approach to direct city staff in creating a big box ordinance.

The council voted 5-1 not to allow a single-tenant building larger than 20,000 square feet between the downtown and mountain area. The council also asked staff to review the building size in the mountain and downtown zones, which already have size restrictions in place.

"I have heard a lot of talk about affordable shopping, but the economic driver has been tourism. We need to protect the base area," Council President Paul Strong said.

The Planning Commission split on the decision in a 3-3 vote.

Councilman Ken Brenner made a motion to limit big-box stores to 35,000 square feet and grocery stores to 50,000 square feet in the city limits, which the council failed, 4-2, and the Planning Commission spilt on 3-3.

After that motion, Brenner made another motion that would have limited the building size to 50,000 square feet, which the council failed.

"There is a number, everyone has a number they won't tolerate," Brenner said. "Maybe you don't support 30,000 or 40,000 or 50,000 (square feet), but there is a number you do support."

Strong then made a motion for the city to have no size cap on big-box buildings, which the council spilt in a 3-3 vote and the Planning Commission failed 4-2.

Councilwoman Kathy Connell said she wanted to have a regional discussion about big-box stores and whether there's a place for them outside the city limits before setting on a size cap in Steamboat.

"Ultimately, I don't want to see a big-box within our city limits," she said but was hesitant to support what she considered to be arbitrary numbers for building size caps.

The council and Planning Commission did unanimously vote to have all single-tenant stores greater than 12,000 square feet go through the planned unit development process. The PUD process requires developers to show a public benefit from the variances they are requesting.

The council said that the process would be proportional, so the larger the building, the more public benefit that would have to be shown.

The two boards talked about requiring a PUD process for the period of time when the 90-day moratorium on big-box stores was lifted and when the council approves a more substantial ordinance.

"I think the PUD process is a good temporary tool until these bodies and staff decide on an ordinance," Planning Commissioner David Ballinger Jr. said.

The only other direction that did receive unanimous approval from both boards was to make the architectural and design standards in the Community Development Code more stringent.

The council agreed, 5-1, to look at requiring economic and community impact studies on larger big box stores but did not say those studies would be part of a big-box ordinance. The Planning Commission voted 4-2 against looking further at reviewing those studies.

Council members and planning commissioners were concerned that an impact study would be too subjective and cost too much money in light of the benefit it would provide.

"I am just up to here with studies," Planning Commissioner Randall Hannaway said. "We spend so much money on studies and then we don't do anything about them."

Hannaway did say a study could be useful for a store larger than 30,000 square feet but that the money would be better spent elsewhere for smaller businesses.

Brenner said many of the criteria that other communities use in their impact studies are quantifiable and that the city already has the information.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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