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Attention Developers: Here’s how to beat the system

Essay by Norm Wallen

Growth and Local Politics – June 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

ANYONE WHO LIVES in a growing western community can understand how development changes the character of the place they live. But most of us are uninformed about the development process itself. We curse the powers that be when new subdivisions and strip-malls go up, or we get stuck in traffic jams that didn’t exist last year, but we don’t really understand the rules, both hidden and apparent, that created this new reality.

I was ignorant, too, until I was elected to the Flagstaff, Arizona city council three years ago. Since then, I’ve learned more about the dealings between developers, government officials and citizens than I really wanted to know. I’ve been accused of hating developers (not yet entirely true), so I’d like to make amends. Here’s some advice for them, free of charge.

1. Keep your deals secret as long as possible.

Never let the public in on your arrangements with landowners or on your intentions for a piece of property until you have to. Typically, you will have informal conversations with the staff of whichever government unit has to give approval, but these are easy to keep quiet.

At some point, you will have to make formal application, leading up to formal staff review at a public meeting. But it’s pretty easy to keep the public ignorant of this, as well, unless there is a really nosy reporter in town. No matter how offensive your development may be to the public or governing body, this is all you have to do if your plan does not require a re-zoning.

People still ask me how the Flagstaff city council could allow an ugly fortress hotel at the major entrance to the city. The truth is, we never saw the plans because the developer followed this first principle so well.

2. Do your best to muscle staff.

Remember, county and city planning staff are obligated to help you comply with those onerous ordinances — usually engineering, public safety, resource protection and, God forbid, design standards. Since ordinances are legal documents, there is always some wiggle room.

And since you, the beleaguered developer, have to pay for analysis of impacts on traffic, water, sewer, etc., subject only to review by staff, you have a big head start. In a recent case in my town, it was the neighbors — not the staff — who caught the developer when his assessment of existing tree canopy was “slightly off” — by about 125%. Be sure your team (architect, engineer, lawyer) pushes the limits. Contrary to perception, staff planners are generally overworked and susceptible to being worn down.

3. Bully public officials with the stick.

If you must get an up-zoning to higher density — to put 1,000 homes on a parcel zoned for 70, for example — you will have to face the Planning and Zoning Commission, a body made up of appointed citizens who make recommendations to the elected officials. They will, of course, differ in their degree of worship to the Development Trinity: Profit — the father, Private Property Rights — the son; and Growth, — the unholy ghost.

But use these deeply held beliefs to your advantage: Argue that you are entitled to the up-zoning if your plan meets the requirements of the new zone (even though you are not: most ordinances require any re-zoning to be in the interest of the community). Make noises that anything but approval will force you to sue the town for an illegal “taking” of your property.

And if the public is likely to give you trouble at a public hearing, outgun them with a carefully rehearsed presentation (lots of pictures) augmented by testimonials on your good intentions, even from those who stand to profit from your project.

4. Placate them with the carrot.

If you can’t convince staff or citizens that their concerns about your project are baseless, argue that they can be fixed with “mitigation” measures. This tactic is becoming more difficult to pull of, since the public is now more aware of floodplains flooding, hillsides falling down, unbearable traffic congestion, unfinished landscaping (promised by previous developers).

Still, belief in the technical fix is so strong that you will likely prevail. One way to sell your project is to claim that it has an affordable housing component. If you can stomach it (some can), argue that affordable means affordable to all income levels; never agree that it means a home within the capability of a family in the bottom 40 percent of income. You might even use cost as an excuse to end-run the review process and try for approval directly from the governing body.

And finally, remember that your well-paid lawyer can challenge your development agreement with the government should you decide the requirements are just too much of a hassle to meet. City fathers are loathe to blow the whistle on a development once its underway.

Well, that’s it. I realize that most of you developers already know all this. But we do want a level playing field, now, don’t we?

Norm Wallen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado . He is a member of the City Council in Flagstaff, Arizona.