Marijuana, STRs, Elections, Housing and Development to Top the Radar for 2023

As we welcome another New Year in the Teller high country, the region will bustle with some hot issues pertaining to the okay of marijuana sales, short-term rental fights, code enforcement concerns, political squabbles,  pivotal elections, growth and infrastructure challenges, new developments and  the ongoing desire for more affordable housing.

It could amount to a tough road ahead, so hang onto your seat. Here is the preliminary snapshot of what to expect for our  main municipalities and unincorporated areas, as we kick off 2023.

We will provide more insight into 2023 in our upcoming  issues.

Woodland Park Gearing Up For Final Round In STR Tussle In 2023

Development Projects Take Center Stage

Trevor Phipps

Probably the biggest issue facing Woodland Park for 2023 will be the heated debate surrounding short- term rental properties, known as vacation homes.

The heated subject is now nearing the finish line—at least that’s the hope of city leaders.

Even though the topic took much of the time during the meetings in 2022, the controversy surrounding STRs is far from over.

Right before the end of 2022, two referendum petitions were filed negating ordinances the council had passed. The first petition attempted to repeal the ordinances allowing STRs in all residential neighborhoods for the next 12 to 18 months so that the city can conduct an economic impact study.

The second petition was  aimed at  repealing the temporary moratorium on business licenses for STRs. A decision will be made by the end of this month regarding the first referendum petition since the petitioners were able to turn in more than signatures to get reviewed. (See related story)

If enough signatures get verified, the issue would go back to council later this month. But, if enough get thrown out, the ordinance will pass as intended.

If the issue goes to council, they could repeal it so that it would go back to the starting board and the planning commission would have to start the process over this year. Or,  the council could send it to a vote, which would prompt a special election sometime this year.

According to Mayor Hilary LaBarre, the STR saga could be the biggest public issue that will arise for 2023. She said that she remains against regulating or banning STRs within the city. This is a stand endorsed by most members of council.

The mayor voted for the ordinance to regulate STRs, and said that she is against the movement made by citizens to repeal the STR ordinance.

“The STRs were around and licensed long before any of us were ever on council,” the mayor said.  “We have 180 but they are not all active at the same time. And a lot of them are people who live in the residence and they Airbnb or rent their basements or spare rooms. They are able to stay at their homes because they can pay their mortgage by renting a room or basement. It’s weird to me that the community doesn’t care that the council cares about that. Other council members in the cities that have regulated STRs never thought about, ‘oh’ you might lose your home. Or you may foreclose on an investment because now you can’t afford to own it.”

She also mentioned a few projects that the city will be working on adding a signal on Highway 67 and Tamarac. She then talked about the DDA project that is slated to break ground this year. And she talked about the city’s launching of a new economic development department.

According to LaBarre, city operations have been going smoothly. She said much of what council will be doing next year will be dealing with new construction projects as they arise.

LaBarre also cited the city’s new fiber optic project that launch this year. “We have been working on getting a plan for the infrastructure for fiber so that more neighborhoods can have it and so that the city can have steady access to the internet,” LaBarre said.

“And then we will open it up to public companies bidding on running their own fiber through. We won’t control the fiber; it won’t become like a city business. I think it is a good use of city funds because it will bring more residents that are able to work at home. Hopefully it will bring some younger families to the community if they know they can work remotely from home with a solid internet.”

Woodland Park RE-2 School District to Face More Upheaval In 2023

Fall Election to Cap Another Active Political Year

Trevor Phipps

Big changes are in store for the Woodland Park schools, as the halfway point approaches for the 2022/2023 calendar year.

Most likely, a time of political angst featuring heated board meetings, will continue throughout 2023, culminating with a fall election.

Right before 2022 ended, the Woodland Park RE-2 School District chose to hire a new interim superintendent to replace Tina Cassens and Del Garrick. The two had been sharing the job of co-interim superintendents since Dr. Mathew Neal stepped down last spring.

The board of education directors had previously agreed to hire an interim superintendent to finish off the school year so that the district would not be stuck in a long term contract situation. The new interim superintendent, Ken Witt, only signed on for a six month contract. As a result,  halfway through the 2023 year, the board will renew the hiring  process for a new permanent district boss, or determine if they want to give the job to Witt.

As soon as the board picked Witt as the sole finalist for the position, outrage grew within the district community. The students of the district held several protests during which they walked out of class and stood in front of the school with signs.

