Several Littleton residents, during an April 5 city council meeting, called on leaders to halt new developments and lambasted the land-use code.
The outspoken residents prompted the most direct and public defense of the code yet from city staff.
In calling for a moratorium, residents struck at the heart of the city’s Unified Land Use Code (ULUC), passed unanimously by council in October, that allows for rezonings of certain land in a bid to promote more mixed-use developments, especially along major corridors like Santa Fe, Broadway and Littleton boulevards.
“To me, it seems like it gives developers from outside of Littleton and Colorado the license to shape the future growth of Littleton,” said Lynn Christensen, who frequently speaks at city council meetings.
The ULUC, a more than 430-page document, has been the key for developers to unlock new zoning ordinances that city staff had said were too restrictive. The land-use code is the first change to the city’s zoning guidelines in nearly 40 years and was hailed by council and city staff as a landmark legislation that would set the stage for new housing and commercial investments.
But some new development proposals spurred by the ULUC have come at a cost.
The longtime family-run business O’Toole’s Garden Center announced it would be closing Aug. 31 after selling its property to a developer. The land, located at West Belleview Avenue and South Federal Boulevard, has the potential for a mixed-use rezoning thanks to the ULUC.
Mike Sutherland, community development deputy director, said it was “concerning to see a good corporate citizen like O’Toole’s close their doors,” but believes the new zoning could “open up some possibilities for the future.”
Perhaps the most high-profile example of some residents disaproval of new development is the saga of Aspen Grove, a roughly 33-acre mall in southwest Littleton that was rezoned by council in November for mixed-use development. Thousands of residents petitioned against the plans, ultimately forcing council to punt the decision to a city-wide referendum scheduled for November. That issue also resulted in a lawsuit.
Though those redevelopment plans were based off guidlines in the former land-use code, the site’s owner and developer, Gerrity Group, is pushing ahead with pre-planning allowed under the ULUC as the rezoning remains stalled.
Some city residents believe the ULUC, pitched as a potential solution to Littleton’s housing deficit, said they don’t see more mixed-use as the right answer.
“The only solution that I’m seeing is the erection of very large, cheaply built, expensive apartments to live in,” said Gloria Shone.
Many who have spoken out on new developments in the past said they fear the loss of Littleton’s community character with guidelines that allow some mixed-use projects to reach more than 90 feet.
“I have lived in Littleton for over 30 years and I don’t like the way things are going in Littleton, I want to keep that small-town feel,” said city resident Susan Bredehoeft.
“It’s not that we don’t want development, but it needs to keep Littleton Littleton,” said resident Michael Goldberg.
There were also allegations from some residents that the city has not done enough to seek their input in the conversations leading up to the ULUC’s passage.
“The ULUC does not involve the public,” said resident Linda Knufinke, one of the chief supporters of the Aspen Grove petition who also sued the city over the timing of the referendum election. “A thoughtful and deliberate conversation on ULUC should be held between city council and citizens.”
The comments amounted to an eventual rebuttal from the city’s manager and attorney, who, following the end of public comment, used their time to defend the land-use code and ease citizen concern.
“We spent the last four years going through this community and literally tens of thousands of interactions with our citizens,” said City Manager Mark Relph, who said there will be annual evaluations of the ULUC.
Relph also refuted the claims that the code would damage Littleton’s character and said he would challenge anyone to “find another code in this country that goes to this extreme to protect the character of a community.”
City Attorney Reid Betzing echoed Relph and said the code includes 16 different character zones.
“Half of the ULUC was based upon various character zones based within our city,” Reid said. “So it’s not something that we’re not thoughtful of.”
Betzing also responded to issues raised by some residents that the code does nothing to ensure affordable or attainable housing is built.
“Truth, we don’t, we can’t, not right now,” Betzing said. “We can if the city decides to come up with an inclusionary housing ordinance.”
Council members have already heard from members of South Metro Housing Options about potential ordinances they could pass to promote more affordable housing in future developments. That will be a subject of further discussion during the May 3 council meeting, Betzing said.
“Some of these things are coming forward, they may not be at the timelines that other persons would like, but we are making progress and we are striving to have a better code,” he said.
Ultimately, Betzing stressed that the ULUC is still in a “clean up” phase. The city’s planning commission met March 28 to run through 28 different parts of the code that needs tweaking in order to make its language clearer and address inconsistencies with other city codes.
“Right now we’re just trying to clean it up, to make it functional,” Betzing said. “But we’re not discouraging public comment.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the rezoning of the Aspen Grove shopping mall was in-line with guidlines from the city’s old land-use code, not the ULUC.