The ongoing battle in the Denver suburbs against new apartment complexes has reached the Parker area again, but this time, residents took the fight to court.
More than 100 area residents filed a lawsuit against Douglas County’s elected leaders for allowing a development to move forward that would put about 200 housing units just south of the Town of Parker near state Highway 83.
Residents of The Pinery, an area that sits between Parker and Castle Rock’s northeast edge, brought the lawsuit, arguing the proposed development does not meet the county’s approval requirements and that it is “incompatible with the existing character” of the area. They also cited concerns of increased traffic.
The Pinery, a relatively remote set of neighborhoods along a major state highway, consists of low-density, single-family homes, according to the lawsuit complaint. (“Density” is a term for how many people or housing units occupy an area.)
“Plaintiffs will experience actual, immediate, and irreparable harm from (the county’s) approval of the development,” the lawsuit complaint says.
The proposal highlights friction between the desires of suburban homeowners and the business community, whose need for workers can lead to support for new housing.
“Many of the major employers in Parker are struggling with personnel due to the low inventory of workforce housing options in the town,” T.J. Sullivan, president of the Parker Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a letter to county staff in support of the development.
“(Thousands of) individuals commute to Parker each day from outside the town — especially from the south Aurora area where there are more options,” Sullivan wrote.
The Douglas County commissioners voted 2-1 on Jan. 10 to allow the development to move forward. The lawsuit, filed in February, asked a court to reverse the county’s decision and stop the development.
Part of the county’s process for approving a development in the area south of Parker centers on The Pinery’s status as a “separated urban area,” a label that goes back decades. It relates to zoning, a local government’s rules for what can be built where.
Douglas County’s 1986 Master Plan recognized previously zoned, isolated, urban developments called separated urban areas. Those areas include Roxborough, Castle Pines Village and The Pinery.
“These developments … were previously zoned for urban development as early as the 1970s,” Douglas County’s newer comprehensive master plan says.
The county’s comprehensive master plan lays out a broad vision for how and where property development should occur. It’s a focal point of the lawsuit, which argues that the proposed development at The Pinery fails to provide a “compelling public benefit” as required by the plan.
Before the proposal reached the county’s elected leaders in January, it first faced votes from the county Planning Commission, a body of citizens who are appointed to provide recommendations on property development decisions.
The planning commission in March last year voted in favor of including the site of the proposed development into The Pinery Separated Urban Area’s boundaries, a move that paved the way for the proposal to move forward. (The land was previously located in what the county considered a non‐urban area.)
The county’s comprehensive master plan states that expansion of a separated urban area — as the planning commission voted to OK — is only supported if a “compelling public benefit is provided that outweighs potential impacts,” according to a county staff report.
The lawsuit complaint argues that the comprehensive plan “defines a ‘compelling public benefit’ as including ‘supporting the fiscal health of special (government) districts and lowering overall indebtedness and tax rates for residents,’ as well as ‘enhancement of community-separation buffers or the elimination of inappropriate zoning.’ ”
But county staff described the plan differently.
“There is not a set formula or list for determining a compelling public benefit,” county staff wrote in a January 2022 staff report. “It requires (a developer) to consider what would be a benefit in the area for the County.”
“In this case, the (developer) is offering workforce housing to provide an affordable option for residents living and working in the area,” staff wrote.
Staff also wrote: “In staff’s assessment, the proposal for workforce housing is supported by goals and policies of the” comprehensive plan.
After voting to include the site of the proposed development into The Pinery’s boundaries, the planning commission expressed disapproval of the housing proposal, voting against rezoning the land — another step in the development process — by an 8-0 vote on Dec. 19.
“Ulysses (the developer) purchased the property the following day for approximately $3.6 million,” the lawsuit complaint says.
Looking at character
County commissioners voted 2-1 to let the proposal move forward in January, with Commissioner Abe Laydon voting no.
County staff had noted that a “rezoning application for urban uses and density” on the land “could be supported” under the comprehensive plan’s policies.
The lawsuit complaint asked the Douglas County District Court to reverse the county commissioners’ decision that approved the rezoning. The complaint argues that the county’s zoning rules required the county commissioners to assess “whether there has been a substantial change in the character of the neighborhood, since the land was last zoned.”
