Soap Opera-like Feud Continues Over Vacation Homes in Woodland Park

Council Kills  Pro-STR Ordinance; Issue Headed Back to Drawing Board

Trevor Phipps

After several months of debate surrounding short-term rental regulations, the Woodland Park City Council has finally reached a unanimous conclusion.

However, the end result may not become a conclusion; as in reality, it sends the issue back to the drawing board. As a result, city officials will have to start  from scratch in grappling with an issue that has turned into a wild feud, capped by marathon discussions and the first successful referendum action in recent history in Woodland Park. In some ways, the controversy brings back memories of an earlier fight nearly two decades ago regarding a  Walmart Supercenter; only this time, the opposing residents won.

Last week, the referendum initiative against city’s STR ordinance hit the dais after a group of citizens’ efforts that started last November reached the final legal end zone. The group had opposed a previous council action to approve an ordinance that set the stage for more STR units in local neighborhoods with conditions.

During the regularly scheduled council meeting, the issue to repeal came up on the agenda and the council could either vote to repeal the ordinance, or vote to send it to a special election.

In the end, the council voted unanimously to repeal the ordinance after hearing from several community members asking them to take this action. After the ordinance was officially appealed, the council was then tasked with discussing what the next steps would be.

When the issue first came up on the agenda, City Clerk Suzanne Leclercq described the process of the referendum petition, and briefly discussed the protest hearing that took place in early February. According to the city clerk, a person protested on the basis that the referendum’s petitioners were not honest and misled people signing the petition.

However, that is a tough argument to prove, based on the outcome of similar petition protests.

According to Leclercq, the protest hearing took place on Feb. 3 with the city municipal court deputy judge Ron Carlson presiding over the hearing. He then submitted his opinion to uphold the petition on Feb. 8.

“Judge Carlson stated the following, ‘Therefore I find the protest of the petition should be denied for lack of substantial and confident evidence taken in the record as a whole,’” the city clerk said.

Leclercq explained to the council that state law requires that an election be held after a referendum initiative between 60 days and 150 days of the decision, if that’s what they chose to do. If council had voted to send the issue to an election, the city clerk recommended that it take place on April 4.

During public comment on the issue many of the leaders of the referendum movement took the floor to ask the council to repeal the ordinance. Resident Arnie Sparnins, one of the more vocal members of the group, voiced opposition to the way the original pro-STR ordinance was approved.

“This was important, precedence-setting legislation,” Sparnins said. “No matter how many smoke screens are thrown out by STR proponents, at the core, Ordinance 1431 sets the precedence for allowing these short-term rental units in residential districts, period. We all agree that good neighbor guidelines are needed, but they can’t come at the irreparable costs of a fundamental change to our zoning code.”

Resident Mary Sekowski also said she wanted the ordinance repealed and the issue sent back to the planning commission to start the process over. “I urge the city council to take this back to the planning commission,” Sekowski said. “We are finding that as we have spoken to a lot of people that have signed the petition that there is a lot of misinformation out there. I think we all want something that is going to work very well in our community. I would urge you to have our city staff to continue with the exploration of data.”

After public comment, Councilman Frank Connors quickly moved to repeal the ordinance. The council agreed, but the future surrounding this touchy subject is still quite foggy.

Council Discusses Next Steps

Once the vote to repeal the ordinance had been completed, the council was then asked to discuss what steps to take. Connors suggested that the issue be discussed at another meeting due to lack of time.

Councilmember Robert Zuluaga then presented the council with a handful of possible options to move forward. “Option number one: we could do nothing,” Zuluaga said. “Option number two is we could send it to planning commission. Option three would be that those who protested this ordinance could send a desired ordinance to the planning commission to kick off the discussion.”

Councilmember Rusty Neal said that he hoped the process would not have to completely start from the beginning of the process.

“If we send it back to the planning commission, hopefully the planning commission reviews the discussions that the council has had over the last many weeks of meetings,” Neal said. “They should listen to the thoughts the council had when they tried to make some tweaks to the original recommendation that came forward. I hope we don’t start from scratch because there has been a lot of input.”

City Manager Michael Lawson suggested that the council hold another work session to discuss the next steps and take in all the information from the community the council has received up to this point.

The council then decided to hold a work session about the next steps to take regarding STRs on March 2.