Cynics have long said that developers run this town. And the past couple years have provided them plenty of fodder.
First, in a well-run campaign financed largely by developer Chris Jenkins, city governance was changed to give the mayor's office more power. Then, again in a campaign in which developers played a major funding role, Steve Bach, a commercial real estate agent with close ties to the development community, was elected mayor.
In April, Bach took a step further by appointing Kyle Campbell, division manager of Classic Consulting Engineers & Surveyors — under the same corporate umbrella as über-developer Classic Homes — as interim head of the city's Planning Department.
Since then, the story has progressed as any good cynic would predict. Campbell, 45, who makes $175 an hour and has been paid more than $61,000 since April, has laid off four employees; cut fees for developers; and instituted shorter timelines for development reviews.
And that's just the beginning. Campbell also plans changes to the city's standards for development — though, unlike changes thus far, those likely will require review from the city's Planning Commission and City Council.
Former city employees contacted for this story because of their familiarity with the planning department say the Campbell setup is a classic "fox-in-the-henhouse" scenario.
"Where's the outrage in the conflict of interest?" questions Rob Kidder, who spent nearly 25 years as the Springs' city engineer before quitting to take a job in Mesa, Ariz., in May 2011. "There is a glaring conflict of interest."
Campbell, however, says he's not out to destroy the planning department, only to make it function more efficiently. He denies that his changes will benefit the development industry — to which he plans to return this fall when a permanent planning director is hired — at the expense of taxpayers.
"I take a lot of pride in my professionalism," Campbell tells the Indy.
'No checks and balances'
The city's planning department is often viewed as a protector of taxpayers.
It forces developers to build roads that, while more expensive up front, will endure and save the city from needing to replace them. The planning department ensures that any new development fits in with its surroundings. Planning makes sure that stormwater systems are built to withstand heavy rainfall, and that traffic flows through new neighborhoods as smoothly as possible.
Jim Mullen, who served as the Springs' city manager from 1996 to 2002 and still lives in the area, says conflicts between the planning department and developers have long been the norm.
"I think the city has, over many years, developed a pretty strong planning and development code," Mullen says. "And, at least a decade ago, it was pretty strongly defended by the City Council and, I think, enforced rigorously, but not unfairly. But the development community in this town has chafed against the planning department and the city's planning code and its ordinances for 20, 30 years."
Mullen says the root of the argument is simple. Planners have the taxpayers' interest in mind, and that means building something that will last. Developers have their own interests in mind, which mainly means turning a profit. With Campbell serving as chief regulator, Mullen suspects protections for citizens will deteriorate.
"This sounds to me like, 'We've got our man in office, and now we're going to get [the regulators] out and we're going to get out the bureaucracy,'" he says. "And that's what they call anything they don't like — 'bureaucracy.'"
Mullen says he's long heard the argument that cutting regulations will attract development and build the economy. But he doesn't buy it. When he was leading the city, he says, CEOs looking to relocate businesses judged a community based on its attractiveness and amenities — essentially on whether it would be a pleasant place to live. As the Springs deregulates, it becomes less and less attractive, he says.
"To take the position that you're going to rest the future of your community on the pinnacle of development regulations being removed, I think is a very narrow view," he says.
Kidder agrees and says he worries that development interests are hijacking normal government oversight and creating an environment where employees fear speaking their minds.
"Apparently it's a free-for-all for developers in Colorado Springs," he says. "...There's no checks and balances; that's really the bottom line."
In a meeting with the Indy, Campbell says his intentions are merely to streamline his department, save the city money, and encourage development while maintaining standards. Campbell, who despite being in the city's organizational chart is technically a contractor, says he was offered his post after serving on a roundtable with Bach to discuss improving planning and land-use regulations. Given his 21 years in the Springs' development consulting business, Campbell felt he had the knowledge to make informed suggestions.
"I was very familiar with all the staff, and so one of the benefits was I knew how all the entities functioned," Campbell says.
While he says he didn't initially plan layoffs, Campbell says he felt them necessary because staff had declined throughout the recession, but management levels had not. Campbell says the layoffs were not vengeance-based. He recalls very few run-ins with city staff over his years as a consultant, and none with sacked Planning and Development manager Dick Anderwald.
"That's one of the benefits of being a consultant," Campbell says, "is that most of those battles aren't my battles."
Other changes instituted by Campbell include grouping staff who work together on projects, cementing job duties, and better defining what order approvals should follow. Those movements, along with a cutback in some employees' side duties, have allowed him to lessen the time some approvals take.
Local developer Chuck Murphy says he was thrilled to hear that approval times are being shortened. "I think that every city that wants to be competitive is going to have to sharpen their pencil and reduce the time allocation that it takes to get plans approved," Murphy says.
As for the reduction of fees, Campbell says a study of employee time-use (which was not provided to the Indy despite a request) showed that fees to developers weren't commensurate with the city's costs. He reduced fees by up to 50 percent to make up the difference.
Campbell also plans changes to regulations, but those will likely require approval of other city boards.
Asked if he thinks he has a conflict of interest, Campbell says he feels the city has a proper system of checks and balances to prevent abuse, given that major changes to department policy require approval from the Planning Commission and the City Council. Plus, he says, he's personally committed to ethical conduct: He's taken a leave of absence from the board of the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, as well as from Classic (though he's still listed as the main contact on Classic's website). He adds that he's involved in very few Classic projects, most of which fall outside city limits.
But Campbell says there is a more fundamental reason he sees no conflict in his service to the city. Unlike Mullen and Kidder, Campbell says he sees little difference between the interests of developers and the interests of taxpayers.
"I take exception to the fact that there's a fence," he says, "and that someone's got to be on one side or the other."