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Thornton City Council unanimously passed a plan to finance the construction of Parterre, a proposed 800-acre development in the city’s northeast corner.

Several councilors expressed confusion about technicalities associated with the metro district plan before they all ultimately approved it during a Feb. 23 meeting. Several councilors cited the developers’ seeming trustworthiness as their reason for approving the metro district, a controversial subject in recent Colorado development news.

“The biggest issue for me is that this is the ability to grow that area and to have the area pay for that growth,” said Mayor Jan Kulmann before voting to approve the plan. “We want to make sure we are respecting our past, but we are looking forward to the future.”

Metro districts are governments established — in this case, for a specific subdivision — that issues debt to repay the developer for building the neighborhood. The revenue to pay off that debt comes from property taxes.

Metro districts are a way for the neighborhood to pay for itself, rather than the city paying for it. Developers, city councilors and even critics agree that districts are good for new subdivisions that need roads and water lines. Currently, unlevel farmland occupies the area where Parterre will go. Its location is north of 144th Avenue, south of 152nd Avenue and west of Quebec St. Once completed in 10 to 20 years, it will house 4,100-plus residential units.

The metro district plan council approved Feb. 23 is an amended version of a plan the city council approved in 2008. The debt issuance limit in the 2008 version was $85 million. The amended plan raised that to $189 million. The main reason for the increase is that construction costs have more than doubled, said Chad Murphy, representative of Hines, the developer. The new plan also included new accountability and transparency measures, as required by new state laws.

Though most experts agree that metro districts aren’t inherently bad, critics argue they can be easy opportunities for abuse. A 2019 Denver Post investigation outlines different ways developers can leverage metro districts to increase their profits.

That’s something Charles Wolfersberger, a CPA and president of a local property management company, said he was concerned about with the new Parterre metro district plan. Wolfersberger spoke at the Feb. 23 public hearing and also sent a letter to the council the same day. “Such an increase (in debt issuance) appears unreasonable and we are not confident that City staff has performed sufficient analysis,” he said in his letter. He also pointed out that Parterre’s debt per acre amount is far higher than the average calculated from six other Thornton-based metro districts.

Wolfersberger also criticized the metro district’s structure and how Parterre will technically have eight smaller metro districts instead of one big one. Certain technical issues with the structure, “exposes the city to future potential litigation by the residents,” he said in the letter, a point that Murphy disputed in the Feb. 23 meeting.

Though some councilors expressed skepticism about Parterre’s plan during the meeting, many also believed the plan had enough checks and balances. Councilor Angie Bedolla asked Murphy, “Due to the previous metro districts and those who gave it a bad name, would agree that metro districts of today … ensure that you are following the guidelines appropriately?” Murphy responded, “Yes … True malfeasance in districts today is very rare.”

Other councilors said they were confused about certain matters and would have preferred to delay the vote until after an upcoming study session that will review the basics about metro districts. “I wish that we had the conversation with staff that we were supposed to have about metro districts in general before doing this,” Councilwoman Julia Marvin said before voting yes.

However, Murphy made it clear that Hines was eager for the council’s approval. “We’re chomping at the bit to get going, quite frankly,” he said. At one point in the meeting, Murphy agreed to accelerate a plan for certain roadway improvements, to allay certain councilor’s concerns in hopes they would approve the metro district. City Manager Kevin Woods called it out, saying to Murphy, “Suddenly, you’re all about fixing them (roads) … If you can suddenly be aggressive on it, how did that happen?”

Even though every councilor wasn’t 100 percent reassured about the plan before approving it, they said there were bigger factors to consider. The main one, as articulated by Bedolla, “We as a city cannot afford to put forth this infrastructure and that is the reason for metro districts.”

After the meeting, Murphy said in a statement, “The PD and Metropolitan District amendments approved by Thornton City Council were paramount in making Parterre a reality. We are thrilled to have the support of the City and are now able to move forward with the new, updated vision for Parterre.”