Spurred by housing debate, a battle over petitioning rules takes shape in Littleton

Group of residents, frustrated with Aspen Grove referendum, seeks to change city’s election requirements

Robert Tann
rtann@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 7/22/22

A debate over housing in Littleton is taking on a new form as a group of residents seeks to overhaul the city laws governing certain petitions and elections, a move spurred by frustration over the city’s response to their earlier efforts to suspend a redevelopment of Littleton's largest shopping center.

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Spurred by housing debate, a battle over petitioning rules takes shape in Littleton

Group of residents, frustrated with Aspen Grove referendum, seeks to change city’s election requirements

Posted

A debate over housing in Littleton is taking on a new form as a group of residents seeks to overhaul the city laws governing certain petitions and elections, a move spurred by frustration over the city’s response to their earlier efforts to suspend a redevelopment of Littleton's largest shopping center.

With voters set in November to weigh in on the redevelopment plans — which call for up to 2,000 housing units to be built at Aspen Grove in southwest Littleton — the outcome may be a moot point as a proposal could still move forward under Littleton’s new Unified Land Use Code (ULUC).

That possibility has angered residents who were instrumental in bringing the Aspen Grove project to a vote after they successfully petitioned in January to hold a referendum on the plans.

“I think that it takes away voters’ rights,” said Linda Knufinke, a 23-year resident of the Wolhurst Landing neighborhood who helped lead the Aspen Grove petition and who, in late February, filed a lawsuit against the city for not hosting a referendum sooner. 

Reid Betzing, Littleton’s city attorney, has maintained that city council was well within its rights when it voted Feb. 1 to add the referendum question to the Nov. 8 ballot.

While Colorado state law requires referendum elections be held no less than 60 days and no more than 150 days after a citizens’ petition is validated, Littleton’s city charter and code exempt it from state guidelines, meaning it can follow its own timeline and petition requirements. 

"In our city code, we exempt ourselves from all those requirements in state law," Betzing said. "It gives the city a lot of authority to set our own election schedules, our own election requirements."

Now, Knufinke and others have until Aug. 12 to gain the 3,628 physical signatures from Littleton residents needed to amend the city’s charter and municipal code which would give residents the ability to push certain questions onto voters' ballots with less signatures and in a much shorter time frame.

Knufinke and others involved with that petition said it will make referendum efforts fairer. Others see it as an ability for a minority to undermine what they believe are popular city council decisions. 

And it comes as residents gear up for the Nov. 8 ballot question on Aspen Grove, which could serve as a referendum on the city’s appetite for denser housing projects for years to come. 

Housing plan moves forward even as broader project stalls 

The charter amendment petition is the latest effort of REvision Littleton, a self-described “citizen advocate group” that rebranded itself following its “Say No to Aspen Grove” campaign, which garnered thousands of signatures. 

Those efforts in January effectively forced city council, which in November of last year narrowly voted 4-3 to approve a shopping center rezoning proposal from Aspen Grove owner Gerrity Group, to punt those plans to a city-wide vote. 

Under Gerrity’s proposal, Aspen Grove could see a maximum of 2,000 new residential units above existing commercial space with heights capped at 85 feet. The project was mostly two-pronged in nature, according to Gerrity and city staff, who hoped it would jumpstart the shopping center’s dwindling economy while supporting desperately needed housing in the city. 

The roughly 33-acre mall has for years seen declining sales tax revenue, an issue heavily exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced several retailers to shutter and left vacant space. With sales tax being the primary driver for the city’s budget, council members eyed the proposal as a way to mix housing with commercial activity, hoping residents would spend money at stores within walking distance.

And with the city estimating it needs at least 6,500 new housing units by 2040 to keep up with the metro area’s growing population, the plans served as a way to make a major dent in what city staff have said is a deficit in housing supply. 

But some residents involved with REvision Littleton said they oppose such housing density, advocating for what they call “gentle growth” in the city instead. 

“We don’t want Littleton to be the Great Wall of China with high-density apartments,” Knufinke said. 

A housing proposal from Aspen Grove’s owners is already under city consideration despite the first petition stalling their broader plans. Gerrity has submitted a master development plan, which would essentially allow pre-planning for the redevelopment to begin, an ability unlocked for developers when council approved zoning in October with the ULUC. 

Since Gerrity’s original proposal was approved by council under the city’s old zoning code, it now has a new chance to pursue plans under the ULUC.

Currently, the owners are calling for just under 500 housing units to be built on the south end of the mall near the Mineral Avenue light rail station with a maximum height of 80 feet — about seven stories or less — according to Littleton's Deputy Director for Community Development Mike Sutherland.

Sutherland said the site still could support about 2,000 units since the new zoning allows for up to 60 units per gross acre for all commercial mixed-use sites. 

So far, Gerrity is “not showing plans for any additional development” beyond the near 500 units, according to Sutherland. Any additional units would have to come through an amendment to Gerrity’s existing master development plan and go before the city’s planning commission for a public hearing, Sutherland said. 

