Littleton v Corbin Sakdol – Urban Renewal

City of Littleton v Corbin Sakdol – A Brief Citizen Summary

Was agricultural land legally included in the Santa Fe Urban Renewal Plan?

Background: November 4, 2014 the city council approved the Santa Fe Urban Renewal Plan (SFURP) that included agricultural land. The County Assessor, Corbin Sakdol, objected to the inclusion of the ag land and removed it from the SFURP which reduces the amount of tax increment financing that would be available to LIFT, our urban renewal authority. (The LIFT Consultant, Ann Ricker, told LIFT that Breckenridge Brewery would be a cash cow for LIFT.) 

What lands are the object of this suit? The open space located just south of Mineral and west of Santa Fe Drive totals approx. 122 acres and the property where Breckenridge Brewery now sits is also zoned, for assessment purposes, as agricultural. Both represent ag land that was included in the urban renewal plan approved by LIFT, Planning Board and City Council.

The City sued the County challenging the exclusion. Jan. 22, 2016 Judge Pratt heard the case.

This is the first time a dispute over the inclusion of ag land has come up since the UR law was amended to make it virtually impossible to include ag land in an urban renewal plan area.   The question for the court to decide is:

Ag land can be included if:

Not less than ½ of the urban renewal area as a whole consists of parcels of land containing urban level development and not less than 2/3 of the perimeter of the urban renewal area is contiguous with urban level development. Littleton and Arapahoe County have come to different conclusions using different methodology and the Court will have to decide which entity used the better method.

Summary: The morning was spent with the City calling their two witnesses; Jim Rees the executive director of LIFT, and Eric Erwin who works in the Economic Development department of the city. Erwin has an Asso Degree in Photography and a BS in Natural Resource Management and has taken a class at DU in GIS.

Rees testified that he knew the language of the plan described the urban renewal area was different than the legal description of the area provided as an appendix to the plan. Mr. John Christofferson, attorney for Arapahoe County, made the point that the plan stated in Section 1.4 that the legal description of the urban renewal area would prevail if there were a discrepancy between the plan and the legal description. Rees acknowledged that to be true.

Erwin, who is the GIS guy in the economic development department, was asked to review the plan area and make a determination as to how much was urban land development and how much was not. Christofferson questioned him and we learned that Erwin was asked to take this task of interpreting the urban renewal law on a Friday afternoon to support action the council would be taking on the following Tuesday. (In fact, council receives their board packets on Thursday so it is very likely that the council resolution to approve the urban renewal plan that included the ag land was written and distributed to the council in preparation for the upcoming Tuesday meeting before Erwin began the task of making the determinations.)

Erwin considered the “use” and “character” of the land in making his calculations. Christofferson pointed out that the law does not allow for the “use and character” of the land to be considered when making the calculations. Example of why this distinction was/is important. Erwin described his task something like this – he pulled up the parcel in an aerial photograph and if the saw something that looked like infrastructure at or above grade or a permanent structure then he would consider that urban level development and he would then make a subjective decision as to the predominance of URD on that parcel. Other points that were made in Christofferson’s examination of Erwin were:

  • Erwin was provided the task on Friday, Oct. 31 for a Tuesday, Nov. 4 meeting
  • It was a lot of work but Erwin is fast so he got it done
  • Erwin used “use and character” in his determination of urban land development on a piece of property even though the law did not call for “use and character” to be considered.
  • Erwin was asked to interpret the urban renewal law when having no experience or training in the UR law.
  • Erwin said there was more than 15 million square feet of land in the SFURA which is significantly larger than the 265 acres of land as described in the plan.
  • Erwin did not use a consistent approach in his determination of whether or not parcels contained urban level development.
  • Erwin considered compacted dirt urban level development because it might be used for parking. (An example of how use figured into these findings.)

The County called three witnesses to the stand. Betty Fine, Michael Hubbard and Mark Scott.

Betty Fine is the person that works with TIF districts, reviews the legal description and parcel inventories. She worked on the SFURP identifying parcels that were incorrectly included. Her testimony indicated that she had identified errors in the legal description which were then communicated to Rees. A new list of parcels was provided to her with corrections made and they did not include the right of ways that LIFT is claiming are part of the UR plan. There was a third revision as well that did not have the right of ways included.

Michael Hubbard is the county’s GIS person and has a BA in Earth Science and a Certificate in Advanced Studies and Geo Systems and Auto CAD certification. Mark Scott is a county assessor and has been for years. Scott is a CSU graduate in Social Science, is a certified General Appraiser, and has been a member of the Appraisal Institute since 1984, which is a comprehensive multi-year program and he has served as chair almost every is a property appraisal committee at the state level.

Arapahoe County had a very different approach to ascertain the percentages required in the UR law. The worked with the Department of Local Affairs in their procedures to determine what was urban level development so it would be a procedure that they could replicate in the future if necessary.   DOLA approved of his or her methodology and if the County prevails in this suit the procedure may become part of the ARL (Assessor’s Research Library) that is used by each Colorado county assessor when complying with the UR law.

It was Scott’s job to determine which parcels were urban level development and which were not. He passed along his findings to Hubbard who then, through the magic of his computer and software was able to make the calculations.

Each attorney has until Monday, February 2, 2016 to submit his or her closing remarks to the court. We do not expect a ruling until after March.

 

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