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. 

Why Promoting Consistency in Community Development Rules Is So Important

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.