A question of voter turnout, money

Members of REvision Littleton said they wanted a special election on the Aspen Grove referendum to be called within the 60- to 150-day timeline mandated by Colorado law to generate “higher turnout.”

Knufinke has said the November ballot may be “clogged with issues,” and fears if the referendum is a moot point it could deflate the vote.

“It is just slimy of the city to do,” Knufinke said. 

REvision Littleton member Michael Goldberg, who was also active in the Aspen Grove petition, said “higher voter turnout means better voter representation.” 

“I don’t care what the outcome is,” said Goldberg, who — while opposed to the current Aspen Grove plans — said he would support the referendum’s results even if it ended in approval for the redevelopment.

But voter turnout is historically lower for special elections that don’t fall on a regular election cycle, according to Colleen Norton, the city clerk. It’s one reason why city council decided last year to wait until the midterm election on Nov. 8 to ask the question. 

"People don't even open their ballots," Norton said of elections that don't fall on regular timelines. "The hope is that during a regular November election, you're going to have a higher turnout."

Special elections are also more costly. Norton told city council members that holding a vote on Aspen Grove sooner could potentially cost the city $65,000 while a general election coordinated with the county — as will be the case Nov. 8 — is estimated to cost about $20,000 to $26,000.

Still, Knufinke said “it would have been worth it” to pay another roughly $40,000 to hold a special election sooner. 

Matt Duff, a Littleton resident and member of Vibrant Littleton — a citizens collective seeking to support housing projects in the city — said he has issues with REvision Littleton’s attempts to tighten the timeline around referendum questions as well as their efforts to lower the threshold needed to trigger such questions. 

As part of their campaign to align Littleton with Colorado petitioning rules, REvision Littleton is also seeking to reduce the needed signatures to trigger referendums from 10% of the registered voters in the last municipal election to just 5%. If that rule were applied to the Aspen Grove petition, which needed 3,588 signatures and delivered over 4,200 — 3,729 of which were found to be valid by the city clerk’s office — residents would have only needed to garner 1,794 signatures to trigger the referendum.

“This seems like a way for the vocal minority to block projects that they don’t want,” Duff said. “By lowering the standards of how many people need to be heard … it’s being used as a way to get around who is elected.”

Duff said voters already sent a message during Littleton’s last municipal election in November 2021 by electing, by sizable margins, council members who supported more housing and development. 

A recent survey of 302 Littleton voters — ranging in age, gender, income and political affiliation — found that 68% approve of the job the city's government is doing while 63% said they approve of how the city is managing growth. The survey was conducted by a Denver-based consultant hired by the city.

Both sides seek answers to Littleton’s future

While the Aspen Grove referendum and petitioning power are at the heart of REvision Littleton’s immediate goals, the issues are indicative of a larger debate around Littleton’s future as the city inevitably grows. 

Lynn Christensen, another REvision Littleton member, said the group is “by no means anti-development” but supports what she calls “gentle growth.”

Christensen and others have raised concerns that denser development could increase traffic, hamper environmental sustainability and block mountain views. 

But housing advocates have countered that such development would do the opposite.

By building out more walkable, denser areas, Littleton can move away from car-dependent single-family homes that have dominated metro area suburbs for decades, said Duff.

“If we really want to stop the traffic problem, density that does not require people to have a car to get around is the solution,” Duff said.

Littleton’s city staff, after conducting a traffic study near Aspen Grove, said during a public meeting last year that redevelopment would not cause a noticeable effect on traffic in the area since the mall’s proposed community would be highly walkable and because most traffic in the area is from commuters living outside the city. 

The ULUC lists a menu of options developers could pursue to promote environmental sustainability such as ensuring 50% or more of energy generated on-site is from solar photovoltaic panels, geothermal or small wind energy facilities. While the code does not mandate such investments, it seeks to reward developers for doing so by allowing for increased heights or units on a project while staying in line with the code’s maximum density and height. 

Denser development can also conserve more water, according to a study by the EPA, another key concern for housing advocates.

Duff said his group “wants and advocates for multi-family housing projects” like Aspen Grove to be built for such reasons as well as to bring in a diverse socioeconomic population to Littleton.

“We have grossly underbuilt our city, and that’s why we’re seeing rapidly declining school enrollment,” Duff said. “It’s really difficult for young families to live in our town, because the price of homes is so high.”

He believes that by building denser in certain areas, like Aspen Grove, Littleton can protect lower-density neighborhoods and green space elsewhere in the city. Not doing so could continue to worsen the housing crisis, Duff said.

“I believe that the (housing) supply is the most important factor in this,” Duff said. 

As the housing debate continues, REvision Littleton members said they're focused on the present.

"This is a big hill to climb," Goldberg said of the group's election petition. "This is not a slam dunk."

Aspen Grove Littleton, City of Littleton, housing, development, affordable living

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