In 2009, neighborhood advocate Dave Munger asked the Colorado Springs City Council a simple question: What is a neighborhood and who decides?
The council gave an emphatic answer: Size doesn’t matter when it comes to protecting the character of neighborhoods. Tiny pockets of homes, including the westside Rawles Open Space Neighborhood along Mesa Road, can organize even though they are covered by a larger association because they boast unique character and deserve individual recognition.
The council’s declaration was significant because it shielded the rustic Rawles neighborhood, where houses are scattered on large lots without curbs and gutters and even sewers, from a modern, five-house subdivision proposed on five acres in the area.
That history seemed lost on the city Planning Commission last week when the panel voted to reject a request by the same Rawles group for permission to draft a master plan. It would cover 38 properties on 85 acres within the larger Mesa neighborhood.
A master plan, if approved by the planning commission and council, would guide future development in the neighborhood. It might call for houses to be built farther back from the road than required by city codes, or seek to impose stricter height restrictions and other rules for construction.
The planning commission decided to stop the conversation before it could even get started.
Several commissioners challenged the validity of the Rawles group, despite its high-profile recognition by the council. And several flatly rejected the assertion it counts 75 percent of the homeowners among its members, as stated by group leader James Kin, a prominent real estate attorney who has served on similar city commissions.
Commissioner Jeff Markewich put it bluntly: “Other than Mr. Kin’s word, I haven’t seen evidence the organization really represents the neighborhood . . . I just don’t see any evidence that this neighborhood organization really is representative of the vast majority of people in the neighborhood.”
Munger, president of the Council of Neighbors & Organizations, or CONO, tried to persuade the panel to let the master plan conversation occur so the neighbors can try to draft a plan.
“In our view, neighborhoods are one of the basic ways in which we, as a community, exercise and conduct democracy,” he said. “It’s the basic way we come together to solve problems. One thing CONO tries hard to do is to encourage neighborhood discussion of important issues.
“We would view this draft plan as the beginning of that discussion.”
But Commissioner Don Magill took offense at Munger’s suggestion, snapping: “You just gave us a lecture on how we should deal with this. Thank you.”
Commissioners repeatedly questioned Kin, Munger and others about how the Rawles group, or any neighborhood group, gets officially recognized. Who at the city, one asked, certifies a neighborhood association? What are the criteria?
Clearly the commission was trying to discredit Kin’s group as not a credible association. And several accused Kin and his group of having a hidden agenda.
“This is actually an attempt to get control of somebody else’s property through a kind of esoteric, indirect fashion,” said Commissioner Robert Shonkwiler.
The majority didn’t seem to care that master plans are a common tool for preserving the character of a neighborhood and routinely written by developers, the city and even, in rare instances, neighborhoods themselves.
Most baffling to Kin, Munger and others was the insistence by the commission that 100 percent of the 38 property owners agree to the master plan process.
Kim insisted the commission didn’t have legal authority to demand unanimous approval of the neighborhood to simply draft a proposed plan.
“Not only do we believe the code does not allow you to add additional requirements such as 100 percent participation, but we also don’t believe it is good governance,” Kin said.
Magill fired back.
“That’s what I want to do,” he said, pointing at Kin. “That’s what we’re saying. That’s what we want to do.”
And Munger noted the 75 percent agreement was more than the super majority vote needed to pass laws, overturn a veto or amend neighborhood covenants in most homeowners associations.
But the majority on the commission was unswayed. Magill said to simply allow the discussion would give sanction to the group and tacit approval to its master plan.
“To approve you to go forward with a master plan opens Pandora’s box,” Magill said.
Now, the council will get a chance to decide because the Rawles group has appealed the commission’s rejection, Kin said Friday.
He acknowledges he probably angered some on the commission by drafting a proposed master plan and passing it around the neighborhood prior to getting commission approval. And he denies the group tried to bully folks who recently bought vacant lots in the neighborhood, as was suggested.
“We have a unique little stretch and we think it’s worth preserving,” Kin said. “I hope they (the council) will be open-minded.