It was also reported that teachers lined up outside their administrators’ offices during their lunch break to ask for letters of recommendations. Rumors have circulated that many teachers fear for their jobs now that Witt is the new interim district chief.

During the last regular school board meeting, the president of the Woodland Park Educators’ Association voiced the concerns of the teachers with the board’s pick for interim superintendent. He said that teachers were worried about changes he was planning to bring.

So, one of the biggest issues for 2023 facing the district is whether or not Witt will be a good fit for the district, and if he will work well with the current staff. During his interview, Witt offered ideas on how to retain and attract new staff, and he said that he is willing to listen to help solve problems.

School Board President David Rusterholtz said he is optimistic about what the future will bring with Witt at the helm. “We have more great things planned for the schools,” Rusterholtz said. “I suspect that with Ken Witt and his creative CEO type approach with schools that we can see some great changes that reflect the desires of what parents want for their kids.”

Witt was previously the executive director of Education ReEnvisioned BOCES, based out of Colorado Springs. Witt was in charge of several schools, including online and special needs schools, and oversaw more than 5,000 students.

“I think we will have a very creative approach,” Rusterholtz said. “I think we have an amazing team with Ken Witt, Tina Cassens and Del Garrick.”

Rusterholtz also mentioned that the board will be filling a vacant board director seat early this year. There is currently one at large board director position open after former director Chris Austin resigned in late 2022.

The board president said that applications are currently open for the vacant director spot. Applicants can download an application on the district’s website.

Rusterholtz said that this month the board will select some finalists for the open spot from the pool of applicants. The board will then publicly interview the finalists and then vote on who will fill the position during a public meeting.

Despite the board gaining one new director this year for sure, there is also a chance that more new directors will come about before 2023 is over. The next school board election is slated for November 2023, and the majority of the board seats will get decided in this critical vote.

Director District D of the Gateway Elementary School Boundaries, Cassie Kimbrell, Vice President/Director of District C (the Columbine Elementary School Boundaries), David Illingworth II, and whoever gets appointed this month, all have terms that end in November.

Therefore, another sure bet for 2023 is yet another heated school board race. It could feature another match between the incumbent candidates, running as being the “conservative choice,” and residents who strongly oppose the current board.

Woodland Station Could Finally Become a Reality in 2023

Bob Volpe

With 2022 behind us, we all look forward with hopes for a prosperous and safe New Year, especially on the local development front in Woodland Park.

In fact, with a little luck, a project that has been sidelined for decades may finally get off the bench in 2023.

The Downtown Development Authority (DDA) has been working furiously to help the Waggoner and  Tava House investment group to finalize a contract for the development of Woodland Station. The  multi-use project will include a restaurant, tap house, culinary school, additional retail and housing.

The group has offered to pay $800,000 cash for 6.3 acres of Woodland Station. The group wants to close on the sale of the property on or before January 31, 2023.

A key representative for the Tava House group, Mark Weaver, spoke to the board in December on progress of the project. Weaver said, “We had a meeting with Woodland Park staff. We showed them what we’re proposing for phase one. There was a lot of feedback and action points that came out of that.”

Weaver described the meeting as “very productive.”

Weaver stated phase one construction would be limited to the upper portion of lot two (that which is located near the current parking area in Bergstrom Park).

The development of Woodland Station has been the subject of multiple offers, plans, and schemes for decades. Just when it looks like a developer has set sights on a project, some obstacle manages to scuttle the plan. Some difficult hurdles have killed plans for development include; the cost of infrastructure and who would pay for it, run ins with the DDA over design of development plans, but most often the infamous benzine plume that lurks beneath the land. The plume is the result of leakage from a gas station that once sat northwest of the property many years ago.

The contamination of the soil raised concerns over the safety of building residential units on the ground floor of any construction. Physically removing the contamination would have been a monumental and expensive option, so for years the property sat, a pariah to development.

Recently, the DDA board has questioned the voracity of claims that the plume presents a danger to people, should residential units be allowed on the ground floor of a project. They have even gone so far as to try and remove stipulations in previous documents that forbid residential units on the ground floor.

The Tava group has taken the bull by the horns and has promised to deal with the plume. Regarding the infamous benzine plume located beneath the soil on the property, Weaver said the state wants more data. Weaver estimated the cost now to complete a new study would be around $80,000 and they are willing to cut a check for that. The DDA is entertaining the idea that they may kick in $30,000 of that cost.