(Comprehensive plans and land-use standards can sometimes be difficult to pin down: The county comprehensive plan’s introductory section, the section on urban areas and the glossary all do not appear to include a definition of the term “character.” The county zoning rules section that lists definitions also does not define “character.”)
The lawsuit zeroed in on the type of homes in the area.
The Pinery’s “character is defined as comprised … of low-density, single-family homes. There is no other multi-family or high-density housing within The Pinery SUA. The Development would stand in stark contrast to the character of The Pinery SUA in violation” of county zoning rules, the lawsuit complaint says.
A letter to the county from The Pinery Homeowners’ Association says: “The multi-family housing existing within The Pinery, consist of 88 privately owned town homes. The remaining 3,000 plus dwelling units throughout The Pinery SUA are single family units and compatible with the character of the original Pinery.”
County staff wrote that the character of the neighborhood has changed since the property in question was last zoned in 1955.
“The Pinery Planned Development, generally north and south of the site and directly across SH 83 to the east … was zoned in 1972. The Pinery PD allows for commercial, office, residential, and open space uses,” a Dec. 29 county staff report says. “The Stone Creek Ranch PD to the immediate south was approved by the County in 2014 for 329 single-family residential units, most of which have been constructed.”
A couple of emails to the county from nearby residents noted that no commercial areas sit in the immediate area.
Though an RTD park-and-ride bus stop sits at Highway 83 and North Pinery Parkway — about a half mile from the proposed development — adding so many housing units is sure to increase traffic to some degree in the area. The development would sit along the edge of The Pinery.
It is anticipated that the developer will be responsible for a “fair share contribution” to road improvements, county staff wrote. The development has committed to contributing to changes, including:
• A “pro-rata” share of the required traffic signal improvements to the intersection of Scott Avenue and state Highway 83, and 50% of the traffic signal cost for the intersection of Pinery Center Boulevard and Scott Avenue to be secured by the county via an improvements agreement.
• Design and construction of the full width extension of Pinery Center Boulevard to Scott Avenue.
As far as height of the apartment complex, a letter from the developer’s team to county staff says: “Because the property is located below the elevation of (state Highway 83) and surrounding properties, multi-story structures developed on the property will be no higher or more visible than surrounding single-family developments.”
The lawsuit alleges that the developer’s representatives stated the buildings would be only three stories high yet requested buildings be built 45 feet tall, which would amount to a four-story building, the lawsuit says.
“As proposed, the development has only a 1,000-foot setback from the Stone Creek Ranch neighborhood and will unquestionably impact the value of the neighborhood and the views of the residents of the neighborhood,” the lawsuit complaint says.
‘The county’s needs’
The proposal documents label the apartment complex as “workforce housing units,” a term that can vary depending on who is using it.
Given the location in Douglas County, it’s unclear whether the apartments would be considered cheap relative to the Denver metro-area market as a whole.
Units would only be available to individuals and families making no greater than 60% of the area’s median income, as that figure is calculated annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to a Sept. 16 letter from the developer’s team to county staff.
As of April 2022, local households making no greater than 60% of the AMI, and thus eligible for a unit, typically earn between $40,000 to $80,000 per year, the letter says.
“Households with incomes in this range may include employees of Douglas County government, Douglas County School District, local businesses, including The Shops at Castle Rock and other local retailers and restaurants, and critical services, including the Parker Adventist Hospital system and other emergency and essential service organizations,” the letter says.
The letter adds: “Understanding the county’s acute need for workforce housing, Ulysses intends to institute a marketing strategy and leasing preference plan offering leasing priority to current employees of Douglas County government and businesses, existing County residents, and veterans, in order to directly serve the County’s needs.”
The lawsuit complaint, referring to apartments in Parker, Castle Rock and Castle Pines, claimed that “many (are available) at the same or lower rental rates as those proposed by Ulysses for the Development.”
A leader at Parker Adventist Hospital wrote in support of the proposal, noting that “housing continues to be one of the top issues for our associates.”
“The care we provide our communities is incumbent upon our ability to attract and retain our workforce,” Michael Goebel, CEO of Parker Adventist Hospital, wrote in a letter. “Thus, ensuring there are attainable housing options in the area is paramount and we feel this project will be a step in the right direction.”
The land for the proposed development sits in an unincorporated area, meaning it’s not within a city or town. Douglas County government generally oversees property development rules for unincorporated areas.