Littleton's planning board refused to vote Aug. 25 on the urban-renewal areas proposed by Littleton Invests for Tomorrow, despite some pressure by City Attorney Ken Fellman.
“Your job is not to decide whether it's a good urban-renewal plan or a bad urban-renewal plan,” he told the members.
Their job is to decide whether the plans conform to the city's comprehensive plan, and state statute gives them 30 days. The board received the plans on Aug. 22, and council has them on the agenda for final approval on Oct. 6. Fellman said council is allowed to proceed with or without the board's recommendation.
“I think it's very important to do that and not just let this go to council without our input,” said Karina Elrod, board chair.
But many of the members felt like four days was not enough time to review what has been a controversial issue in the city. They voted to hold a special meeting on Sept. 11, which falls within the time frame.
In front of the board are the first two of four proposed urban-renewal areas: the west side of the Santa Fe Drive corridor from Prince Street to just south of Mineral Avenue, and the Columbine Square area along Belleview Avenue.
Six critics addressed the board members, urging them to reject the plan. They say there are no details about how the areas in question might change, so it's impossible to know whether they conform to the comprehensive plan.
LIFT consultant Ann Ricker, however, has said repeatedly that the authority can't devise a specific plan for the area; a developer or property owner has to present one.
“Urban renewal is all about private-property rights,” she said.
The appointed urban-renewal authority approves financing tools, she explains, not land use; that still falls under the purview of the elected members of city council, with a recommendation from the planning board.
“As projects come forward in these areas, they all have to still come through you,” said Ricker. “It will be your standards, your guidelines that dictate how these projects get done.”
The comprehensive plan, updated by the planning board and approved in January, does seem to leave room for the funding methods, like tax-increment financing, made possible through LIFT. At least two particular policies speak to the issue:
“Encourage private and public investment that takes advantage of the city's light rail stations and the opportunities they provide for enhanced connectedness.”
“Encourage underperforming properties to be redeveloped so that they provide a sustainable mix of uses and are designed to mitigate possible negative effects on adjacent uses.”
Those negative effects are “blight,” which LIFT had to find in all the plan areas. That has left some wondering why nearly all the commercial property in the city is now blighted; Ricker has explained it's often because of things like not being in compliance with fire code or having above-ground utilities, conditions found throughout the city.
But some worry the city just wants to take property through eminent domain, a right that already existed. City council passed a resolution last month promising not to use condemnation, but critics say it lacks teeth, and they are circulating a petition to put the issue in front of voters.
“As a voter in the City of Littleton, signing this petition gives you a say in how your tax dollars are spent and what your government does,” they write. “Otherwise, a non-elected board makes decisions as to what is blighted here in Littleton.”