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Council candidates talk growth during forum

City council hopefuls debate development and the Littleton of the future

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Littleton's nine city council candidates were in the same room for what may prove to be the only time, to participate in a candidate forum organized by community activists.

Candidates answered a handful of questions posed to them by a moderator, and found a fair amount of common ground, though differences emerged on key issues like the possibility of growth restrictions.

Littleton's seven-person council has four seats up for grabs this fall: Districts 1 and 3 and two at-large seats.

The forum, held Sept. 28 at Buck Recreation Center, was organized by local community watchdog Pam Chadbourne, who said she felt compelled to assemble the event after finding out that no other full-scale candidate forums seemed likely to be held.

Chadbourne said the forum followed the League of Women Voters' guidelines. Greg Breitbarth, Heritage High School's speech and debate coach, moderated.

On issues like addressing traffic congestion and budget shortfalls, the candidates were largely in sync. Traffic will be best addressed through a comprehensive approach with surrounding cities and state agencies, went the conventional wisdom, and the budget should be addressed by taking a hard look at spending cuts and a creative approach to finding new revenue streams.

Growth and development, however, quickly emerged as the dominant topic, and candidates answered several questions related to how the city should handle the influx of population to the city and region, and how council should interact with developers.

All candidates agreed that citizen input should drive the growth process, and that the city ought to develop a well-rounded growth master plan. Differences emerged, though, over issues like the possibility of a growth cap.

Some cities have instituted growth caps to maintain their character, said Carol Brzeczek, an at-large candidate who has sponsored several citizen initiatives and is often associated with the Sunshine community watchdog group.

“We all moved here for the small-town character,” Brzeczek said. “We'll lose it if we accommodate all that growth.

"You can be better without being bigger."

Growth isn't always necessary, said Doug Clark, an at-large incumbent seeking re-election who, over the years, has served four terms, two as mayor, and who is also a regular Sunshine meeting attendee.

“We need to decide how much more we want to grow,” Clark said. “There's an idea that if you're not growing, you'll die. But there are three cities close to us — Columbine Valley, Cherry Hills Village and Bow Mar — that are healthy without growth.”

Change is going to happen, said at-large candidate Kyle Schlachter, who is a member of the LIFT board, which deals with urban renewal.

“But I wouldn't say I'm pro growth,” Schlachter said. “I'd say we need to dictate and manage growth and change. Frankly, there's so much divisiveness, fear and anger about the future, and I think we need to focus on what brings us together, what makes us proud, and talk about a holistic approach rather than individual buildings.”

Managing growth is about being thoughtful, said at-large candidate Karina Elrod, who is also on the LIFT board.

“It's about quality, not quantity,” Elrod said. “When we think about small town character, that means our historic downtown, and our neighborhoods. It doesn't mean growth changes those things. It can mean adding vibrancy to other areas.”

A growth cap could have big effects on the housing market, said Patrick Driscoll, a District 1 candidate who has received the endorsement of much of Littleton's newly-formed Business Chamber.

“I think about Boulder and their 1 percent growth,” Driscoll said. “None of us, at least not me, could afford to live there. The average home is a million dollars. We're trying to look to the future. We want our kids to be able to live in this community. We have to look at additional growth.”

Growth is a delicate topic, said Kama Suddath, Driscoll's opponent for the open District 1 seat.

“If you ask people how much growth they want, they'll say none,” Suddath said. “What people say, that I've heard, is they want good redevelopment. We need to follow zoning regulations or update the ones we don't like. That requires a plan and a vision.”

Development is a complex process, said District 3 incumbent Phil Cernanec, who is seeking another term.

“What do we do to create thoughtful growth?” Cernanec said. “It starts with the conversations I've had on people's doorsteps — what's the Littleton of your dreams? It goes from there to creating planning documents we can all live with. Folks are looking for things that are exciting or add to our quality of life.”

Littleton's been going about the growth process the wrong way, said Carol Fey, another regular attendee of Sunshine meetings who is challenging Cernanec for the District 3 seat.

“The purpose of zoning laws is predictability for citizens and developers,” Fey said. “Littleton runs on exemptions and exceptions, so no one knows what to expect. That causes upset. My solution is to follow the zoning law until you change it.”

Littleton ought to tread lightly, said Steve Esses, a longtime softball coach who is also challenging Cernanec for the District 3 seat.

“I haven't talked to many people who want more growth,” Esses said. “They want to preserve what we have. The growth has to be done with lots of careful thought. Some of our traffic and congestion problems will be monumental.”

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