Let’s Work Toward Positive Outcomes

By Jon Nicholas
President/CEO, Estes Park EDC

Over the last year, Estes Park EDC has devoted substantial time and effort to educating the community about the need for Workforce Housing.  Our organization started in large part due to the steep decline in 35-44 year old residents in Estes Park.  According to the U.S. Census, we experienced a 28 percent population decline in this working age bracket from 2000 to 2010, and the decline accelerated to 45 percent from 2000 to 2013.  This has profound implications for the sustainability of our Hospital, the School District, police and fire services, and the community as a whole. 

In April, I wrote about the need for development code changes to facilitate workforce housing, including a height increase for Multifamily Residential zones to enable three-story apartments in the RM Zones (about 1.8 percent of the Estes Valley’s available land area).  A recent Denver Post story reveals that seven Front Range counties rank among the twelve least affordable for housing nationwide—that list includes both Boulder and Larimer counties.  In short, we cannot expect other communities to solve our problem. 

There are also larger issues with the Development Code that need to be addressed.  In late 2015, the Regional Economic Strategy, funded by an EDA grant concluded that “if development codes and processes are not revised to match the needs of local businesses, the Estes Valley will not see necessary investments in redevelopment and local business expansions.”  This has major implications for the quality of life of this community, which depends upon the availability of quality services.  

In May, Community Development Director Randy Hunt presented the Town Board with a proposal to begin work on clarifying and simplifying the Development Code.  Facilitating workforce housing is only a subset of the bigger issue of code complexity, code ambiguity and internal code conflicts.  Last year I spoke at a public hearing regarding the Lazy B Ranch proposal to stress one point:  regardless of what the Board decided, ambiguous code provisions were unfair to both applicants and neighboring residents and businesses.  This process was unfair to all residents, regardless of what development policies they support. 

I thought it important that community members read a fair summary of the staff memo from May of 2017. Below are some of the key points from the memo. 

First, the memo mentions that the “Estes Valley Development Code is difficult to administer and confusing to the development community and public. This fundamental fact means there’s an immediate, in fact urgent, task before us: extensively revising our Development Code.”

One of the examples provided was that it is estimated that one-fourth of the homes in the Estes Valley do not comply with minimum lot sizes and/or current setback requirements.  As a result, anyone wanting to pull a building permit to do significant work on their home must seek approval for a variance. 

Second, the memo states that the purpose of amending the Development Code is to align that code to meet defined goals:

1)      Simplify, streamline and make more transparent and accountable all elements of the Estes Valley Development Code

2)      Update language, procedures and criteria to meet current standards;

3)      Impose clearly defined and understandable regulations (so that an ordinary citizen as well as professionals, developers and elected officials can read it and understand what is written);

4)      For projects, balance the wishes and needs of the neighbors with the overall well-being of the entire community;

5)      Identify a clear process with measurable benchmarks for Development Code procedure;

6)      Use a deliberate speed approach to process timelines, with adequate time for public comment, staff analysis and decision-maker review--without arbitrary delays; and

7)      Reduce to the minimum the number of approvals with lengthy “conditions” (some of them are not approvals at all, and others are difficult to monitor and enforce).

These goals appear to be worthwhile.  Placing greater burdens on figuring out what the Code means does not promote fair enforcement.

Third, the memo references as a disadvantage the fact that it will be seen (by some) as changing some of the “fundamental assumptions” under which the community has been operating.  Based on prior experience, it appears to me that the key assumption is that amending the Code should take 4 to 18 months—for every such amendment-- rather than 6 to eight weeks. In a time of great online transparency and instant communication, community members can and do provide input on potential code changes.  

Another one of the disadvantages of acting noted in Randy Hunt’s memo is that “change itself is seen as threatening and produces fear among some.” That is unfortunate.  Our options to address workforce housing are to: build up (concentrate density in specific places); build out (which would potentially affect single-family residential neighborhoods), or do nothing.  Doing nothing is not a good option. If we care about being a multi-generational community, let’s take action--starting now.  The Town Board and County Commissioners will meet on September 18 to discuss potential code changes over the next 2 or three years.  To accomplish positive action, let’s have an informed and dispassionate discussion focused on desired outcomes and goals that best serve the needs of the community.