Judge rules against Littleton resident who sued city over Aspen Grove election

Lawsuit sought to call a vote on mall's redevelopment plans sooner than Nov. 8

Robert Tann
rtann@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 7/27/22

An Arapahoe County District Court judge has ruled against a Littleton resident who sued the city for not holding an election sooner on what could be one of the most contentious issues on voters' ballots this November.

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Judge rules against Littleton resident who sued city over Aspen Grove election

Lawsuit sought to call a vote on mall's redevelopment plans sooner than Nov. 8

Posted

An Arapahoe County District Court judge has ruled against a Littleton resident who sued the city for not holding an election sooner on what could be one of the most contentious issues on voters' ballots this November.

At the heart of the lawsuit was an effort to call a special election on plans to build new housing at the Aspen Grove shopping center in southwest Littleton, a question already set for the Nov. 8 general election.

Linda Knufinke — a 23-year resident who opposes the project and who filed the lawsuit in late February — said an election needed to be called sooner in order to comply with state law, though Littleton's city code and charter exempt it from such requirements. 

District Court Judge Frederick T. Martinez, in a July 26 ruling, said the city was within its rights to move forward with a November election on the issue.

"While it is not expressly stated, the court is being asked to involve itself in questions such as propriety of mandating a special election ...," Martinez wrote. "These decisions are best made by the elected officials rather than the court."

Knufinke and other residents have been active for months in trying to halt the Aspen Grove plans. 

After city council approved a rezoning of the shopping center last year — which laid the foundation to build up to 2,000 new housing units — Knufinke helped lead the "Say No to Aspen Grove" campaign, which delivered more than 4,200 signatures to the city clerk's office seeking to force councilmembers to either rescind their decision or punt it to a city-wide vote.

More than 3,700 of those signatures were deemed valid by the clerk's office on Jan. 7, surpassing the signature threshold needed to force a council decision. 

Councilmembers decided to add the question to the Nov. 8 ballot, both because regularly scheduled elections tend to see much higher voter turnout and because it could have cost the city about $40,000 more to run its own special election.

But Knufinke claimed the council's decision violated state law which mandates that a regular or special election should be held no less than 60 days and no more than 150 days after a citizen petition is validated. Littleton's city charter and code exempt it from laws governing such petition and referendum requirements, allowing the city to set its own timeline.

Suzanne M. Taheri, the attorney representing Knufinke, said “whatever changes you make, you cannot interfere with the constitutional right" to hold special elections.

“The right of the people to vote on this in a timely way has been established time and time again," Taheri said.

Martinez's ruling cites Article 5 of Colorado's constitution, which allows for exemptions to state law for petitions and referendums for cities, towns and municipalities based on "their municipal legislation." 

Littleton's city code states Colorado's constitution  “shall have no applicability to any city initiative or referenda," as cited by Martinez's ruling.

"Here, the city has made a political decision and created a resolution to hold this election at the general election rather than creating a special election," Martinez wrote. "The court does not have the ability, power or resource to involve itself in these policy decisions." 

Knufinke said she was "surprised to see" that ruling's language excusing the court from such policies and said "most of the decisions the courts make are political."

The ruling comes as Knufinke and other residents petition to change the city's charter and code to force it to comply with Colorado law around petitions and special elections. Those residents need at least 3,628 physical signatures from registered Littleton voters by Aug. 12 to do so.

If successful, it would give residents the ability to push certain questions onto voters' ballots with fewer signatures and in a much shorter time frame. Along with reducing the needed signatures to trigger referendums from 10% of the registered voters in the last municipal election to just 5%, it would also force the city to call an election within 60 to 150 days from when that petition is certified. 

Knufinke said that petition was spurred by fear that the Aspen Grove referendum in November is now a moot point as — despite the original rezoning being stalled — developers were approved July 25 by the city's planning commission to move ahead with a smaller-scale plan of 481 housing units under the city's new land use code.

"We're going to continue with the petition effort," Knufinke said, adding that she is "definitely feeling optimistic," that it would succeed. 

Littleton, Aspen Grove, Littleton Election 2022, housing, lawsuit, referendum

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