Parker Town Council unanimously approved two urban renewal districts over strong objections from fire officials who say the plans will divert money away from public safety.
Town leaders believe the Cottonwood commercial area and Parker Road urban renewal plans — approved during a meeting Oct. 15 — will promote investment and redevelopment in areas that were declared blighted during a condition study in December 2011 and January 2012.
Of particular interest is the Cottonwood Plaza shopping center on the northwest corner of South Parker Road and Cottonwood Drive, where a building formerly occupied by King Soopers has remained vacant since closing in 2004.
Creators of the plan say that using tax-increment financing, which collects new property tax revenues associated with new development or redevelopment, will enable property owners to overcome financial constraints for projects like building-facade improvements.
However, a line of board members from the Parker Fire Protection District, South Metro Fire Rescue Authority and the Cottonwood Water and Wastewater District urged council to include them in crafting a plan that would not funnel millions of dollars away from public safety.
South Metro Fire Chief Dan Qualman said an urban renewal district that encompasses the downtown Parker area and was approved in 2009 has so far taken $118,408 away from his department, which relies solely on property tax revenue to fund services.
South Metro’s board president Pat Mulhern said the department received notice of the urban renewal district proposals a month ago and feels “totally excluded” from participating in a plan that has a significant financial impact on firefighters.
“We feel that it’s a win-lose situation,” Mulhern said as he addressed five out of the six council members and mayor David Casiano. Council member Lisa Coe was absent.
Proponents say the plans will revitalize areas that are in dire need of fixing up. Anne Ricker, who conducted the blight study, said she found seven out of 11 conditions that constitute blight in each district. They include inadequate road access, deteriorating buildings and unsafe road crossings.
Some opponents said the urban renewal districts are too large and include areas in which they had “considerable difficulty” finding any blight, said David Cooper, an independent planning consultant hired by South Metro and Cottonwood Water. Cooper said he fully supports urban renewal on the west side of Parker Road near Cottonwood because of a clear need for re-development, but questioned the inclusion of newer areas that contain Costco and Parker Adventist Hospital.
Ronda Scholting, a Stonegate resident and board member for Parker fire, said lower assessments on property values, resulting in a drop in revenue, already forced the department to lay off 15 first responders.
She also said that the financial burden for commercial improvements could fall on residents because the department has plans to decrease Parker residents’ levy of nearly 14 mills to 9¼ mills by January 2016 as part of the ongoing merger between Parker fire and South Metro. The consolidation was intended to save taxpayer money in the long run, but the urban renewal plans, as crafted, would jeopardize that, Scholting said.
“All we’re asking for is a fair and equitable plan,” she said.
Council member Gary Lasater argued that the town needs a tool to encourage redevelopment in areas that would otherwise remain untouched. Vantage Point, an undeveloped plot of land on the northeast corner of Parker Road and Cottonwood Drive, has remained untouched for several years because of a lack of infrastructure and other challenges.
Lasater said without a financial incentive in place, developers will not invest and no property tax revenue would be generated for fire services. He said the urban renewal districts account for less than 5 percent of Parker’s developable land.
Lasater pointed out that Parker property owners pay nearly 5 mills more on their property taxes than others in the South Metro district, and said that when negotiations between the town and fire district were happening a few years ago, the agency did not have a definitive date for lowering that rate. He blamed South Metro’s inaction for the two sides inability to come to an agreement.
“Council is not being unreasonable,” he said.
Qualman provided an example of the amount of money that would go to economic redevelopment instead of public safety. He said an existing 3.5-acre property near Parker Road and E-470 generates about $2,000 in property tax revenue each year. If a hotel were built on the land, the tax revenue would jump to $21,000 per year, but the fire department would still receive only $2,000 through the tax-increment financing plan.
Tax increments would not take effect until a later date and would require another round of approvals. Collection of the increments can be for all or part of the urban renewal district. Those who apply for funding must demonstrate a financial need.