Littleton residents have until the end of July to weigh in on a draft of a sprawling document that will guide development in the city for decades to come. City officials released a draft of the …
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Littleton residents have until the end of July to weigh in on a draft of a sprawling document that will guide development in the city for decades to come.
City officials released a draft of the Universal Land Use Code (ULUC), a total overhaul of the city’s zoning and land use codes, on June 7, and will accept public comments until July 31. City council is expected to ratify the final version of the ULUC in October.
The ULUC is the culmination of years of work by city staff and council, intended to replace the city’s current land use codes, which were originally written in the 1970s and have been amended many times since.
The goal is to bring Littleton’s zoning into the 21st century, said Jennifer Henninger, Littleton’s director of community development.
“The last time our code was overhauled was the Carter era,” Henninger said. “Think of how much our world has changed in that time, but Littleton’s code hasn’t adapted.”
The philosophy, Henninger said, is to build a code that more proactively describes the city’s land use goals, rather than simply serving as a list of restrictions.
“The old code is full of ‘gotchas,’” she said. “It’s very complicated.”
Old zoning has spurred trouble
Littleton’s old code has led to controversy in recent years.
Residents in south Littleton were caught off guard in 2018 when a shooting range was built in keeping with what then-mayor Debbie Brinkman called antiquated zoning that predated much of the area’s residential development.
Along Broadway, commercial development in the Littleton Village Metro District is stalled in part over what developers call dysfunctional zoning.
At Santa Fe Drive and Mineral Avenue, the city currently faces a lawsuit from a developer whose rezoning application for a mixed-use development was rejected by the city council in May, while to the south, city staff are struggling with a large-scale housing development moving forward under decades-old zoning that doesn’t mandate impact fees.
The hope is that the ULUC will head off further zoning-induced headaches, Henninger said, with a greater focus on community character. The ULUC, largely written by consultants from Kendig Keast Collaborative, is built on years of studies, surveys, community meetings and outreach from city officials.
The so-called visioning phase led to the 2019 ratification of the city’s first new comprehensive plan since the 1980s, and the ratification of a first-ever transportation master plan.
What types of housing, where?
Among the more notable zoning changes in the ULUC draft is the formulation of a “corridor mixed use” zone, primarily along Broadway and Santa Fe Drive, which would streamline mixed-use developments with businesses beneath high-density housing.
Also notable is a framework for accessory dwelling units or ADUs — also called carriage houses. The draft ULUC would allow attached, detached and internal ADUs in certain housing zones, some as use by right and others by conditional use.
The draft also provides more robust definitions and standards for duplexes and triplexes, though it does not allow the conversion of single-family homes into higher-density in any zones where it is not already allowed under existing code.
The draft also incorporates short-term rental regulations ratified by city council in 2020, which mandate a licensing structure for short-term rentals and restricts which zones allow them, but does not limit the number of STRs in the city, how many one licensee can own, or where owners must live.
All of the above — mixed-use development, high-density housing, single-family zoning conversions, ADUs and short-term rentals — factor into the increasingly significant debate over affordable housing in Littleton.
One of the comprehensive plan’s “core values” calls for a range of housing types with a variety of price points, and sets a goal of building more than 6,500 new housing units in coming decades. A landmark housing study commissioned by city council in 2017 found Littleton’s housing is increasingly unaffordable to middle- and lower-income earners, with a 2020 update finding the problem only getting worse.
The update also found the proportion of young families in Littleton is on the decline as housing prices soar, a factor Littleton Public Schools cited last spring as part of the decision to close several elementary schools.
Two studies presented to the Tri-Cities Homelessness Initiative last winter found that climbing rates of homelessness are largely driven by spiking housing prices.
Median single-family home prices in Littleton currently hover around $600,000, a roughly 300% increase from the turn of the 21st century, though wages are up only about 50% in the same time period.
But the draft ULUC does not offer definitions or goals for affordable housing, though City Manager Mark Relph said there’s a good reason.
“The ULUC provides a foundation,” Relph said. “It’s a framework that can be added onto. It won’t answer all things in October. There are years of work ahead.”
City council has identified affordable housing as a stand-alone goal with plans to develop a citywide strategy in coming months, Relph said, and plans to work closely with the Denver Regional Council of Governments as it seeks to understand and implement a sweeping new state law which would allow municipalities far more leeway in mandating affordable housing.
Draft doesn’t go far enough, critics say
Still, the soft-touch approach toward affordable housing has drawn criticism. Littleton resident Emily Dykes heads a nascent group called Vibrant Littleton, with the goal of loosening zoning to boost housing affordability.
Dykes told council on June 15 that she was puzzled the draft ULUC didn’t seem to incorporate what she called widespread support for expanding ADUs citywide, and hoped the draft would allow for more duplexes and triplexes in single-family zones.
“I think this is a major missed opportunity,” Dykes said. “I think this draft has a long way to go ... The fact is, the current draft of the ULUC is standing in the way of the market having a say. The market is made up of people, and the people are asking for ADUs, missing-middle housing and walkability.”
Corey Reitz, who heads South Metro Housing Options, Littleton’s housing authority, told council at the same meeting that recent zoning amendments covering downtown — effectively early elements of the ULUC — cost his agency an affordable housing development.
The newly-imposed four-story height limit in the downtown zone, intended to preserve downtown’s character, ruined the economic viability of a proposed affordable housing development, Reitz said.
“It was a huge opportunity missed in terms of missing out on affordable housing we’re in need of,” Reitz said.
What about sustainability?
City council watchdog Pam Chadbourne, who has long called the ULUC an opaque process that’s overly friendly to developers, said she is disturbed by something else absent from the ULUC draft: sustainability goals and climate change mitigation standards.
“The people of the future are looking to you,” Chadbourne said to council on June 15. “They’re dependent on you. They won’t know who you are, but they’ll know the mistakes you make.”
Though the draft includes an environmental management section, it largely deals with floodplain issues, and noise, waste and pollution rules.
Again, Relph said those discussions are yet to come.
“With sustainability, there’s a universe of things you could do. First we need to take an inventory of what we’re doing now, then talk about next steps. We’ll be bringing that discussion to council beginning in September.”
For now, city officials are simply hoping to receive as much feedback on the draft as possible.
The draft, available at EnvisionLittleton.org, includes tools to leave comments on every subsection of the code.
City officials are mainly hoping to receive feedback online, said Henninger, the community development director, with very few paper copies available.
“When you print it out, it’s almost 500 pages,” she said. “It cuts into the budget. We’re planning on having a couple paper copies at (Bemis) library.”
Still, Henninger said the city plans to go on a marketing blitz at the end of June and into July, with plans for posters with QR codes linking to the draft to go up around town, online outreach, and a pair of open houses in July.
City council, Planning Commission and the Historical Preservation Board all have public meetings on the draft scheduled for July, and Henninger said city planning staff are happy to sit down one-on-one with residents to go over the draft.
“We want to hear from you,” Henninger said. “Let us know if we’ve got this right.”
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