The Steamboat Springs City Council has a legitimate concern about -- and a legitimate role to play in -- redevelopment of downtown property, but the council was wrong to apply terms of a new ordinance to a project that already was under way.
At issue is the Harbor Hotel building at Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue, the fate of which has divided people into camps and added heat to this fall's City Council campaigns.
To some, the building is a historical treasure that should be saved and restored, particularly because it is the only local example of the International Style of architecture.
To others, it's an eyesore atop some of the most valuable commercial property in the city, of dubious historical value and contributing less to the public good than a structure on that site should.
A developer plans to raze the old building and erect a new one that would house commercial and residential units. The developers already had applied for a demolition permit, and their application had survived the vetting process when they did so.
On Tuesday, however, the council approved an ordinance requiring all developers to have a final development plan approved before demolishing a building.
Rationale for the ordinance seems to be that once an existing building is gone, the power shifts from the City Council to the developer, because almost any replacement, no matter how aesthetically repugnant, would be better than an empty lot.
That may be true, and the ordinance overall may be a good one, but that's beside the point in the case at hand.
It's beyond doubt that our elected representatives should exercise control over what gets built downtown. The town's appearance and "feel" is essential to maintaining livability for residents and marketability for businesses trying to attract tourists.
Where the council erred was in applying terms of the new ordinance retroactively to the Harbor Hotel project.
People willing to invest money here toward redevelopment have rights, just as the city has a right to regulate redevelopment. Among developers' rights are the ability to know the rules of doing business beforehand and a reliable expectation that those rules won't change in the middle of the deal.
The ordinance passed after objection from people involved with the Harbor Hotel project and several council members.
"We feel as if we're being singled out," Realtor Jim Cook said.
It's hard to see how Cook and the rest could feel any other way, and it's hard to believe this ordinance wasn't drafted specifically to stall demolition of the old hotel.
We're not convinced that the city is safe from litigation, despite assurances from the city attorney. And there are dangers in this decision even if the city is on safe legal ground.
No one wants to let developers turn Steamboat Springs into an ugly town. In our efforts to prevent that, however, we shouldn't turn it into a town where nobody wants to invest money.