Council split on Thunderhead vote

Review criteria raises questions, confusion in Tuesday night meeting


Editor's Note: This story has been updated from its original version, which appears on the front page of today's Steamboat Today. Contrary to information presented in the original story, Steamboat Springs Planning and Community Development Director Tom Leeson said Wednesday that the Steamboat Springs City Council used the correct review criteria Tuesday night when it evaluated the proposed Thunderhead redevelopment at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area.

The confusion stems from the city's use of two sets of criteria: an updated version approved in November, and an older version used for projects that entered the approval process before the update. The versions differ in their prioritization of public benefits developers must provide to compensate for requested building variances. Development plans for Thunderhead were submitted in June.

There was concern Tuesday, including among Thunderhead developers, that the wrong criteria were being used in reviewing the project, because council members cited old priorities throughout the meeting. But Leeson wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that, "The priority ranking for public benefit was revised after the Thunderhead project was in the pipeline; therefore, they were not subject to the revision. Development applications are vested to the rules in place at the time of application."

Confronted with the perceived error during council's late meeting Tuesday night, city officials did not provide this explanation. During the meeting, Leeson confirmed that the revision had been approved but said that it didn't make a difference because council members "weren't going to approve (Thunderhead) anyway."

For more information about the future of the Thunderhead project and its review process, see Thursday's Steamboat Today.

Redevelopment plans for the former Thunderhead Lodge site at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area fell short of approval Tuesday in a 3-3 vote of the Steamboat Springs City Council.

Confusion about the city's review criteria may have influenced the vote.

With the blessing of city staff and a 5-1 recommendation for approval from the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission, the project appeared to be in a strong position as it approached its final hurdle Tuesday. But a motion to approve the project failed in the tie vote, and the project was tabled until April. Council members instructed developers to provide more public benefits to justify requested variances that include building heights about 30 feet above code and private improvements in the public right of way.

Council members Loui Antonucci, Cari Hermacinski and Scott Myller supported the project, and council members Meg Bentley, Steve Ivancie and Walter Magill opposed it. Councilman Jon Quinn stepped down because he has done work for developers, The Atira Group.

Last year, City Council approved making environmentally friendly design a top public benefit priority for projects at the base of the ski area. A silver certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design replaced economic sustainability - in the form of "hot beds" - as one of three top public benefit priorities. Thunderhead developers argued that their project would achieve both benefits, in two buildings more than 100 feet tall, totaling about 390,000 square feet.

Council members consistently cited the old public benefit criteria while debating the project. Although there was some debate as to whether the project truly was boosting hot beds - a colloquial term implying resort lodging that seldom is empty and most often occupied by vacationers - there was little dispute about the LEED silver certification.

Although he noted he was not totally comfortable with the decision to replace hot beds with LEED silver certification as a top-tier public benefit, Magill said after the meeting that his vote may have been different had he considered the project using the new criteria - in other words, had he placed more emphasis on LEED certification than hot beds. Ivancie said he still thinks the project was "wholly inadequate." Bentley could not be asked because she left the council meeting early.

Steamboat attorney Ron Smith, representing the owners at Bronze Tree Condominiums, also cited the old criteria in arguing against the project during public comment.

After the hearing, a visibly frustrated Atira Vice President Mark Mathews said that he could not comment. While council still was debating the project, Atira Development Manager Jane Blackstone crossed the room to quietly ask city planner Jonathan Spence and Planning and Community Development Director Tom Leeson about the fact that council was using the old criteria in reviewing the project - indicating confusion as to which criteria applied to Thunderhead.

The information was not brought to council's attention.

Step back for linkage

Also on Tuesday, council voted, 4-3, to give preliminary approval to an ordinance to suspend linkage, an affordable housing policy that requires developers to mitigate - with units or a fee - a percentage of the work force housing their developments are thought to create.

Councilwoman Cari Hermacinski said linkage is deplorable because it taxes the creation of jobs. Steve Lewis, a former planning commissioner and member of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley, said suspending linkage would sacrifice long-term economic sustainability for a short-term fix. He said the city ultimately would lose jobs because of a lack of work force housing. Lewis has disputed the chorus from the development community that the city's affordable housing ordinance is "broken," arguing that the economic recession has stymied the entire housing market, not just the affordable, deed-restricted units created under the city's ordinance.

"I don't accept the argument that the economy is broken, not the ordinance, and therefore, we should do nothing," Quinn said. "The economy is broken, and therefore, we need to do something."

The ordinance to suspend linkage still is subject to a second and final reading.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.