by Katherine E. Rider, AICP, Douglas County, Colorado
Process is important and a planner needs to ensure a good process respects the rights of applicants, citizens, and the regulations. The following is a case study in Douglas County, Colorado that highlights why a planner should be nimble enough to work through the twists and turns of a contentious and long running land use application. A Douglas County land application, known as the Sterling Ranch Planned Development, was submitted in early 2009. It has continued to be in process in some way shape or form for five years, going from an approved rezoning to an overturned application to an approved rezoning, again. All the while, the ever nimble planners are along for the ride, sometimes guiding process, sometimes responding to the needs of parties involved, and sometimes trying to wrangle all the issues into a report.
Are planners process monkeys? After more than 10 years in practice, I am still trying to figure out what it means to be a “planner.” Currently, I work in Douglas County, Colorado. In my effort to figure out this crazy world we call planning, I read an article in the February 2014 issue of the American Planning Association’s Zoning Practice that provided a charge for development review.
According to the author Michael Blue, the process must be predictable, each step in the development process must add value, and the process must ensure open and continuous communication to all parties involved.1 Planners who accept this charge become process advocates and may lead the way to a more respected planning profession.
I find myself continually trying to figure out how to be an advocate of the process. We have all heard planners say, “it’s required because the code says it is.” That is the response of a process monkey when questioned as to why something should be done. It does not reflect the reason for a planning process or the essence of planning. On the other end of the spectrum, you have a process exploiter; a planner that imposes his or her vision for the community on the developer or applicant. They exploit the required process to extract as much as possible from an applicant to ensure their vision is achieved in the “right way.” Somewhere in the middle are process advocates – planners that understand their purpose in managing the process. They are mandated to protect natural resources; advocate for health, safety and welfare; and overall, work to better a community’s quality of life. Process advocates strive for an unbiased, transparent process that is used to work through any issues that may arise. By staying grounded in the regulations, they can be nimble and provide a “how-to” perspective in navigating requirements.
The Zoning Practice article highlighted that the land use review process is more than just a series of “perfunctory steps” to run an application through prior to a decision. While this is very true, it’s process advocates who bring life to those “perfunctory steps” and enable well-done community development to occur; this, of course, is context specific for each community based on local values. When a process exploiter inserts their values into a project, surety, fairness, and values are thrown into jeopardy. The process then turns into an unpredictable journey, rather than a purposeful step-by-step progression through the mandated regulations.
When reviewing specific development requests, Douglas County’s underlying development philosophy is to avoid heavily-negotiated outcomes that are vulnerable to the whims of the staff or elected officials at the time. Douglas County planners strive to keep the process fair, but what happens when a process threatens to go off the rails? That’s when a process advocate has to be nimble; keeping in mind the principles of surety, fairness, and transparency rooted in regulations.
In 2009, a land use application in Douglas County known as Sterling Ranch was submitted and has continued to be in review over the past six years. Through the course of the application’s life, the property has been subject to a comprehensive master plan amendment, a Planned Unit Development (PUD) rezoning, a lawsuit, a District Court reversal order, a re-approval process, and continued appeal actions to this day.
Sterling Ranch Planned Development includes 12,050 dwelling units, commercial uses, and open space over approximately 3,400 acres in the northwestern portion of Douglas County. Approximately 37 percent of the project will be set aside for parks, recreation, and open space purposes. Other portions of the site will provide the opportunity for a mix of uses, including, housing, civic services, and shopping and entertainment facilities.
Sterling Ranch is located in an area of the county that is generally undeveloped, and includes wildlife areas and mountain backdrop views. Sterling Ranch is Colorado’s first monitoring site testing rainwater harvesting. The rainwater harvesting pilot project is part of the 2009 Colorado Legislature’s House Bill 1129. The Sterling Ranch developers hope to incorporate rainwater harvesting into their innovative plan for water conservation.
The Sterling Ranch area is commonly known as the Chatfield Valley and is located just south of a very popular state recreation area, Chatfield State Park. Some long-time county residents did not want to see development in this area while many others wanted just the opposite. Some commercial and industrial property owners have not been able to see the full potential of their property rights come to fruition. They see development as the economic catalyst to bring long-needed infrastructure and potential customers to the area. Douglas County provided a setting for both perspectives to be heard, but the county’s main concern - and the public’s expectation - was for a fair and open process. Eventually, the PUD plan for Sterling Ranch was approved in late 2011.