With a little luck, the blessing of the planning commission, city council, the DDA, the state environmental agencies, and the creek don’t rise, 2023 may finally see the beginning of commercial and residential development on Woodland Station.

The bulk of the land area has remained vacant for nearly two decades. A few historic artifacts have been placed on the entrance to the property, such as stagecoach and a cog rail car to attract more visitors.

But the area has been devoid of any multi-use commercial and retail development, a vision that DDA founders had for the property years ago.

Teller County Faces Tough Road Ahead With State Legislature, STR Invasion and Growth Concerns

Rick Langenberg

Teller County could face a tough and bumpy 2023 journey, with major hurdles ahead on the state legislative front, a pending invasion of short-term rental properties and related code enforcement concerns and a major movement in establishing a central government hub.

In addition, leaders will  be forced to seriously monitor the impacts of the forthcoming marijuana industry in Cripple Creek and other after-effects of additional voter-supported propositions, including an effort to legalize access to “magic mushrooms” and other psychedelic drugs.

These are some of the projected highlights of 2023, as Teller elected leaders ring in a new year with a full plate of issues.

On the upside, the Teller leadership ranks will feature an experienced leadership crew. On Jan. 3, Sheriff Jason Mikesell will get sworn into office for a second and final term. This tops off the official inauguration of a number of incumbents on Jan. 10. One elected newcomer is Stephanie Kees, who will take the reins of the clerk and recorder position, currently held by outgoing clerk Krystal Brown. The other new official is Carol Kittelson for assessor, assuming the position held by Colt Simmons.

But little time for a celebratory break will occur. “It is going to be a very busy year,” admitted Teller County  Commission Vice-Chairman Erik Stone. “We have a lot of issues ahead of us.”

Stone, who has often been critical of the action of state lawmakers, says they will now face even more significant legislative challenges, with the Democratic Party gaining a historic majority in the state House and Senate.

This could pave the way for a more progressive and liberal agenda on proposals that collide with the interests of Teller County, according to local GOP government leaders

One of the big concerns legislatively deals with the touchy issue of land use, as some state lawmakers are wanting to take this action out of the hands of local officials. This is part of a state-wide push for  more affordable housing, with the prospects of more density being added in residential areas to fuel the bid for more affordable housing projects.

“There is the feeling that local government is getting in the way,” said Stone, in explaining the mind-set of some lawmakers who view the  need for more of state-wide regulatory action regarding the push for affordable housing.

“There is a big debate about local control when it comes to land use at the  local level,” said Democratic Senate President Stephen Fenberg, in a recent article in the Denver Post. “At what point is it appropriate to give cities the authority to do what they want to do and what point does the state say this (affordable housing) is a statewide problem and we need to intervene.”

This loss of local control regarding land use decisions has sparked much outrage among the county commissioners in rural areas, such as Teller, and by officials of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.

Although it’s too early to  make predictions, local leaders believe this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as new challenges at the state level regarding such issues as housing, green energy policies and new mandates.

Look for commissioner meetings to feature regular updates on familiar legislative battle fronts. But Stone admits county leaders are going to have to try to deal with lawmakers they don’t really agree with much.

The last November election didn’t fare well for Republicans at the state level

STR Invasion and Illegal Camping

The short-term rental issue will also hit Teller County hard. Commission Chairman Dan Williams said officials have noticed a big hike in people renting out trailers, campers, homes and other units not authorized.  There has been an explosion of STR activity for unlicensed units, according to officials.

As a result, code enforcement, and the need to possibly come up with guidelines for licenses for STRs, could hit the radar like never before in unincorporated sections of Teller County.

“We have been watching what is occurring in Woodland Park pretty closely,” admitted Stone, who says the county is going to have to get a handle on this potential problem and come up with more defined rules.

The 2023 year is also going to become a pivotal time for Teller County in trying to pursue plans for a new central government center to replace the offices located in Woodland Park.

Williams said the county wants to get out of the business of renting facilities. He estimates the county now spends more than $600,000 a year on leasing building costs. “That is just way too much money to spend on rent,” admitted Williams, in citing the need to develop a more long-term ownership plan, rather than leasing space.

This is a bad habit that Teller originally developed years ago when it gave up ownership of a facility in Woodland Park to fund the Catamount open space project. While serving as a big bonus for residents, this became a financial albatross for the county.

The Divide area  is the prime favorite spot for a central government hub, with preliminary planning work underway. “Divide just makes sense,” said Williams.  He said, however, the county seat will remain in Cripple Creek.

