Sparks fly over DDA district expansion

If you want to witness an entertaining and frustrating debate by elected leaders in Woodland Park, just mention any subject pertaining to the Downtown Development Authority (DDA).

For the second time in the last month, a routine DDA-related request turned into a lively verbal brawl, as the Woodland Park City Council last week expressed mixed opinions over the future expansion of the district. In fact, with tensions mounting and council commentary running rampant, City Manager David Buttery conducted a brief educational session on the benefits and disadvantages of tax increment financing (TIF), the main tool the DDA uses to lure project developers and to generate funds for the authority.

Finally, with little hope of an amicable conclusion, DDA Board Chairman Al Born called for a time-out and requested a delay in the proceedings until early August.

In some ways, the debate mirrored a previous showdown in early June over a plan for a multi-year extension of the city’s $1 million loan agreement with the DDA, originally established to prepare for a major development venture at the former 9.3 acre Saddle Club site, located off Hwy. 24 in the heart of the district.

At issue during the July 7 session was a request for inclusion into the district by property owner Eric Smith, who also serves on the council, for several parcels located near the Eagle Fire lodge area. Initially, this request was tied to a future commercial project. But according to city officials, that is no longer the case. In the past, these requests have been relatively non-controversial and hardly raised an eyebrow.

However, with the current council makeup, nothing is routine when it comes to the DDA.

As a result, a lively debate erupted over the future of the DDA and the policy of expanding the district. The controversy even focused on such mundane matters as the legal meaning of the words “adjacent” and “central business district” and the real estate requirements for property owners and applicants seeking to have their land become part of the district.

City attorney Erin Smith, in responding to these inquiries by Councilman George Parkhurst, told the elected leaders it had much leeway in handling inclusions into the district. She reminded the leaders that downtown development authorities have been established in Colorado to revive downtown areas.

But several council members were clearly not convinced. “We can’t do anything we want,” blasted Councilwoman Betty Clark-Wine, who also serves as the Teller County Assessor. “We are eroding the boundaries. We are sending the wrong message.”

The councilman objected to what she classified as a free-for-all policy regarding DDA district expansion and inclusions of properties. According to Clark-Wine, the current trend would make it possible to expand the district between Woodland Park and Cripple Creek, as long as properties of interest are located along a main highway.

Clark-Wine wasn’t alone in her criticism.

“I have a problem with pushing these things (future development projects) along, just to push them along,” said Parkhurst, who raised many technical concerns about the DDA’s inclusion policies.

“Why is the DDA accepting this inclusion?” asked Councilman Dave Turley. “What does that mean for the tax authorities?”

Several representatives of the local fire and ambulance districts attended the session, and were prepared to pose similar questions. Under the financing established for the DDA, the development authority retains any extra money generated from new projects and property improvements that occur within the DDA boundaries for several decades. Some have questioned this arrangement, saying certain tax entities, such as the library and emergency service-related groups are clear losers in recouping this extra money.

These same concerns were also expressed by several planning commission members during a recent meeting.

But Buttery defended the current arrangement, and argued that these districts aren’t losing any money. He said they get many related benefits from the financial health of the city, generated from DDA activity and an increase in overall property values. He also suggested that the city and DDA may consider a slight change to the tax increment financing policy to give some tax districts an undetermined amount of the extra revenue, if certain projects become a reality and cause major impacts for these districts. “The DDA isn’t taking money away,” stressed the city manager.

Mayor Steve Randolph agreed and touted this tax increment financing as a key tool in luring potential projects to the district, such as the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center. He cited the city’s no incentives, period philosophy as a real disadvantage in encouraging economic development. The DDA, though, can offer incentives, explained Randolph.

Under the TIF policy, the city gives prospective developers a certain amount of the extra tax revenue generated from their particular projects. However, since the DDA was formed, only two project developers have reaped these benefits.

Mayor Pro Tem Jon DeVaux stated that nothing new is occurring with the DDA expansion efforts. “This isn’t new science,” said DeVaux. According to DeVaux, the original district was established to include properties where much development activity was anticipated. “It was the intent of the law,” added DeVaux.

Still, the DDA critics weren’t impressed and wanted more details.

“I would feel more comfortable with more success,” said Turley. He was referring to the former Saddle Club site, an area that has produced plenty of plans but no substantial projects. Clark-Wine said the implications of lower property values for the downtown may further complicate the process.

Born, the chairman of the DDA board, finally made a plea for delaying the request, submitted by Eric Smith. But in briefly responding to some of the DDA critics, Born labeled the issue as nothing more than a request for inclusion, similar in some ways to a property owner asking to annex their land into the city. He stressed that it wasn’t dependent on any particular project occurring.

By a 6-0 vote, the council agreed to continue the hearing in early August. Eric Smith, who controls the property in question, didn’t partake in the discussion or in the final vote.

In other DDA matters, the council last week reappointed Merry Jo Larsen and Jan Cummings to the board Both expressed a strong desire to continue with the DDA board.

As for changes with the DDA, Larsen said she wanted to see the group strive to create a more business-friendly atmosphere downtown. She also expressed a desire to have the DDA expand its focus from the Woodland Station venture, which has clearly stalled.