By Jennifer LeDuc
Although Lakewood City Clerk Margy Greer ruled against a protest attempting to squash a citizen’s petition to install stronger parameters around Lakewood’s approach to development, voters will still not be able to vote on the grassroots initiative at the polls in November.
Less than a week after Greer’s Sept. 18 decision, Steven Dorman and his attorney Dennis Polk filed a complaint in district court against Greer, the city, and two initiative proponents, stonewalling the Strategic Growth Initiative.
Lakewood Neighborhood Partnerships, a citizens group, developed the initiative, circulated the petition and submitted it to Lakewood City Council in August.
Dorman filed a protest on Aug. 21 against the city’s acceptance of the petitions, which supported putting the initiative in front of city council or on the November ballot. Polk also responded to an email dated June 7 sent to “Friends of Lakewood” from Mayor Adam Paul soliciting advice to ensure the door of opportunity is not shut on Lakewood and stating that Polk could be counted on “to help resist these types of measures.”
Dorman, a retiree and vice chair of the JeffCo Republican Party who moved to Lakewood several years ago, asserts the initiative violates the rights of property owners, although attempts to find property he owns within Lakewood, or Jefferson County, were unsuccessful.
Dorman’s complaint did not come as a surprise to her office, explained Greer. During protest proceedings Polk asserted he’d take the case to the district court if Greer did not rule in favor of his case.
Since Dorman’s complaint was filed, Greer’s “heard nothing” from the court, so when, or if ever, the initiative would go before city council or voters is unknown.
“When somebody files an initiative petition there’s no guarantee it will ever get on the ballot,” Greer explained. “They (the petitioners) did try to get it to me on time.
“We’re just in limbo,” she continued. “That’s the main thing. City council can’t act on an action that’s under protest or appeal.”
City council can adopt the initiative, which is unlikely given the majority of members publicly against it, or send it to a special election to be held within 90 days of their decision, an effort potentially costing Lakewood an estimated $300,000 said Greer.
Dorman’s protest not only disputes the language of the petition’s summary, which was drafted by the city clerk’s office, but also the weight and degree of attestation made by circulators to the notary publics who verified the collection of the signatures. It’s as complicated and nuanced as it sounds, and on Thursday, Sept. 7, nearly seven hours of argument and testimony, as well as legal fees, were spent scrutinizing the process and the intentions of the people involved in bringing the initiative in front of residents to decide upon, and whether attesting to something in the presence of a notary bore the same weight as raising one’s hand and swearing under oath, and whether that was even called for.
At the hearing, following Polk’s request to serve 74 subpoenas over the Labor Day weekend, dozens of witnesses, including petition circulators as well as notaries, some from area banks and under representation of their financial institute’s legal counsel, were called to testify on the process by which they attested to the collection of petition signatures.
David Votava, a Lakewood resident and a petition circulator, testified at Thursday’s hearing. Polk asked, as he did of other circulators, if Votava raised his hand and swore “under oath” to the truthfulness of the collection of signatures when they were notarized.
“My signature was the affirmation of my oath,” Votava replied.
Under questioning by the attorney representing the Growth Initiative, former Secretary of State Scott Gessler, Votava revealed that he served as a notary in the Colorado Statehouse for 12 years, notarizing documents for senators and staff, and said he never followed the oath procedure Polk suggested.
“For 12 years you never did that?” asked Gessler.
“No,” affirmed Votava.
Contesting that the petition accurately explained the 14-page initiative in just two sentences, Polk also asked circulators how they explained the initiative if there were questions. Multiple petitioners testified residents were already aware of and informed on the initiative and were eager to add their signature.
What is the Strategic Growth Initiative? To quote the city clerk’s summary on the initiative and receiving more than 5,000 supporting signatures, it is “An ordinance to limit residential growth to no more than one percent by implementing a permit allocation system that limits permit requests for new dwelling units, including City Council approval of allocations for projects of forty or more units.”
The initiative’s website elaborates, stating the initiative includes the assurance of the preservation of Lakewood’s “high quality of life, to maintain property values, to encourage preservation of larger open space … to encourage redevelopment of blighted and distressed areas” and ensure growth doesn’t “exceed the capacity of public facilities and community services.”