In the 2023 record-breaking budget of close to $44 million, this issue of moving forward on establishing a government center gained much momentum.

Plus, the commissioners next year say they plan to heavily monitor the progress of the marijuana situation in Cripple Creek. Voters in Cripple Creek gave the go-ahead for the retail sale of marijuana, despite considerable opposition from key  leaders, including all three commissioners and the sheriff.

The city, though, has imposed a six-month moratorium on issuing licenses to give it a chance to come up with rules, zoning regulations and much more to govern the new industry. Under the voter-approved plans, the doors are open for two recreational and two medicinal pot outlets.

Legal Reefer, Hotel Expansions and Housing  Development Lead the Charge in  Cripple Creek

Rick Langenberg

Cripple Creek city leaders will have little time for rest with the toasting of a New Year, as they indulge in a full plate of entrees including a recall vote, retail marijuana and housing, not to mention overseeing the biggest hotel expansion in the town’s history.

Unlike past years, 2023 won’t be one devoid of news headlines

The year kicks off as town hosts its first recall, special election in more than two decades.  Voters will decide whether to retain council members Mark Green, a representative of Ward 4, and Charles Solomone, of Ward 5.

The recall effort was started, following a heated meeting last summer when the majority council members agreed to approve a plan, giving the go-ahead for the Cripple Creek Heritage Center to start a gift shop.  Some small non-gaming business owners and long-time citizens cried foul and maintained that this allowed the city to compete with private enterprise. In addition,  a few key former elected leaders had questioned the current pursuits of the council in no longer sponsoring special events.

Proponents of the targeted members, though,  have questioned the recall effort, saying this will further divide the town and cost the city considerable amount of money.

The recall vote, which is being handled by the city, via a mail-in election, is set for Jan. 24. Ballots will be mailed out this week. The outcome of the vote could have a big impact on the immediate course taken by city leaders throughout the year (see related story).

But the biggest issue facing the council deals with retail marijuana and setting the rules and guidelines for this forthcoming industry. Voters overwhelmingly approved a citizen-sponsored ballot proposition in Nov. 2022, opening the door for the retail sale of recreational and medicinal marijuana on a limited basis. But the council, at the end of 2022, enacted a 180-day moratorium on issuing or accepting any licenses.

The  main questions leaders have to address regarding this issue hinge on where marijuana shops can be located, and who can receive them.

Demand is expected to exceed legal availability. Green says interest from potential operators or interested entrepreneurs has been extremely strong, noting he has received  many inquiries regarding this issue.

“I have been told the three biggest questions we receive from visitors when they come to town are, ‘Where are the restrooms, where are the donkeys and where can I buy pot,’” quipped Green.

The zoning and land use rules for future marijuana shops could take center stage during the moratorium process.

The city, though, hopes to get the rules finalized this year, as it has budged a small amount of revenue from the retail sales of marijuana. The city is currently reviewing towns of its size and character that have legalized retail marijuana.

Housing is another big signature issue, with preliminary proposals for some significant developments.

Plans could be unveiled soon for a proposed 500-plus-unit apartment development  project, with leaders deciding on a record number of incentives to  move the project forward.  The city has taken an extremely aggressive stand in encouraging housing to  meet the needs of local workers. The lack of affordable apartments has been cited as the town’s main albatross in addressing its housing woes.

In fact, the need for workforce housing has reached a crisis stage if the town hopes to accommodate the projected increase of employees, as a result of expected casino and hotel expansions. To help further jump-start housing efforts the city has taken bold steps improve its current infrastructure.  2023 could determine how the city will fare in its effort to obtain $10 million-plus in infrastructure grants.

If some of the proposed projects move ahead, the town’s population could expand dramatically, according to city leaders.

Plus, 2023 could become the final act in the construction of the Chamonix resort  a 300-room hotel, by the end of the year, and possibly this fall.

A new proposed 101-room boutique hotel by Triple Crown Casinos also could break ground this year.

On the special event arena, always a touchy subject in Cripple Creek, the town will see a return of the local Ice Fest in February. This event got sidelined for several years due to the COVID epidemic and  the lack of city funding.

The city in 2023 has agreed to invest $50,000 into the festival this year. This is the first time  in several years the city has taken a big fiscal move in sponsoring a major event.

In the past, the city took a lead role in hosting and organizing special events, a situation that changed with COVID and growing financial pressures it confronted.