The Grove Project: Zoning Laws no longer protect neighborhoods

Grove LU

By Leah Burkett

Imagine learning that your neighbor across the street has plans to redevelop his lot into a 5-story, 160 unit apartment building. The proposed new building will be 50 feet tall and will be built right up to the edge of the sidewalk with no landscaping buffer. The property isn’t zoned for high-density, so surely this neighbor’s plans are unrealistic, right? Wrong. This nightmare scenario is happening right now near downtown Littleton, but a community lawsuit could stop what will otherwise be a done deal.

The project, known as the Grove, is by Zocalo Community Development and is at the corner of Littleton Blvd and Bemis Street. The Grove is strikingly similar to the failed Broadstone proposal of 2013, which was voted down 6-1 by the City Council after over 7 hours of outcry at the public hearing. This time around, the project avoided controversy with a quiet approval from city staff, who declared that no zoning change was necessary. In September 2015, city staff approved what is essentially a new version of Broadstone, but this time without public scrutiny or a vote by City Council.

This shady approval was hotly contested by neighbors and citizens alike, but City Council refused to step in. With the City unwilling to negotiate, neighbors had little choice but to seek legal assistance. Attorney David Foster of law firm Foster, Graham, Milstein and Calisher (FGMC) took the case and confirmed our belief that the Grove is not zoning compliant. This illegal project should never have been given administrative approval.

FGMC advised neighbors to appeal the Grove decision to the City’s Board of Adjustment. This board exists to “hear and decide appeals where it is alleged that there is an error in any decision or determination made by the City in the administration of the zoning code.” As a board that is meant to provide checks and balances to city decisions, it would have been the ideal platform to appeal the Grove decision. Nevertheless, city staff denied the neighborhood’s appeal application, and did so unilaterally without any involvement from the board.

Enter the lawsuit. Attorneys at FGMC believe that Littleton’s denial of the neighborhood’s appeal application is a denial of due process. While there is only one plaintiff in the suit, it is very much a community lawsuit. Non-profit group Advocates for Littleton reports that more than 80 individual contributors have donated nearly $19k toward the legal battle. The controversy has received its fair share of media attention with articles published in the Colorado Independent, the Denver Post, the Littleton Independent, and even a TV interview by 7 News.

Zocalo’s first response to the suit was an attempt to strip the plaintiff of her excellent attorney by claiming a conflict of interest. Zocalo filed a motion to disqualify FGMC, resulting in a delayed decision on the case by at least 2 months. Judge Horton of the 18th district judicial court of Arapahoe County held an evidentiary hearing in January, but the matter remained unresolved because of Zocalo’s claims that the evidence of said conflict was confidential and could not be shared publicly in the courtroom. Judge Horton therefore allowed extra time for ‘sealed’ evidence to be shared and responded to between attorneys only. On February 17th, Zocalo’s motion to disqualify was denied. FGMC will remain the attorney on this case. This small victory will keep us going while we wait out the next steps in this lawsuit.

In addition to the failed motion to disqualify, both the developer and City of Littleton filed motions to dismiss the case. Now that the disqualification motion has been decided, the Court will begin to consider both of the motions to dismiss. There is no deadline for a ruling on this, but we hope to have an answer within 6 weeks or sooner.

Despite the unresolved legal proceedings, demolition of the historic buildings on the site has recently been completed. For now, the site remains quietly fenced off, and only time will whether or not Zocalo will press forward with their project in spite of the lawsuit. For more information and to stay tuned, visit Advocates for Littleton’s website: https://sites.google.com/site/advocates4littleton/

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