Advisory questions stir debate |

Advisory questions stir debate

Avi Salzman

— The City Council’s strongest voice for affordable housing reacted angrily to two advisory questions the council decided to place on the ballot Tuesday night, calling them a big setback for working class people in Steamboat Springs.

The council voted 4-3 after lengthy discussion to ask two advisory questions this November, which could eventually put the city’s plans for managed growth and affordable housing in west of Steamboat to a vote of the people.

“For those of us who have been working on affordable housing here this is a big setback,” said Councilman Jim Engelken. “This (plan) is the only tool we really have.”

The questions will ask voters if they think they ought to vote on the West of Steamboat Springs Area Plan before it is implemented and vote on any financing packages for the plan. The plan, which was adopted two years ago by both the City Council and the County Commissioners, asks for the city to annex county land to promote high-density affordable housing.

Though the Regional Affordable Living Foundation’s West End Village project received some concessions from the plan, it has not yet been used otherwise.

City Council President Kevin Bennett, who presented the questions Tuesday, said the idea of asking the questions was to get the community’s opinion on a plan that could guide the city’s growth and impact city finances for decades.

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“There’s no precedent for this sort of expansion,” Bennett said. “It is important to ensure that the citizens are not subsidizing growth and the best way to ensure that is to include people, not exclude them.”

Bennett said the city has made decisions in the past about that area that have cost taxpayers a lot of money and did not receive enough public exposure.

Council President Pro Tem Kathy Connell agreed with Bennett’s assertion that the public needs to have more direct input on the issue.

Although the questions have no actual weight and cannot force the city to do anything, the implications of asking the questions troubled some council members, including Paul Strong and Bud Romberg, who also voted against asking them.

“I only see downsides to this,” Strong said. “The downside of a vote of this sort (is it could have) dire consequences for affordable housing and managed growth.”

Engelken, who said the language in the questions was woefully nonobjective, said the question could do much more harm than good. Engelken said playing on people’s fears of subsidizing growth may also keep the city from getting any affordable housing.

By targeting the idea that the plan could spur growth and not mentioning the city’s need for affordable housing, the questions will lead voters to think the city is promoting growth without their say, he said.

A “yes” vote to the questions puts the entire plan in jeopardy, Engelken said. That, in turn, threatens the future of low- and middle-income housing in Steamboat Springs, for which the plan was primarily developed, he said.

“Where does the working class go? If we can’t go out west, where do we go?” Engelken asked.

“Essentially what we’re saying is we have no room for the working class.”

Bennett said he did not think the questions were slanted or that putting the plan to a vote necessarily puts the working class in danger of losing their only option for housing.

Engelken also said bringing an advisory plan before the people was unprecedented and unnecessary.

The plan, like all such city plans, did not need to go to a vote of the people, though there were many public meetings about the plan.

Because it is advisory in nature, it does not promote growth or create it but helps guide it when it does occur, Engelken said.

Bennett, however, said the plan goes beyond advising, laying out guidelines for developers to build high-density developments and receive city concessions for those developments that could cost taxpayer money.

He said he thinks decisions about that growth and that money should be up to the residents even if it means killing the plan as it stands.

The West of Steamboat plan allows developers to subdivide land that is currently in the county, annexing that land into the city limits to let them build more homes. It was seen as a win-win situation for developers and the city.

The city would ask developers to deed restrict at least one-third of their units to make sure they remained affordable while developers could build high-density projects in areas that would have been more difficult to subdivide.

Because the city would gain affordable housing, it would be willing to allow for higher-density developments on what would have been 35-acre county parcels.

The plan is also predicated on the idea that the new growth will pay for itself, making developers and homeowners pay for maintenance and initial infrastructure in the annexed area.