Zoning and development codes address many of a society’s most important concerns, including public health, safety and environmental protection. But they can be financially detrimental to new businesses and polarizing to communities if they contain contradictory or vague language that needs to be interpreted. Consistency—the absence of contradictions—could be called the hallmark of logic. Accordingly, the presence of contradictions and uncertainty can create community-wide concerns about the fairness of any system.
Recently, the Town Board gave approval to the Lazy B Ranch project after much financial expense to the owners and fierce public opposition.
At the July 25 Town Board meeting, I commented to the Town Board that the conflicts over code interpretation within the approval process had revealed that in this instance (and in others), a developer had to spend $80,000 to $100,000 to get an answer to the question of whether their proposed use was even allowed on the property. Town Attorney Greg White earlier noted that code conflicts within the Use Classification system are common for Estes Park. Such conflicting code language creates frustration for businesses, residents, town staff and the Town Board and Planning Commission. It also can discourage or frustrate projects that address generally agreed community needs or priorities.
The Estes Park EDC identified the need to address problems in the development code, building code and approval process over a year ago.
The Economic Development Strategy, developed in 2015 with Avalanche Consulting, affirmed that this is a key issue for advancing economic vitality. With a new Community Development Director, there should be an opportunity for Town to begin addressing this recommendation. The Estes Park EDC Commercial Development Code Committee can help to begin addressing concerns by both identifying problems and suggesting possible solutions. The Board of Directors of the Estes Park EDC will also play an important role in ensuring that we provide feedback and suggestions that can lead to forward progress while recognizing our community’s character and values.
Workforce and affordable housing are also being affected by our current development code.
The approval of two new Habitat for Humanity homes received a lot of public opposition from neighbors who feared that having Habitat homes in their neighborhood would depress property values. Here again, the Planning Commission recommended disapproval while the Town Board signaled its commitment to housing by approving the project unanimously.
One option suggested to improve predictability for all concerned is moving toward a form-based code system, rather than the current, traditional Use Classification system. The Form-Based Codes Institute describes it thus:
“Form-based code is a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. A form-based code is a regulation, not a mere guideline, adopted into city, town, or county law. A form-based code offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning regulation.”
Adopting a form-based code would take careful study. Such a solution would represent a longer-term effort, but may afford both residents and businesses greater predictability than the current use classification system. A form-based code could first be implemented as part of the downtown neighborhood planning process. Visit the Estes Park EDC Facebook page and you will find a posting concerning adoption of a form-based code for downtown Chattanooga.
The regulatory environment in cities and towns should be designed to help small businesses open safely and quickly, not create unnecessary hurdles for business owners. Neighborhood residents desire the same kind of certainty concerning what will and will not be allowed. In the long-term, Estes Park can more effectively serve both residents and business owners when they understand the “rules of the road” when it comes to permitting, licensing and zoning.
Changes will ultimately require approval by both the Town Board and Larimer County Commissioners due to the joint planning area for the Estes Valley. Let’s hope we can begin the discussion about how to improve our community while preserving our mountain character.