Most local developers publicly scoff at the widely held notion that they control City Hall and the people who run it.
Newly appointed Deputy City Manager Dave Nickerson has proven just how wrong they are.
On Aug. 22, Nickerson issued a missive to city staffers who are involved in the various stages of reviewing and processing development projects. In it, he sternly, almost angrily, warned them that, when it comes to development projects, the developers are always right.
In the memo, obtained by the Independent, Nickerson chastised unnamed staff for slowing down development projects. He accused them of everything from a "lack of consistency," to imposing "personal preferences," to working too slowly while reviewing proposals, to having the gall to redesign work that has been submitted by private sector planners.
That sort of nonsense, Nickerson indicated, must stop immediately. He didn't actually use the term "rubber stamp," but the directive was clear.
"When in doubt we should give the applicant the benefit of the doubt and move the plan forward," Nickerson wrote in the memo, which can be read in its entirety below.
"It is my belief that our role in City Government is to help the applicant successfully process their project plans and you will find that I will not be critical of those that make judgments to further that end."
Nickerson claimed he was driven to deliver the directive due to an "unprecedented number of complaints from the building and development industry or anyone, for that matter, that has recently had a land use matter before City staff and/or Planning Commission and City Council."
In an interview this week, Nickerson claimed he has fielded "more than 100" complaints from developers and others. However, he refused to quantify any of the specifics of the alleged complaints, including exactly who has lodged criticisms with the city, or the projects at issue.
"I would suppose you would call them anecdotal," he said. "I don't really want to get into specifics because I don't want to embarrass the staffers or members of the community who want to complain."
Nickerson even put a happy face on his stern directive. "There's nothing negative about this," he said. "It's a positive thing and I think it will do positive things for us. It will be positive for the community and for how the development community views us in city government."
The deputy city manager, who has worked for the city for 29 years, most recently overseeing the city's enterprise operations (including the airport and cemeteries), noted that he has not asked anyone to do anything "illegal, unethical, improper or [to] give away the farm." His motivation, he said, stems from a desire that everyone be treated fairly and consistently.
Nickerson said that, over the years, he has observed the pendulum swing from developers having control to the current "perception" that neighborhood groups are dictating growth and development. Both extremes are inappropriate, he said.
His stance leaves some citizen activists with their jaws dropped. "Reading Nickerson's letter is appalling for me because what I've seen for the past 10 years is just the opposite," said Kerri Olivier, who has worked closely on planning items related to her Mountain Shadows neighborhood.
"Colorado Springs has been more developer-friendly -- much more so -- than in any other city along the Front Range."
Now, Nickerson is a nice enough guy and certainly has proven himself a team player. But let's consider his position.
Last year, while Nickerson was overseeing cemeteries and a dead airport, the City Council adopted what they heralded as a groundbreaking Comprehensive Plan, establishing guidelines to map how the city will grow for the next 20 years.
The Comp Plan was supposed to empower city planners with what they never had before: the ability to carefully scrutinize development projects; enforce rigid land-use policies; and make the call on what different parts of the city should look like.
At the time, everyone agreed the only way this thing could have teeth is if the city's planners and engineers could be given the time necessary to ensure careful, considerate planning was taking place. Logically, that meant developers would be forced to adhere to higher standards.
The City Council's endorsement of the Comp Plan was backed up by an $18,200 tax-paid "Citizens Survey" whose June 2001 findings indicated an overwhelming majority of city residents believe the city has fallen down on the planning and growth-management job.
Now, a little more than a year later, we're informed there's a new deputy in town.
Which begs the obvious question: Why isn't he upholding the law?
Next week: Meet your developer-friendly City Planning Commission.
ENTIRE MEMO from Deputy City Manager Dave Nickerson:
Development Review Philosophy and Direction to Staff
Dave Nickerson, Deputy City Manager
August 22, 2002
The purpose of this paper is to provide clarification and direction to all City staff that is involved in the Development Review Process. The need for this as arisen from the unprecedented number of complaints arising from the building and development industry or anyone, for that matter, that has recently had a land-use matter before City staff and/or Planning Commission and City Council.
Example of complaints are:
the lack of consistency in the review of plans from one staff member to another
personal preference being imposed by planners and engineers regarding plans versus adhering to standards
staff redesigning work that has been prepared by private sector professional planners and engineers
staff extracting concessions from applicants that are not deemed to be fair or the responsibility of the applicant but are being demanded because the City doesn't have the money to meet its responsibilities regarding development and infrastructure
lack of willingness on the part of many in the building and development industry to object to requirements or raise the issue with higher level authorities because of fear that staff will retaliate in future submissions from those that object
staff has no sense of urgency regarding the timely processing of the applicant's project plans, and
staff's inability to make a decision and move forward with the item.
Certainly development review staff has a difficult job and has always and will always be subject to criticism for their role in this process. Also, along with complaints, there have come many compliments about individuals that do not engage in the above practices and do an excellent job. I certainly regret the appearance that I may be placing you all in the same category but because of the above issues, I feel the need to provide very clear direction to all of you at the same time. I will be speaking to all of you about this but I am taking the extra step of putting this in writing so that everyone gets the same word and there are no misunderstandings about my comments or direction
First, let me say that if any staff members are engaging in any of the above practices, please cease those practices and do not engage in them again.
Second, I have attached a graphic that helps me to explain my philosophy and direction to you. It is what I call "the range of good decisions". I will hand out a copy of that graphic and talk through it with you in detail. However, the essence of that graphic is to indicate that in any planning or engineering project, there is a range of reasonable solutions. If a reasonable solution/plan is submitted for your review, you should accept it and move it along to the next stage. You are not to impose personal preferences, redesign the plan, etc. The difficulty is in determining the line at which a submission does not meet acceptable professional standards/requirements. However, when in doubt, we should give the applicant the benefit of the doubt and move the plan forward. The applicant can be a developer or building community. Simple that anyone that brings an application before us should get the same customer service and access to reasonable timeframes for processing the request. I want to make it clear that I am not asking staff to do anything illegal, unethical, improper or "give away the farm", as the saying goes. I am simply saying that we need to be flexible, open to new ideas, decisive and move the review along.
It is my belief that our role in City Government is to help the applicant successfully process their project plans and you will find that I will not be critical of those that make judgements to further that end. Even if I personally, might have decided to approach the matter differently, that staff member is trying to make the process work for our applicant and community.
Some of you may have different opinions from those that I have expressed above. I sincerely invite you to talk with me openly, whether in group meetings or privately, about your opinions. I make it a practice to treat everyone with dignity and respect because I like to be treated that way as well. I hope that you feel free to speak candidly with me.
There is a great deal that I have undoubtedly omitted from this draft but I think I have make the key points that I feel are necessary to discussion. I look forward to our conversation n this and other City issues.
(signed) Dave Nickerson