The prime development anchor of downtown Woodland Park is entrenched in a battle over dirt, with few signs of an imminent solution.
Last week, two public meetings with the Woodland Park Downtown Development Authority Board and the WP City Council resulted in plenty of passionate speeches and pep talks about community unity, but little progress in resolving the topsoil plight of the Woodland Station area. As a result of the impasse, many questions surround the future of this development area, once touted as the promising pinnacle of a future downtown retail and entertainment hub.
At issue is a continual battle between the majority members of the DDA board and certain developers and their representatives, with city officials now asked to referee the dispute. But according to DDA leaders, no one is willing to blow the whistle and to start assessing penalties.
However, other developers and business representatives are questioning the power plays of the majority DDA members, contending they are exceeding their authority.
The council ended up meeting behind closed doors at the close of its Sept. 15 session, following another lively DDA debate that left many citizens confused and frustrated.
This occurred after veteran board member and DDA Secretary Al Born, who has negotiated with Steve Randolph, a key representative of a development group headed by Arden Weatherford, the co-owner of BierWerks. Weatherford, who has previously proposed development plans for this area, has control of a considerable amount of topsoil and dirt, encompassing more than 2,000 yards, that is being used as a temporary storage area for the Baker Site Development company. Weatherford also has sought to do an expansion of BierWerks at Woodland Station and has eyed a multi-use housing development project at the site.
Born told the council that all the dirt could be removed and the site could be graded by the applicant at no cost to the city or DDA by July 31, 2017. “This is a simple solution,” said Born, who cited the advantage of avoiding court costs, engineering fees and even the acquisition of the dirt itself by the DDA, for a price estimated at close to $50,000. He said this plan would have to be accepted by the DDA board at their next meeting.
However, garnering approval for this deal could be a tricky task, based on the comments voiced at last week’s council and DDA meetings.
His proposal, presented as a compromise solution, sparked much opposition from fellow DDA members and even by several city council members.
“Why so long?” questioned Woodland Park Councilman Paul Saunier. “This dirt can be moved fairly quickly…We would like to work together in the community and work with the citizens.”
Moreover, the councilman argued that the current controversy is heavily dividing the community and it’s time to rid the site of the topsoil and dirt and allow the DDA to pursue plans to turn this into an events hub.
“The newspapers are having a field day with this,” said Saunier, who made it clear he wasn’t upset at Born, but was frustrated with the current delays.
Born cited the compromise proposal as a viable option. He said the current developers, who have a valid permit issued by the city for the temporary storage of dirt at the DDA site for a 7,500-square-foot disturbance area, are dealing with a single proprietor. As a result, Born said this small business owner has limited financial means in removing the dirt and grading the area. He contended that the July 31, 2017 deadline is a realistic time frame. Plus, he said during the transition, dirt-removal period, the DDA would still be able to host events there.
But most DDA members, who attended the meeting, viewed this plan as an insult.
“Time is money,” stated DDA Treasurer Tanner Coy, who expressed much disappointment with the proposal. “It is a bit ridiculous,” added Coy. He believes the DDA is being portrayed as the big villain, when it merely wants to control its property and to pursue plans to help generate revenue on this site, plans that would help it pay back the city a $1 million loan it incurred nearly 10 years ago for planning the Woodland Station development. He requested that the city nullify the current zoning and development permit, giving the Weatherford/Randolph group more time to resolve the dirt situation. In fact, he questioned the previous agreement made between the developers and the city. “What is temporary? There are no rental rates. There are no deadlines,” explained Coy.
He requested action by the city to nullify the permit and demand an immediate removal of the dirt from the site. He argued that the DDA’s property rights aren’t being upheld. “No one has the right to hold that land captive,” agreed Saunier “Get the soil off this land.”
Board member Elijah Murphy compared the current situation to a property owner who isn’t happy with a contractor and asks them to leave the property. “It’s not about the dirt. It’s about control of the property,” said Murphy, during an earlier board meeting last week.
At the Sep. 15 council session, Murphy went one step further and suggested that the city may be guilty of “cronyism” and granting special favors to certain people in trying to resolve this impasse at Woodland Station. “There is a lot of foot dragging going on,” said Murphy, who suggested having a 60-day deadline period for removing the dirt.
Even Mayor Neil Levy, who has often sympathized with Weatherford due to his early involvement in the Woodland Station development, urged a prompt resolution. “The DDA has a difficult task ahead of them,” said Levy. “We have got to get a solution to this. We would like this settled as quickly as we can.”
A legal and financial showdown
The future of the Woodland Station has already entered the legal arena, with David Neville, an attorney for the DDA on certain issues, filing an extensive complaint against the city that some officials viewed as a lawsuit threat.
During an earlier board meeting last week, Neville told the DDA it presided in the driver’s seat, since it owned the property. He suggested doing away with the current permit, and establishing a new one, and requesting more enforcement action by the city.
Once again, several board members weren’t shy about voicing their displeasure with the current scenario. “This is a travesty,” said board member Jerry Good at last week’s DDA meeting. “The city’s land is being held captive.”
Councilman Noel Sawyer, who serves on the DDA board as a council representative, maintained that the city is the big loser in the dirt fight.
“They (the developers of the area and controlling entity of the dirt) are playing this vindictive game,” said Sawyer. “It is time to move on. Get your dirt out of there.”
In a plea to the Weatherford/Randolph development group, Sawyer said it was unfortunate that their previous plans at Woodland Station couldn’t move forward. But now, he believes it’s time to vacate the area and allow the DDA to move ahead with their pursuits for turning this into an events hub. “The people being hurt are the city itself,” concluded Sawyer.
Special emergency districts emerging as losers
Other big losers are the Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District and the Ute Pass Regional Health Service District. With the current financial restrictions of the DDA district, the board last week rejected requests by both organizations to exempt them from tax increment financing options for future projects, which would prohibit these entities from receiving extra tax money for handling new developments. With the expanding DDA district, new developments entering the area can receive tax incentives through rebates.
But with these incentive perks, the fire and ambulance districts often get the short end of the tax revenue stick. For example, the fire district, in a letter authored by board chairman Jim Ignatius, estimates it is losing $450,000 a year through this DDA-sponsored tax rebate program.
The DDA district wants to deal with this problem, but board leaders maintained last week that it doesn’t have the money to address this issue right now.