Mike Lawrence: Nothing on the books | SteamboatToday.com

Mike Lawrence: Nothing on the books

Growth all but unchecked in Steamboat law

Mike Lawrence

A worker carries material across The Victoria construction site in downtown Steamboat Springs during a rainstorm Tuesday afternoon. The city currently has no ordinance that would allow the City Council to deny or delay projects that meet city criteria and development codes.

— A popular question around town is why all this construction is happening at once – or more specifically, why the Steamboat Springs City Council approved a truckload of projects at the same time.

One answer to that question is the City Council had no choice.

There is no law in Steamboat Springs that allows city officials to deny, or even delay, a proposed development project that meets all city criteria and community codes.

In other words, if a project such as The Victoria (at 10th Street) or Howelsen Place (at Seventh Street) or Alpenglow (at Sixth Street) or Riverwalk (at Fifth Street) or The Olympian (also at Fifth Street) comes before city officials and meets all the requirements, the City Council cannot tell the developers to wait a year. Or two. Or six.

“We have no ordinance on the books that would allow us to do that,” city attorney Tony Lettunich said Tuesday. “By definition, if we say that a project has met all the required criteria, it would be ‘arbitrary and capricious’ to deny that project.”

Communities including Boulder and Aspen do have such policies, known as growth limitation or growth management ordinances.

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Boulder’s city codes, for example, say the city’s Residential Growth Manage-

ment System is intended to provide “a long-term rate of growth in the city no greater than 1 percent per annum.”

While the Boulder code allows for “annual fluctuations” to that 1 percent rate, it also sets caps – with some allowances for group care facilities, etc. – of no more than 432 new residences this year, 436 new residences in 2008, 440 in 2009, and 444 in 2010.

Projects approved in Steamboat Springs total more than 500 new residences.

Boulder’s population as of 2006 is 91,481. Steamboat’s is 9,315.

Lettunich said growth management policies can spur competition among developers.

“It’s almost like a beauty contest,” he said. “My understanding is, if you have 100,000 square feet available in your growth allocation for a given year, you then say to developers ‘OK, show us what you got. How much affordable housing can you give us?’: The most attractive project with the most public benefit would be chosen.”

But Lettunich also said growth management can significantly affect the free market – a position echoed by City Council President Susan Dellinger.

“I don’t know what that would do to pricing,” Dellinger said. “Would it allow developers to price off the market? I would worry about that.”

She also noted many projects under construction include positive aspects such as underground parking, future sales tax revenues and affordable housing components.

“I think they’re bringing things to the table that people want,” Dellinger said. “It would have been nicer if we could have spread it out, but then we would have had construction for how many more years?”

The city’s economic development study, which could be completed within a year, will provide guidelines for annual growth, Dellinger said.

But now, the only thing holding projects back is the city’s approval process through planning staff, the Planning Commission and City Council.

Lettunich said he has not seen the “political will” from past councils to install a growth ordinance. But that might change if new council members are elected in November, when five seats are on the ballot.

“Maybe it will be a campaign issue,” Lettunich said.