Steamboat Planning Commission could approve certain developments without City Council review under proposed policy change
March 4, 2019
Editor’s note: This story was corrected at 9 a.m. Tuesday to state that the Steamboat Springs City Council would retain review authority over development applications requesting major variances.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In an effort to streamline the flow of development applications in the city, Steamboat Springs City Council is considering giving the city Planning Commission review authority on certain planning decisions.
"The Planning Commission currently doesn't make any decisions," said Planning and Community Development Director Rebecca Bessey. "They make recommendations to the City Council."
"This change would potentially place some of that decision making at the Planning Commission level and avoid having to go to City Council," she added.
Under the proposal, the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission would be the primary review authority for specific development applications. These projects currently go before the Planning Commission, then City Council.
City Council members or any member of the public would have 10 days from the date of the decision to refer, or "call up," the decision to City Council. Some City Council members expressed interest in delaying the date at which the call-up period would start to give the public more time to review applications.
In a late-night discussion Tuesday, City Council tabled the first reading of an ordinance making the change. It will go before council again on March 19.
The change would apply to applications for conditional use permits, conceptual development plans and preliminary plats. The Planning Commission would also have final review authority for development plans for projects larger than 16,000 square feet. City Council would retain authority over applications requesting major variances.
Development plans are filed for every new construction project in the city, but minor modifications and small developments that meet code are approved administratively.
Large developments or developments that request variances because they do not meet code go before the Planning Commission and City Council. Conditional use permits are often attached to these plans and are required for developments that seek to use the land for something other than what it is zoned for, for example, a housing complex in an area zoned for commercial development.
Some City Council members expressed interest in removing conditional use permits from the proposal.
Bessey said the code change aims to "create a more predictable and streamlined development review process," something the Planning Department has been working to do for a few years.
"One of the areas that they identified were some code changes, including process changes to sort of speed up the process and eliminate unnecessary meetings," she said. "The thought process there is that, if the application meets the code, then that decision can be made at Planning Commission, and potentially, there's no need for that additional meeting at City Council."
All of these decisions are quasi-judicial, meaning the Planning Commission and City Council must decide if a proposal meets the code — without political pressure.
"The Planning Commission is an appointed body," Bessey said. "Their job and their role is to evaluate projects based solely on the code. They take that very seriously, and I think they do a really good job of that. I think that's a pro — that we're sort of empowering them to do their job."
City Council member Sonja Macys worried that the change would create less transparency, as Planning Commissioners are appointed after an interview with council members. Though they're public, rarely does anyone else attend these interviews.
"If we're going to give them more authority, should we put more transparency in the appointment process?" she asked other council members, who agreed the interviews could be brought into a larger meeting space.
She also wanted to see a longer call-up period.
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Bessey said, should the policy change come into effect, some public education and outreach would be required to make sure the public knew that comments at Planning Commission meetings matter.
Even if council retains the final review authority for these decisions, the Planning Department is working to make the public more aware of applications under consideration.
"I know we've heard some comments recently that the public is not aware of what's happening until the very end, when we're ready to go to public hearing," Bessey said. "That was an issue that was raised at City Council — how to get word out to the public sooner, so that they can be more aware and engage, and we can get their comments sooner. We are looking at ways to modify our public notice procedures and try to make that information more available for the public."