After area residents expressed fears that a proposed change to property development policy in Douglas County would allow more “high-density” multifamily buildings, the county’s elected leaders decided to shelve the plan, setting the stage for a revised form.
County staff had portrayed the potential change as minor edits that would clarify confusing language.
“I just don’t want to leave anybody with the interpretation that we were trying to vastly change the zoning regulations and we got caught. Because that’s not at all what was going on,” said Commissioner Lora Thomas during the May 9 meeting.
She added: “I thought we were just trying to do something to clarify language.”
At issue was a plan to edit the criteria that developers need to meet to make changes to “planned developments,” meaning land in a special type of zoning that applies to certain areas. (Zoning is a local government’s rules for what can be built where.)
After hearing more than a dozen speak against the proposal, along with dozens of other comments the county received from residents in April, the group of Douglas County residents who advise the county’s elected leaders on development — the county Planning Commission — on April 17 voted 5-1 against the language changes.
The planning commissioners serve as an advisory group, and the county’s board of three elected commissioners — George Teal, Thomas and Abe Laydon — generally make the final call on development decisions in areas outside of municipalities.
The county heard concerns that the change “would make the process for someone to amend a planned development much easier or to get a development of a different type approved much easier — that it would be a significant thing,” Steven Koster, assistant director of planning services for Douglas County, has told Colorado Community Media. “And I’m not sure exactly how that understanding came to be.”
The county commissioners on May 9 voted to “table” the plan, and county staff indicated that a revised plan could come back to the commissioners for a vote at some point.
‘Not meant to be a fossil’
An area with “planned development” zoning can feature a mix of property types — including residential, commercial, recreational and others — in a way that standard zoning districts can’t, Koster said.
Planned developments are also intended “to encourage innovative and creative design,” Douglas County’s zoning policy says.
Planned developments can be small or spread over a large area: Highlands Ranch is a planned development, for example.
Over time, planned developments can change, or be “amended,” if the county gives the OK. At issue during the April 17 county Planning Commission meeting was a proposal to edit the criteria that would allow for those changes.
Among several approval criteria, the staff held up two for edits. They included:
• A change from the wording “Whether the amendment is consistent with the development standards, commitments, and overall intent of the planned development” to “Whether the amendment is consistent with the overall intent of the planned development”; and
• A change from the wording “Whether the amendment is consistent with the intent, efficient development and preservation of the entire planned development” to “Whether the amendment is consistent with the efficient development of the entire planned development.”
The proposed removal of some words — particularly “preservation” — raised some residents’ eyebrows.
But in a report to the county Planning Commission, county staff wrote that “planned developments are intended to be documents that may be amended from time to time.”
“The word ‘preservation’ could be confusing and could be construed as keeping the planned development in (its current) state,” Matt Jakubowski, a chief planner on county staff, said during the April meeting.
But “by the very fact” that a developer ever proposes to amend a planned development, that inherently implies change, he said.
“They’re meant to be flexible — they’re not meant to be a fossil,” Jakubowski said.
Asked whether the proposed language edits would lead to more new, high-density multifamily buildings in longtime single-family neighborhoods, Koster had told Colorado Community Media: “I don’t think it changes the probabilities around that happening, no.”
“There are more than just those two approval criteria,” Koster said.
The concept of “preservation” is mentioned elsewhere in Douglas County’s zoning rules regarding planned developments, such as in saying: “Development within this district should be designed to … ensure that environmentally and visually sensitive areas are preserved.”
Extreme changes to a planned development wouldn’t depend on the language that county staff are proposing editing.
“There does come a point where the changes somebody wants to make are too fundamental,” and then “we would say that the proper (process) is a full rezoning” rather than mere tweaks based on the planned development rules, Koster told CCM.
‘Back to the drawing board’
After the county heard concerns in April, county staff contemplated revisions to the proposed edits that were to come to the county commissioners.
“I think we did hear very loudly and clearly from those we serve about the consternation and maybe confusion about what was presented,” Laydon said at the May 9 meeting.
Jakubowski told the commissioners the edits were aimed at simplifying the development application process.
“From staff’s perspective, the proposed changes were to provide some clarification, making it easier for staff and (developers) to interpret the approval criteria,” Jakubowski said.
At a work-session meeting on May 1, the county commissioners discussed with staff the concerns raised by the public and the planning commission regarding the proposed edits, according to the county’s website. In response, staff was preparing revisions to the proposed edits for consideration by the planning commission and the county commissioners.
Staff had recommended that the county commissioners return the matter to the planning commission for a public-hearing meeting on June 5. Staff also recommended that the county commissioners postpone their vote on the edits to a public-hearing meeting on June 27.
But when the matter might come back up for a decision is now uncertain.
“By tabling, it allows them to go back to the drawing board, not being under some artificial calendar deadline by the board,” Teal said.
Though Thomas was reluctant, the county commissioners voted unanimously on May 9, allowing staff to spend more time on the potential edits.