Judge’s ruling blocks controversial downtown Steamboat apartment project
A Routt County judge has effectively blocked the construction of a controversial apartment project in downtown Steamboat Springs that was criticized by several community members for being too tall and too big.
In a ruling issued last week, Judge Shelley Hill reversed the Steamboat Springs City Council’s approval of three variances that would have allowed the 60-unit apartment project to be taller, more dense and closer to the street than city codes allow.
The City Council justified the variances by stating the city’s height and density codes presented an “unnecessary hardship” to the developer, and the developer needed the variances to make the project profitable.
But Hill found that the city’s rationale for approving the variances at 1125 Lincoln Ave. was a “misapplication of the law” and an “abuse of discretion by the city.”
“The profitability of a development is not a factor … that may properly be considered when determining whether there exists unnecessary hardship,” Hill wrote in her 32-page opinion.
Hill’s ruling was a victory for Old Town resident Ken Manley, who sued the city and the City Council last year to try and stop the project.
Manley and his attorney Rich Tremaine argued in court the council didn’t follow proper procedure and broke city rules when it approved the development in April 2016.
Manley also told the council he thought the project would stick out like a sore thumb in the western entrance to downtown.
The majority of the City Council stood by the approval and even approved a separate resolution this year to try and strengthen the city’s legal case.
Critics of the apartment project applauded Hill’s ruling on Monday.
“I think that this decision was a huge win for the city of Steamboat in maintaining the character of downtown and what Steamboat is all about,” former city planner John Lanterman said. “I think the project was just so massive, and there were so many variances, it just didn’t belong downtown.”
City Attorney Dan Foote said he plans to ask the City Council on Sept. 5 whether it would want the city to appeal Hill’s decision.
“Obviously, I’m a little disappointed in the results,” Foote said.
Foote confirmed the project is on hold pending final resolution of the legal case.
Council President Walter Magill, who was one of four council members who initially approved the apartment project, said Monday he doesn’t think the city should mount an appeal of Hill’s ruling.
“I don’t think we have a real strong case,” Magill said.
Magill noted the council plans to have a work session next month to discuss what the community would like to see in terms of downtown development.
The apartment project included commercial spaces at the ground level.
Council members who were supportive of the project and the variances said the need for the residential and mixed-use building outweighed concerns about its size and appearance.
“This fits (for) nurses and hospital workers and the young couple who have good jobs but can’t get a home here,” former Councilman Tony Connell said of the apartments before he voted to approve the project.
At 51 feet tall, the apartment building would have been 13 feet higher than the 38 feet that is allowed by code in the commercial Old Town district.
And another variance would have allowed the developers to not have to set back the upper portion of the building that rose above 28 feet.
Eric Rogers, the developer of the project, said units would have been marketed to those making $50,000 to $100,000 each year.
Rogers could not immediately be reached Monday on his cell phone to discuss the judge’s ruling.
He did not return multiple phone calls from Steamboat Today while the litigation was ongoing.
Council members Scott Ford and Jason Lacy recused themselves from all of the votes and discussions on the development because both had business connections to it.
Councilwoman Kathi Meyer was the lone ‘no’ vote against the project when it was initially approved.
She agreed with community members who thought it was too tall and dense for the area.
Aspen City Council agreed on Tuesday the first steps that lead to a pathway of more funding for local arts and culture programs.
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