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With development going gangbusters in Littleton — and becoming a hot-button political issue — Littleton City Council added a new step to the planning process for large projects that it hopes will guide developers toward building desirable additions to the landscape.
Council voted 5-1, with Kyle Schlachter absent and Carol Fey the dissenting vote, at its Jan. 16 meeting to add a new step, called a Preliminary Project Plan, or PPP, to the city’s zoning code.
The move allows for applicants seeking to build a planned development — generally a large-scale project combining elements such as retail and housing — to request an informal, non-binding meeting with city council to discuss the project before a formal application is submitted.
Developers would not speak at the meetings, which would be open to the public. City staff would present its interpretation of the project to the planning commission or city council, who would offer feedback.
Community Development Director Jocelyn Mills, who presented the plan to council, said this process could have helped prevent wasted time on projects like a proposed storage facility on Santa Fe Drive last year that was rejected by council on its second reading.
“The applicant could’ve heard initial thoughts from city council if they had been able to,” Mills said.
She said applicants have been asking for such a process to get “the pulse of council.”
Councilmembers were largely supportive.
“I think this makes a more open and transparent process early on, when we still have an opportunity to begin to influence and represent what the community is desiring or would likely support,” said Councilmember Karina Elrod.
Not everyone was convinced.
“This benefits the development community,” said resident Pam Chadbourne, who often comments on matters before city council. “To the degree their decisions are good, OK. But I don’t see a lot of developers making great decisions.”
Chadbourne said she believes city staff has not adequately enforced city code as written in the past, citing the Grove development — now called Vita — which spurred citizen lawsuits.
“Staff should enforce code,” Chadbourne said. “It’s their job. It’s a profession. It’s their duty. This is a stopgap for that not happening. ”
Carol Brzeczek, another familiar face in city politics, who led the charge against the city’s urban renewal efforts in recent years, said her research suggested that other communities have found PPPs to be irrelevant in their planning processes.
“If you’re going to do this, could you do a trial run before you add it to code?” Brzeczek asked.
No developers spoke at the open hearing.
Councilmember Carol Fey said she was concerned that the process didn’t make room for citizen comments and that the city planning and zoning staff’s focus is too developer-centric.
“The purpose of zoning is to protect the rights and expectations of the current property owners,” Fey said. “To exclude them from the process of zoning doesn’t make sense. If we’re trying to give the developer a reality check, we have to give them citizen input.”
Adding a citizen input component to a PPP could land the city in hot water, said acting city attorney Brandon Dittman.
“The more we move toward a quasi-judicial meeting, the more we’re bound to the decisions made or input given,” Dittman said.
Fey pushed back, saying that the meetings would be informal and non-binding, but Dittman said that didn’t matter.
“We can call it whatever we want, but courts look at what happened,” Dittman said. “The more something looks like a public meeting, the more likely a court is to see it as one.”
Lack of public comment a concern
Elrod said she was concerned that if the public were allowed to comment in PPPs, the developers could too, diluting the purpose of the meeting.
Mayor Debbie Brinkman said PPP meetings will be televised and open to the public, so citizens can contact their councilmembers to express their opinions.
Fey introduced an amendment to the motion “to include public comment in the Preliminary Project Plan so the developer gets complete and realistic input.” The motion failed 4-2, with Fey and Peggy Cole in favor.
Councilmember Patrick Driscoll, who campaigned on a goal of “opening up” the city to worthwhile development, was enthusiastic about the new process.
“This is a huge plus for the city,” Driscoll said. “This is working with local developers that have offices in Denver, or in some cases Littleton. They will not be leaving this area, and need this reinforcement early on rather than spending thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars to only find out later that they were going down the wrong track all along.”
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