Real-estate developers, who bankrolled the election campaigns of most members of the Colorado Springs City Council, cashed in Tuesday with a new city ordinance -- conceived and partially written by the developers themselves -- that would enable them to lock in development rights for certain parcels of land for up to 20 years.
The council gave initial approval of the ordinance despite concerns from several citizen groups, which argued developers might be able to use it as a type of get-out-of-jail-free card to escape future restrictions on development.
"Twenty years is a long time," said Sallie Clark, a spokeswoman for the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, which urged the Council to delay and rework the ordinance. "How do we know what's going to happen in the next 20 years in our city?"
Moreover, the ordinance could significantly limit the future ability of citizens to comment on certain developments, critics charged.
The ordinance, which still requires a second vote of approval, enables the city and developers to enter into contracts called "development agreements" for certain large parcels that may still not be developed for many years to come.
Typically, an agreement would grant the developer certain rights regarding density and types of property uses, although more specific, detailed rights could in theory be negotiated. The city would then be contractually precluded from "changing the rules" on the developer for the duration of the agreement.
In theory, developers would benefit by reducing the risk that future, unforeseen political decisions will foil their long-range plans.
"It's really to pre-empt subsequent code changes," said Bill Healy, the city's planning director.
While surrendering some of its future authority to shape developments, the city would benefit by negotiating, as part of each agreement, certain concessions from the developer that it otherwise wouldn't have the leverage to ask for. For example, the city could persuade a developer to pay extra money for roads or donate land for open space.
"It's a give-and-take," said Vice Mayor Richard Skorman, who voted for the ordinance.
Little public input
In addition to the Council of Neighbors and Organizations, two other citizen groups -- the Voters Network and Save the Springs, a growth-control advocacy group -- opposed the ordinance.
The groups argued that if development rights are locked in for a 20-year period, opportunities for citizens to comment on a project 10 or 15 years down the road would be minimal.
The groups also complained that only one public hearing had been held on the ordinance prior to Tuesday's council meeting. (The hearing took place before the City Planning Commission, which voted unanimously to back the ordinance. Just a few weeks ago, the same Planning Commission refused to vote on a proposed ordinance to protect the view of Pikes Peak from the Pioneers Museum downtown, arguing there had been insufficient public input. The view ordinance had been discussed at more than 20 public forums.)
However, Healy noted that planning staff consulted the Council of Neighbors and Organizations while developing the ordinance. And each proposed development agreement would go through a normal public process, with hearings before the City Planning Commission as well as the City Council, he said.
Healy also said that developers didn't get everything they lobbied for in the ordinance. Although development agreements would lock in certain rights specific to a site, the ordinance does contain safeguards to ensure that any future "citywide" regulations -- ranging from health-related building code changes to a hypothetical all-out growth moratorium -- would still apply, Healy said.
The council ended up voting unanimously for the ordinance, even though Councilwoman Margaret Radford said she was concerned that the safeguards Healy cited might not be sufficient to preserve the city's authority to regulate. Radford said she would seek further reassurances before the ordinance comes up for final approval.
"I think the good outweighs the bad," Radford said in explaining her vote.
The council's decision delighted Ralph Braden, vice president of Nor'wood Development, and Mark Loeb, planning director for La Plata Investments, the developer of Briargate in northern Colorado Springs. Both appeared before the council to argue for the ordinance.
"We fully support this," Braden said.
In fact, it was Braden who proposed the ordinance three years ago, he noted, with the specific goal of being able to lock in long-term rights for Nor'wood's Wolf Ranch project, a future 7,000-home subdivision on the far north end of the city. And it was La Plata Investments, which also plans to seek development agreements, that wrote the initial draft of the ordinance.
During last spring's city elections, Braden, a former chairman of the Colorado Springs Housing and Building Association, made campaign contributions ranging from $250 to $350 to at least five of the current council members -- Mayor Lionel Rivera and Councilmen Scott Hente, Jerry Heimlicher, Randy Purvis and Larry Small.
La Plata wrote $1,000 checks to Councilmen Hente, Purvis, Small and Darryl Glenn. On Tuesday, Purvis made the motion to approve the ordinance, and Small seconded the motion.