The Final Word

RetoolCOS is now before City Council, its last stop before becoming law
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Peter Wysocki, planning and community development director, reviews the RetoolCOS draft process with City Councilors on Jan. 10. RetoolCOS is the city’s first zoning code overhaul since the late 1990s. (Photo by Greta Anderson Johns)

After a long day making decisions on significant city legislation — passing a new water ordinance and approving a ballot question about continued Trails, Open Space and Parks funding — Colorado Springs City Council decided on Jan. 10 to table its discussion about RetoolCOS, the city’s zoning code rewrite.

Council will continue discussions and consider potential additions or changes to RetoolCOS, on Jan. 24. Last week’s hearing ended before these steps were taken, says Alex Ryden, Council’s communications specialist. But public comment on the draft, however, has concluded, he says.

Council is the RetoolCOS project’s last stop for approval, as a 428-page final draft of the code was passed unanimously by the city’s Planning Commission on Oct. 28. The draft, which will replace the decades-old Chapter 7 of the current City Code and overhaul how the city approves development, has been the subject of intense citizen debate and displeasure about its contents since it was presented to the commission in September. If passed, the new code will go into effect in May.

In a Jan. 12 interview on our podcast, The Sixty35, Mayor John Suthers said even if RetoolCOS is passed by Council and signed by him in the coming weeks, that doesn’t mean the code is set in stone. The mayor’s office and four Council seats are up for grabs in this April’s election.
“This is an attempt to bring our codes up to date to what’s actually happening in the world — that process is going to continue no matter who’s mayor,” Suthers said. “I think it’s going to be an ongoing process, regardless of when it’s formally enacted.”

Public critiques of RetoolCOS can be generally broken down into two camps. Planning staff have said that they’ve tried to balance the wishes of both over the last three years of developing the new zoning code.

One of them is Historic Neighborhoods Partnership, an organization with homeowner association members that represents older, established neighborhoods. The group, along with longtime residents who agree with its points about preservation, still have a number of issues with the current draft of RetoolCOS.

Overall, HNP members argue the document doesn’t put enough emphasis on protecting “neighborhood character” amid new development, and that new rules around things like mixed-use zoning and maximum lot coverage in residential areas could threaten the existence and peace of their neighborhoods.

HNP’s goals are sometimes at odds with those of advocates for more affordable housing, who believe RetoolCOS does not make enough changes to have a meaningful impact on the issue of “missing middle” housing that is attainable for lower-wage workers.

Representatives from Colorado Springs Faith Table, a coalition of local religious leaders who advocate for social justice and those living “on the margins” of the community, came to the Jan. 10 meeting to reiterate concerns that grandfathering in existing properties — and therefore excluding them from RetoolCOS’ changes — would mean a majority of the city would not see cheaper housing.

The camps also disagree about the development appeal process, which was changed in RetoolCOS from the way appeals have worked for nearly three decades, under the city’s current zoning ordinance.

Many residents, including several who peppered Council and Suthers with emails before the Jan. 10 hearing, disagree with RetoolCOS’ new limit on who can appeal development plans.
The new code says that those who may appeal must either: Live within 1,000 feet of a planned development, or live within 2 miles and have made public comment or been involved in the public process for the development plan previously — what is called “preserved standing.”

Under the current code, however, anyone may appeal a development plan.
The new appeal limit was also debated during the Planning Commission’s review of RetoolCOS, and that body decided to leave it in. Residents, though, argue that it’s a move to quash public dissent on controversial developments. (Peter Wysocki, the city’s planning and community development director, has denied this).

Barbara Novey, a resident of the Mesa Springs neighborhood and a member of HNP, said during public comment that her main issue is with the preserved standing requirement, and she requested that Council take it out.

“If you don’t know that something’s getting built in your neighborhood until you see it in the news, you don’t have an opportunity to have preserved standing, so you can’t appeal the decision,” Novey said.

Barbara Novey, a Mesa Springs resident and member of Historic Neighborhoods Partnership, argues against proposed limits on who can appeal developments. (Photo By Greta Anderson Johns)

She also argued that people who yield their public comment time to others during meetings, or opt not to speak at all because their comment is repetitive, could be left out of this preserved standing requirement.

However, Rev. Daniel Smith, pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church and co-chair of the Faith Table, said his group is in favor of the new appeal limits.

“The changes to the appeal process will limit the cost of appeals [to the city] brought forward by folks from outside the neighborhood,” Smith said during public comment.

Wayne Williams, an at-large councilor and candidate for mayor, noted that Council had previously heard a development appeal from a person in Boulder. Novey replied that Colorado Springs city limits might be a reasonable radius instead of 2 miles.

Neighbors have also questioned public participation in the RetoolCOS drafting process itself, some arguing that the planning department did not make enough of an effort to inform people the rewrite was happening. Several have contacted Suthers and Council to express that they just learned about it, though the department began the project in November 2019.

Monika May, a Knob Hill resident and a member of the Boulder Street Neighborhood Watch, for one, has complained that the city did not send postcards to every property owner within its boundaries, which she says would have ensured every neighborhood and people with disabilities were aware of RetoolCOS. Leaders in Knob Hill, she says, were not.

The department has responded that it held more than 80 public meetings. In an email to May, Michael Tassi, assistant director of planning and community development, said the department sent press releases and relied on the media to spread the word about open houses.

“We did not do a specific mailing to all 270,000 plus dwelling units in the city limits,” Tassi said. “At $0.60 a notice, mailed notices would have been approximately $1.1 million for each of the 7 open houses, which is cost prohibitive.”

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