“The initiative allows growth while maintaining quality of life for future residents,” summarized Cathy Kertner, teacher and Lakewood resident who, as a member of Lakewood Neighborhood Partnerships, spearheaded the initiative and now defends the initiative against Dorman’s protest with co-petitioner Anita Springsteen.
Springsteen, a Lakewood resident and also an attorney, asserts the process of Dorman’s protest aims to prevent voters from deciding what’s right for the future of Lakewood, setting, what she calls, “a chilling precedent for future petitions” and the democratic process entitled to citizens.
Springsteen was in favor of the growth initiative as a resident frustrated with zoning measures that seemingly were changed at will and without the public’s awareness. However as the protest moved forward, the attorney’s focus dramatically shifted.
“The whole point is the idea of punishing people for circulating petitions is unconscionable,” she said, maintaining that whether you are for or against the initiative, people should be paying attention. This is how rights get taken away, she cautioned.
Ironically, Dorman also maintains his protest is not for lack of understanding why the initiative was created, but to defend his rights as a property owner.
The supporters of the initiative “have legitimate concerns,” he acknowledged. “I have nothing but the highest respect for supporters. But I’m absolutely opposed to this method of achieving their goal,” said Dorman, who is retired. “I’m not going to stand idly by while you vote on my rights to exist.”
Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul, who vocally opposes the initiative, said he has largely distanced himself from the proceedings thus far and said he wasn’t in a position to offer a reflection on the protest hearing, but is concerned if the initiative goes to the people for a vote.
“It’s got gray areas,” he cautioned. “It’s not something to adopt willy nilly. There’s a better way to approach this and this isn’t the way.”
“We seem to have a lot of ordinances that have gray area,” said Kertner in response to the mayor’s concern. “It’s also true that if the mayor and council would pass something to address these issues we could pull the initiative.”
Paul said he does recognize people are concerned with development – he grew up here and remembers a very different Lakewood, and concedes the growth hasn’t been “perfect” but does not think an “ill conceived ordinance that melds Boulder and Golden” is the right direction for Lakewood.
“If you artificially stunt a market,” he said, “it’s going to price people out.”
In 1996 the residents of Golden, as did the residents of Boulder decades earlier, passed a measure nearly identical to the Lakewood initiative, which also caps growth at 1 percent, and is “diligently supported” according to the city of Golden’s website. The city’s website also advises “a limited number of building permits are available for new residential construction, and a permit may not be immediately available to a person requesting one.”
Evident following two separate presentations during the last city council meeting, people are already getting priced out of Lakewood, as in many communities along the Front Range, not just in Boulder. Paul feels that by increasing the number of resident-owned dwellings in the city, versus rental units, is one way to shift that trend.
Addressing presumptions by some residents that people in city government are benefitting financially by the developments, Paul dismissed that notion.
“Do I get campaign contributions from developers? Yes. It’s unfortunate I have to run a campaign with donations.” But, he said he also has “hard” conversations with developers to ensure the best direction for the city. “You have to have thick skin to do this job,” the mayor said.
Ward 2 city councilor Scott Koop disapproves of the initiative.
“The initiative does not address the needs of Ward 2 at all,” said Koop. “Ward 2 needs redevelopment, we need new buildings.” The councilor, whose term expires this year, believes developers talk to each other and are starting to question whether Lakewood is a place they want to do business, and that “hurts years of planning and progress.”
Ward 2 city councilor Sharon Vincent could not be reached for comment.
Charles Kenneth Davis, a city council candidate for Ward 2, also opposes the initiative despite feeling that “big picture thoughtfulness has been missing.”
“Blanket lockdown of city growth is not the way to go,” said Davis, who said he’s read the initiative in its entirety twice, each time coming away with a different understanding of it. “I think using the model as a tool to prevent urban sprawl is going to have some bad repercussions we can't foresee right now,” explaining that contrary to Golden’s position, there’s very little of Lakewood left for sprawl. And as supply and demand goes, as jobs in the metro area have outpaced housing, Davis said “It’s math, and it’s an emotional math.”
Kertner, Dorman, and the mayor have never sat down together to discuss the initiative or protest, although when asked separately, each said they would be willing to do so.
“I don’t think Cathy has any ill-will,” Paul said. “I sit down with everybody and anybody.”