Littleton council upholds planning commission's vote on Aspen Grove redevelopment

Residents alleged errors in decision-making, majority of councilmembers disagree

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Opponents of a plan to redevelop Littleton's Aspen Grove shopping center for new housing faced another setback in their efforts to upend the project after city council voted Sept. 27 to uphold the planning commission’s decision to approve the plans. 

The 6-1 council vote rejected an appeal signed by more than 100 residents that sought to overturn the commission’s unanimous July 25 vote that supported developing nearly 500 housing units at the southwest Littleton sight.

City Attorney Reid Betzing suggested not all 100 residents met the loose definitions of an aggrieved party in the city’s Unified Land Use Code, or ULUC, but said “there are at least some people probably contained within that complaint that would have standing to appeal this.”

What defines an aggrieved party, Betzing said, could also be debated.

“Generally speaking, it means someone who is actually suffering a real physical harm to either their property by having a development next to them or some building,” he said. 

Betzing previously told council during a Sept. 3 meeting that he received complaints raised from about 60 residents over the planning commission’s decison and charged council with reviewing the issue before voting to uphold or deny that decision. 

Residents allege violation of land code 

Residents, through their appeal, alleged the planning commission violated parts of the ULUC when it approved an early-phase development plan from Aspen Grove’s owner, Gerrity Group.

Lynn Christensen, who lives outside of the mall’s district, and Linda Knufinke, who lives just south of Aspen Grove, told council Sept. 27 that the development plan was not “legally applicable” based on the language in the city’s land code at the time.

“The decision by planning commission was made by ‘pending text,’” said Christensen, who called the commission’s vote “invalid.” 

Much of this hinged on the fact that commissioners, at times during their July 25 meeting, used the word “conceptual” when referring to Gerrity’s master development plan — or MDP— instead of just refering to it as an MDP. Because of this language, Christensen and Knufinke said that what was approved did not meet to the definition of an MDP as laid out in Littleton’s land use code. 

“In other words, an MDP conceptual did not legally exist under the legal standard of the ULUC code,” said Christensen, adding that such language was added later during a city council meeting Aug. 16. 

Other reasons for objecting to the commission’s decision, raised by Knufinke, included allegations of a lack of public outreach about the plans and scant specifics about how much commercial space would be preserved. 

Lawyers claim proper procedure followed 

In response to the allegations, lawyers defending both the planning commission and Gerrity said the process was followed fairly and neither the commission nor developer violated the city’s land use code. 

Brandon Dittman, an attorney at the law firm Kissinger & Fellman, represented the planning commission, which he said deployed “careful examination” of Gerrity’s application through “almost five hours of public hearing” during the July 25 meeting.

Dittman said using words like “conceptual” to describe the MDP was appropriate as, by its very nature, MDPs are conceptual early frameworks for large-scale development. This also means that not every detail of the plan needs to be hashed out before an MDP is approved, Dittman said. 

“According to the code, which existed at the time, the purpose of the MDP process was to illustrate the nature and character of the development,” Dittman said, adding the code calls for “essence … as opposed to specifics.”

Further, Dittman said Colorado law “ is clear that local governments are allowed to interpret their own codes … and so it was entirely reasonable for staff to interpret the requirements as showing conceptual level designs.”

Jessica Alizadeh, an attorney at Fairfield and Woods who represented Gerrity, called residents’ allegations of an improper MDP “directly false” and said Gerrity, in its official documentation of the plan, never referred to the MDP as “conceptual.” 

She also said Gerrity exceeded the ULUC’s requirements for public outreach with two neighborhood meetings to discuss and hear feedback on the plans prior to the July 25 vote. 

Council sides with planning commission

With the ULUC’s passage last October, decisions about development plans fall solely on the planning commission and do not go before a council vote. But residents’ ability to challenge those decisions and force a council review is one way the city’s elected leaders can still deny projects. 

Following testimony and rebuttal from both Christensen and Knufinke and the legal representatives for Gerrity and the planning commission, an overwhelming majority of council members voted to uphold the planning commission’s decision.

Only Pam Grove, councilmember at-large, voted to side with appealing residents. Grove has prieviously voiced her concerns with the Aspen Grove redevelopment and voted against a rezoning for a different version of the project last November

But councilmembers were told by Betzing to base their decision not on their own personal feelings about the project but on whether the planning commission followed appropriate criteria for approving the plans. 

Grove, while calling planning commission “very thoughtful,” said her vote against their decision was because of a lack of information — and consideration — about how the redevelopment would impact the natural environment, road traffic and other issues.

Other councilmembers who voted in support of the decision said they understood Gerrity’s MDP approval was only the first in a multi-step process.

“I think the planning commission acted completely within the rules,” Driscoll said. “I know the detailed plan will be coming down the road. It seems like we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

Driscoll also called Christensen and Knufinke’s objections an issue of “semantics” and suggested the residents had engaged in misinformation around Gerrity’s outreach. 

“When somebody says ‘no meetings were held,’ and then we have documentation that two neighborhood meetings were held, I tend not to trust the people who told me ‘no meetings held,” he said.

Issue is at heart of battle over housing 

Residents’ attempt to overturn the Aspen Grove MDP approval is but one of several efforts made to either slow or stop the mall’s redevelopment altogether. 

After a previous city council approved a rezoning of the mall last year under the city’s old land use code — which would have allowed for up to 2,000 housing units at the site — a coalition of residents, also led by Christensen, Knufinke and others, protested. 

In January, that group submitted a petition with thousands of signatures that forced council to either rescind their decision or punt it to a city-wide vote, with council opting for the latter. 

While that question will be on voters’ November ballot, new plans for the mall have moved forward after the city approved the ULUC — which effectively rezoned the city and allowed Gerrity a second opportunity to present development plans. Those plans are what was approved by planning commission. 

Knufinke filed a lawsuit against the city in February for not holding the Aspen Grove vote sooner, a challenge she lost after an Arapahoe County District Court judge ruled against her in July. 

Knufinke and others said a vote sooner would have juiced turnout — especially since it now appeared to be moot due to Gerrity’s other plans moving forward — while other residents felt it would have only benefited those who were planning to vote against it. 

Regular cycle elections, such as the upcoming one Nov. 8, tend to see higher voter turnout than special elections, according to City Clerk Colleen Norton. 

Littleton resident Matt Duff, in a previous interview with Colorado Community Media, said he felt the group represented a “vocal minority” attempting to “block projects that they don’t want.”

Knufinke and Christenen have told Colorado Community Media that they are opposed to housing projects as dense as the Aspen Grove redevelopment. In a previous interview, Knufinke said “we don’t want Littleton to be the Great Wall of China with high-density apartments.”

Christensen said she had issues with rental units, which projects like the Aspen Grove redevelopment would support, because “there’s lots of ways homes can be devalued” by such developments.

She said she wants to see more for-sale housing in Littleton as a means to bring in better sales tax revenue and is wary of claims of a “housing crisis” because of a lack of affordable supply, saying a possible recession could lead to an abundance of housing stock.

“Housing crisis? I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about it,” she said. 

The residents have said they support “gentle growth” to maintain Littleton’s “small town feel.”

But for residents like Duff, who is part of a pro-housing community group known as Vibrant Littleton, he sees opposition to denser development and rental homes as “tactics in order to keep certain people out of our town."

“What they’re effectively doing is blocking poor people from moving into our town,” he said. “We absolutely want and advocate for multi-family housing projects like (Aspen Grove) to be built.”

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