Judge’s ruling blocks controversial downtown Steamboat apartment project
August 28, 2017
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.
A Routt County judge has effectively blocked the construction of a controversial apartment project in downtown Steamboat Springs that was criticized by several community members for being too tall and too big.
In a ruling issued last week, Judge Shelley Hill reversed the Steamboat Springs City Council's approval of three variances that would have allowed the 60-unit apartment project to be taller, more dense and closer to the street than city codes allow.
The City Council justified the variances by stating the city's height and density codes presented an "unnecessary hardship" to the developer, and the developer needed the variances to make the project profitable.
But Hill found that the city's rationale for approving the variances at 1125 Lincoln Ave. was a "misapplication of the law" and an "abuse of discretion by the city."
"The profitability of a development is not a factor … that may properly be considered when determining whether there exists unnecessary hardship," Hill wrote in her 32-page opinion.
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Hill's ruling was a victory for Old Town resident Ken Manley, who sued the city and the City Council last year to try and stop the project.
Manley and his attorney Rich Tremaine argued in court the council didn't follow proper procedure and broke city rules when it approved the development in April 2016.
Manley also told the council he thought the project would stick out like a sore thumb in the western entrance to downtown.
The majority of the City Council stood by the approval and even approved a separate resolution this year to try and strengthen the city’s legal case.
Critics of the apartment project applauded Hill's ruling on Monday.
"I think that this decision was a huge win for the city of Steamboat in maintaining the character of downtown and what Steamboat is all about," former city planner John Lanterman said. "I think the project was just so massive, and there were so many variances, it just didn't belong downtown."
City Attorney Dan Foote said he plans to ask the City Council on Sept. 5 whether it would want the city to appeal Hill's decision.
"Obviously, I'm a little disappointed in the results," Foote said.
Foote confirmed the project is on hold pending final resolution of the legal case.
Council President Walter Magill, who was one of four council members who initially approved the apartment project, said Monday he doesn't think the city should mount an appeal of Hill’s ruling.
"I don't think we have a real strong case," Magill said.
Magill noted the council plans to have a work session next month to discuss what the community would like to see in terms of downtown development.
Eric Rogers, the developer of the proposed apartment project, said Monday he disagreed with the judge’s decision and hoped an appeal would keep the project alive.
“The real failure in this whole process is that one person with deep pockets can stand in the way of something that so many have worked to bring to fruition,” Rogers said.
Rogers said he and his brother had the project shovel-ready 18 months ago, and it would have provided housing for 80 to 100 people.
“The judge’s decision is a huge disappointment for us and, I believe, for the majority of our local population,” Rogers said.
The apartment project included commercial spaces at the ground level.
Council members who were supportive of the project and the variances said the need for the residential and mixed-use building outweighed concerns about its size and appearance.
"This fits (for) nurses and hospital workers and the young couple who have good jobs but can't get a home here," former Councilman Tony Connell said of the apartments before he voted to approve the project.
At 51 feet tall, the apartment building would have been 13 feet higher than the 38 feet allowed by code in the commercial Old Town district.
Another variance would have exempt the developers from setting back the upper portion of the building that rose above 28 feet.
Rogers said units would have been marketed to those making $50,000 to $100,000 per year.
Council members Scott Ford and Jason Lacy recused themselves from all the votes and discussions on the development, because both had business connections to it.
Councilwoman Kathi Meyer was the lone “no” vote against the project when it was initially approved.
She agreed with community members who thought it was too tall and dense for the area.