In response, a group of citizens known as the Chatfield Community Association filed an appeal to the county’s decision in District Court. The Court reversed the county’s decision on the basis that an adequate water supply was not presented at the time the rezoning application was considered by the Board of County Commissioners. The reversal was not, however, the end of the project. The county appealed the District Court’s decision to the State Appeals Court, and the applicants pursued several options in an attempt to remedy the shortcomings identified by the Court, including exploring legal precedence or regulatory relief for continued actions with the county.
Douglas County staff conducted research and provided the applicants with a “how-to” perspective for continuous processing of their request through state and local regulations in light of the unique issues for the development. Staff provided guidance regarding resubmittal information, process options, and legal decisions. Because of the county’s underlying development philosophy and expectation of a fair process, it was imperative for staff to be nimble, grounded in the regulations, and maintain a balanced process with the applicants.
At this same time – and outside the county’s land use review process - the Colorado Legislature enacted new statutory law clarifying when and how the determination of an adequate water supply could be made. In 2013, Governor Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 13-258 clarifying when the determination of an adequate water supply could be made during the land use review process. This legislation was adopted in response to concerns that the reversal would limit options for obtaining long-term renewable water sources on an incremental basis during the life of a development project.
Working with their attorneys, the Sterling Ranch applicants asked for the Board’s reconsideration of their project in light of this new legislation. Douglas County planners worked closely with the County Attorney’s office to determine the next regulatory steps, including responding to District Court decisions, interpreting state legislation, and processing requests presented by the applicants. Obviously, these steps were not predictable, nor provided for in the county’s adopted regulations, but the county planners were very cognizant of their role as process advocates.
Douglas County planning staff continued to document decision points, track data and record facts. Not all perceived our actions as “fair” or “open,” but we continued to document and establish a public record that would keep the process open to all those that wanted to participate. Douglas County Community Development utilizes a web-based project tracking tool that provides citizens with easy access to current and archived land development projects. This tool is called Project Records Online (PRO) and allows citizens to access all types of planning projects and the information associated with them.2
Douglas County, not to mention Colorado and much of the West, is a “pro-property right” kind-of place. A landowner has the right to petition their government and the right to due process. Not all participants perceive the process in this way. The county was not just processing an application because the code said to; we were processing an application because it was the right of the applicant and the responsibility of the jurisdiction. This slight adjustment in perspective marks the difference between a process monkey and an advocate of the process.
Establishing a well-conceived public process will keep community development values at the forefront while keeping planners’ personal opinions as private citizens out of the way. Ultimately, the elected officials make a decision and we, as process advocates, need to provide guidance based on the criteria.
Planners bring meaning to a process and, hopefully, the ability for the participants to have confidence in it. We strive to achieve a community’s vision, but many times our success is judged as a matter of perception, rather than scored by an objective metric. Many understand planning only in terms of what a community looks like; without also considering if the process addressed the essential needs of the citizenry, or a property owner’s right to utilize his or her property. While well-done community development is an on-going effort, a well-done process is one where the elected officials are able to support a project based on the regulations they put into place, and the community perceives as fair. Process advocates strive to create an environment where this can happen.
The Sterling Ranch application could have easily gone off the rails. The planners on the project tried to remain nimble in responding to the different process needs of all parties involved; the applicants, the public, the attorneys, and the county commissioners. Staff worked to keep the process as transparent and predictable as possible. Ultimately, the “perfunctory steps” added stability to this process and played an important role in the background of the twists and turns of this land use application. With the ability to create a process which relied on the land use code, state law, and legal precedent, the planners were able to turn those twists and turns into a predictable progression, while interpreting the needs and wants of the applicants. Value was added as a result of developing a land use process for this unique situation rooted in law, not the whims of the parties involved. Projects like this provide an opportunity for planners to take heed of many of our core principles: keep development review predictable (as predictable as possible), add value where possible, and advocate for transparency.
Recently, and in response to the ongoing efforts of the applicants and staff, the re-approval of the Sterling Ranch Planned Development was upheld by the Colorado State Appeals Court. The applicants are choosing to move forward and are working through their first subdivision filings despite possible further appeal actions by the plaintiffs.
Katherine E. Rider, AICP, is the Chief Planner in the Planning Services Division of the Douglas County Department of Community Development.
- Blue, Michael. “Development Review as Economic Development.” Zoning Practice, American Planning Association February 2014: 2-7. Print.
- Douglas County Community Development has a tool called Project Records Online to allow access to planning projects. https://apps.douglas.co.us/planning/projects/
Published in the July/August 2015 Issue