Our view: Do not go gentle … | SteamboatToday.com

Our view: Do not go gentle …

Late last week, District Judge Shelley Hill issued a ruling reversing the Steamboat Springs City Council's mid-2016 approval of three variances that would have allowed a proposed 60-unit apartment to be built at 1125 Lincoln Ave.

Hill's ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Steamboat resident Ken Manley soon after City Council's approval of the variances, which would have allowed the five-story building to be 13 feet higher and support greater density than allowed by code in the commercial Old Town district. A third variance approved by council members — and overturned by Hill — would have exempt the developer from setting back the upper portion of the building that rises above 28 feet.

In his complaint, Manley argued the proposed building "violates everything stated in our code for the commercial Old Town District."

“We have hundreds of thousands of people who come to our unique and eclectic western town, and we cannot allow ourselves to forget how appealing and exciting it is for our visitors to walk our streets and look at our buildings," Manley continued. "They don't come here to view a contemporary, five-story oversize building that I would call a college dorm that is in violation of our city codes.”

In approving the variances, the majority of council members took a different view, saying the need for the residential and mixed-use building — which would have been marketed toward young professionals earning $50,000 to $100,000 per year — outweighed concerns about its size and appearance.

Both sides offer compelling arguments, and it is not our intent to specifically support either of them. Likewise, we offer no criticisms of Judge Hill, whom we have found to be a dedicated, able and fair-minded public servant. We have no doubt she objectively reviewed the case and fairly applied the law as she interpreted it.

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That said, we would advise City Council to strongly consider filing an appeal of the decision when it meets to discuss the matter Tuesday. We take this position for a couple of reasons.

First, excepting clear cases of discretionary abuse, development decisions such as this should be made by a city's elected officials, not the courts, and the approval of variances by city councils is not without precedent in our town.

Howelsen Place, a mixed-use project on the other end of downtown, stands only three feet shorter than the proposed 1125 Lincoln Ave. project, and the Alpenglow development was granted a variance to rise seven feet above the height restriction.

And, variances approved by previous councils allowed Alpenglow and The Victoria to be more dense than allowed by code.

Second, we feel that allowing the ruling to go unchallenged — particularly in light of the above examples — could send a chilling message to potential future developers.

Following Hill's ruling, Eric Rogers, developer of the proposed apartment complex, said the ruling may well put a damper on future housing projects.

“If the city can’t defend its approvals, you will be hard pressed to find anyone willing to risk capital to bring in housing to this community,” Rogers said Friday, and we cannot argue with his prediction.

According to Rogers, he and his team invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on engineering, architectural and consulting costs to gain the approvals at 1125 Lincoln Avenue. Given that kind of investment, what message will we send potential future developers if the city fails to exhaust all legal avenues in defense of its decision? Will those developers be willing to invest in our community if our leaders have shown they are unwilling to support those investments?

We think not.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, failing to mount an appeal would, in our opinion, be detrimental to the integrity of the city’s planning process.

Suppose the situation were reversed. Suppose the city had denied an application, and a disappointed developer had sued and won in local court. The community would expect the city to appeal to vindicate local control and prevent construction of building local officials had found to be unacceptable. The city needs to stand behind its land use decisions. 

For these reasons, we believe the city needs to stand behind its land use decisions. Whether or not this specific project is right thing for Steamboat isn't the point. The point is, the city — if it is to retain its credibility and the integrity of its long-established planning process — must stand up for its right to make such decisions.

At issue: A recent court ruling has scuttled plans for a proposed 60-unit apartment complex at 1125 Lincoln Ave. by overturning several variances granted the project by City Council last year.

Our view: For several reasons, City Council should strongly consider appealing the court’s ruling

Editorial Board
• Suzanne Schlicht, COO and publisher
• Lisa Schlichtman, editor
• Jim Patterson, evening editor
• Tom Ross, reporter
• Beth Melton, community representative
• Bob Weiss, community representative
Contact the editorial board at 970-871-4221 or editor@SteamboatToday.com.

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