ACLU weighs in on impact fee issue |

ACLU weighs in on impact fee issue

Civil Liberties Union calls city's stance on petition drive unconstitutional

Avi Salzman

— A lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the city this week claiming the city’s position on referendum petitions violates the state constitution.

The city denied a group of petitioners its request to bring impact fees to a vote based on the fact that they had not complied with the city’s requirements to get 20 percent of the number of registered voters at the last municipal election to sign. Residents of the city are allowed to try to overturn an ordinance voted on by City Council.

The Colorado branch of the ACLU, which acts to protect civil liberties throughout the country, has come forward to state that the city is abridging the rights of the petitioners to bring the fees to a vote. The lawyer’s case is based on a conflict between the city’s charter and the state constitution, which asks for only 10 percent of the electors to sign. That part of the constitution reads: “Not more than 10 percent of the registered electors may be required to order the referendum … .”

Simon Mole, an ACLU attorney, writes in his letter: “If you impose a signature requirement in excess of the constitutional minimum for placing a referendum on the municipal ballot, you infringe upon a right constitutionally reserved to the people of Steamboat Springs.”

Mole and other ACLU representatives were unavailable for comment Thursday.

The city’s position from the start of this issue has been that the petitioners must get 20 percent of registered voters to sign, meaning they needed 1,596 signatures.

The petitioners, aided by 60 other residents, got only 889 valid signatures and failed by the city charter’s standards to force the controversial fees to a vote.

At the last municipal election in 1999, there were 7,980 registered voters in the city, meaning the petitioners would have to get 798 signatures (or 835 based on current voter registration) to meet the state’s requirements.

In order to meet the city’s charter, however, the petitioners would need 1,596 signatures.

Because the petitioners fell between those two numbers, the legal question emerges. And as far as the city is concerned, there is no case law its lawyers know of that supports the other side’s position.

Mole points to a few cases that supposedly show that the city’s requirement can not be more stringent than the state’s on this matter.

City officials, however, were not convinced.

“That’s just one person’s opinion,” said City Council President Kevin Bennett. “I’m sure the ACLU is very concerned with people’s civil rights but their opinion is not any more valid than any other citizen’s opinion.”

City Attorney Tony Lettunich said the city must sustain the will of the people who voted for the charter, which established the 20- percent benchmark.

Impact fees were approved by the Steamboat Springs City Council on June 19 by a unanimous vote after hearing from a consultant and researching the practices of other communities. The impact fees are assessed on new development and pay for the city’s capital needs generated by growth, funding everything from parks and open space to new city buildings.

The fees, which do not need to go to a general vote, are charged on both commercial and residential development and would cost the builder of a single-family detached home $4,454 regardless of the home size.

A petitioners committee made up of five local residents formed June 29 to gather enough signatures to force the fees to a city-wide vote.

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