Government & Politics  February 7, 2024

Fort Collins council rejects appeal of P&Z’s Polestar Village approval

FORT COLLINS — A citizen-led appeal of the Fort Collins Planning and Zoning Commission’s unanimous approval in November of a proposed 144-unit “new urbanism” development on 20 acres in the northwest part of the city was rejected late Tuesday night by the Fort Collins City Council.

Only council member Susan Gutowsky dissented in the council’s 5-1 vote to support city planners’ approval of the Polestar Village development, rejecting opponents’ claim that their views hadn’t been given a fair hearing by the commission. However, council member Kelly Ohlson cast his vote for approval reluctantly, noting that he felt the appeal process was “not a level playing field for entities used to doing this versus residents doing it once.”

Ohlson was referring to the portion of the appeal filed by Charles Thompson, a resident of the neighboring Rogers Park subdivision, that contended that the development conflicted with the city’s existing land-use code but did not provide examples. Council members pointed out that city ordinances require those details to be added to an appeal, a point to which Ohlson agreed, and Thompson thus was not allowed to list his alleged examples of land-use code violations in his presentation.

Polestar Village received “an imperfect but fair hearing.” Ohlson conceded, but added that the city should do more to help citizens properly pursue actions such as appeals and noted that “we’re looking at ways to make this better for everyone.”

Polestar Village, proposed by the 501(c )(3) nonprofit Polestar Gardens, which moved to Fort Collins from Hawaii last year, will include townhomes, condominiums and apartments on a site east of South Overland Trail near West Elizabeth Street, including part of the former Happy Heart Farm. Polestar wants the complex to include a garden and small farm where residents can grow and harvest produce.

The nonprofit was founded in 2000 and, for 16 years, ran an organic farm, retreat and spiritual community on Hawaii’s Big Island. When the compound was devastated by eruptions from the Kilauea volcano. It chose the Fort Collins site after a three-year search.

The council heard presentations by Thompson as well as from Bob Choate, a senior associate counsel at the Coan Payton & Payne law firm who provided legal advice to the developers, and Paul Sizemore, Fort Collins’ director of community development and neighborhood services.

The commission had approved the nonprofit’s development plan on a 5-0 vote at 12:46 a.m. Nov. 17 after more than six hours of debate, prompting opponents to charge that the panel had made a bad decision based on “fatigue.”

More than 60 neighboring residents filed the appeal Dec. 1, and supplemented it with additional information on Dec. 8. The neighbors contended that some of the information the commissioners considered was “substantially false or grossly misleading,” and that Polestar representatives’ “persuasive language” included “non-confirmable statements. They also contend that two commission members had conflicts of interest and that the commission “failed to properly interpret and apply relevant provisions of the Land Use Code … regarding layout and design of streets and drives,” as well as permitted and prohibited uses in the Low Density Residential zone district.

The appeal stated that a traffic study to determine the impact on surrounding streets was not thorough because data was only collected over a 24-hour period and didn’t include all streets, but Choate, although acknowledging neighbors’ “very legitimate concerns,” said city traffic engineers had told developers, “Do it this way.”

The appeal said many nearby residents were unaware of the neighborhood meeting that was held to discuss the project, but Sizemore said 797 letters had been mailed out. The appeal stated that common areas in the development were only for Polestar residents, but Sizemore said those areas are in public-access easements.

The appeal charged that key details were missed or passed over as the session ran over its allotted time, prompting Gutowsky to ask, “Would the decision have been different if Planning and Zoning had been allowed to see the whole presentation?” However, she was told that all the project’s details were in the packet commissioners had received before the meeting.

Noting that “we’ve got to do something about our affordable-housing issue,” Choate asked council members, “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” but Thomspon fired back that “Polestar is not affordable housing. … They are an investment opportunity. They didn’t disclose this once at the hearing.”

In the end, the council wasn’t persuaded. Tricia Canonico said “it’s hard to have change,” Melanie Potyondy saw no compelling indications of bias toward the developers on the commission, and Mayor Jeni Arndt concluded that “I don’t see evidence that it wasn’t a fair hearing.”

A citizen-led appeal of the Fort Collins Planning and Zoning Commission’s unanimous approval in November of a proposed 144-unit “new urbanism” development on 20 acres in the northwest part of the city was rejected late Tuesday night by the Fort Collins City Council.

Dallas Heltzell
With BizWest since 2012 and in Colorado since 1979, Dallas worked at the Longmont Times-Call, Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver Post and Public News Service. A Missouri native and Mizzou School of Journalism grad, Dallas started as a sports writer and outdoor columnist at the St. Charles (Mo.) Banner-News, then went to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before fleeing the heat and humidity for the Rockies. He especially loves covering our mountain communities.
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