Tie-breaker vote passes rezoning request for Ranger Square lots

Esther Noe
Every seat in city hall was taken with more people standing along the wall or around the door for the Hill City Common Council meeting Nov. 13. The group came to hear the results of the rezoning request for the four lots along Pine Avenue, Oak Street and Main Street.
At the time of the meeting, the lots were zoned Residential 2 (R2). The request was to rezone all four parcels to Commercial 3 (C3) to accommodate the developer’s plan. The two lots adjacent to Main Street were to be combined as Lot B for the proposed Ranger Square venue, and the back two lots adjacent to Pine Avenue were to be combined as Lot A for a mixed use building. 
Per the Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) report, “Ranger Square will be an open community gathering space with a band shell for concerts, outdoor classroom space, restrooms, meandering stream/ice skating path, picnic tables and green space.” 
The project is being headed up by Ranger Square Inc (RSI). No construction plans were submitted at the time. 
As for Lot A, there was no concrete plan proposed. However, prior conversations with the applicant, Isaac Almanza, indicated that there would be businesses on the ground floor and some form of residential units above. 
The proposed land use both did and did not conflict with Hill City’s Comprehensive Plan, and it generally met the standards set forth in Title 9. The PZC did note in the report that, “Traditionally we have required a building permit application with full plans along with a rezoning application in order to understand the proposed use and reason for the rezoning request.” 
In 2017, a developer requested that these same four lots be rezoned from R2 to C3, but the request was ultimately denied. The current request was heard by the PZC at its Oct. 16 meeting. This time the PZC recommended approval of the rezoning request. 
While the proposal was not entirely in line with the comprehensive plan, it was in alignment with the Economic Development Corporation’s (EDC) Housing Study done in 2022. Bob Lowrey, who is with the EDC as well as the president of the RSI board, addressed this matter. 
In the housing study, 20 different recommendations were made to improve the housing situation in Hill City. Number seven on that list was a mixed use building which includes housing on the upper floors and commercial businesses on the lower floors. Lowrey said this has been done in many communities and has been successful in revitalizing downtown areas. 
Lowrey then spoke in favor of Ranger Square. He said the four words he consistently hears are water, sewer, roads and housing. While they are needed, there has to be a way to pay for them. Lowery said the solution is taxes, but he did not think charging citizens more was the answer. 
Rather, he said sales taxes generate more for the city, and “It’s the economic engine that makes the city able to afford things like water, sewer, roads and help with housing.”
If the project was approved, Lowery said the conservative estimate he received showed the commercial side alone would add close to $700,000 over 10 years to the city’s bottom line. In addition, a feasibility study will be done by Feb. 1 to provide accurate numbers for the potential tax revenue of Ranger Square. Lowery expects this number to be significant based on the results of other town squares in the area. 
Lowery saw development as key because the downtown area is the economic engine of the community. 
He said, “Right now there’s a lot of space, a lot of space that is not getting taxed at its highest and best use, and that is costing the city a lot of money and it is causing us to have trouble coming up with sewer, water and roads. Fixing that problem and having good development is a solution.” 
According to Lowery, the proposed development would effectively extend Main Street and that economic engine. He also said it is a proven fact that development spurs more new development which could fill in the remainder of Main Street, thus generating more tax revenue. 
Another economic impact Lowery saw was that it would keep people in Hill City longer such that they stay overnight and spend more money. This would also cause sales taxes to go up. 
Lowery said the C3 rezoning was important to the project for several reasons. First was the height issue. To develop the commercial space, the buildings would be around 40 feet tall. Second was developer flexibility. 
“One thing that enables developers to work and to produce good projects is the flexibility to be able to design the project so it not only meets the needs of our tourists and our citizens, but it also allows the developer to feel like they can make an investment and see some type of return on the investment,” said Lowery. 
Finally, Lowery said a C3 zoning would require fewer variances and a smoother process overall.
Lowery did recognize that there were issues. Some people were concerned by the C3 zoning and what could be built there as a result. 
In response, he said, “Any developer will tell you, the developer only makes money and the project only works if it is the highest and best use. We are convinced that by far and above the highest and best use for that property is what’s been outlined to you and approved by the P&Z, which is a mixed use building and Ranger Square.”
By the end of the year, the land designated for Ranger Square will be transferred to RSI. As a non-profit, it will not pay property taxes, “but the citizens of Hill City will have the benefit of enjoying Ranger Square. The school will be able to use it. It’s an asset to the community,” said Lowery.
RSI is raising the money for the project and is currently at $1.5 million, including the land gift. Lowery expected the fundraising to hit $3 million by this time next year. It will take close to $6 million to complete. 
They also have a plan to do the work in phases so each phase can be enjoyed as the project progresses. Phase one includes the restrooms, amphitheater, the infrastructure and the green space. Phase two would be the rest of Ranger Square.
“We think we’ll have enough money to do phase one and start building by next spring based on the commitments we’ve seen so far. And we are going statewide with our fundraising. We know that Hill City is not going to raise $6 million dollars to fund this. Fortunately, there are people that are very generous throughout the state that love Hill City and are more than happy to donate money for this cause and know that it’s going to be a really good thing for the community and for the state, ” said Lowery. 
Alderman Dale Householder asked if RSI intended the city to cover any of the operating costs of Ranger Square. Lowery answered that they intend to cover all the operating costs and maintenance. The only thing the city might be asked to help with is cleaning the public restrooms.
After this initial explanation, members of the public addressed the council. Some were in favor of the project while others had concerns. 
Jeff Liddell said this was almost a no-brainer. Since moving to the area, he and his wife have attended numerous events at squares. Before the events, they spend time in the town and shop in the stores. In the same way, he said money comes with these venues and events but nobody is paying to come to Hill City and look at empty lots. 
A public comment from a resident who could not attend the meeting was submitted in advance. She disagreed with the C3 designation, felt that Pine Avenue was too narrow and should be widened by the developer and wanted more long-term housing rather than more Airbnbs. 
A community member who did not identify herself said she was not against Ranger Square and thought it was a great idea. She simply wanted to know where people were going to park. Along with this, she shared several photos of the parking congestion along Pine Avenue and Oak Street. If there was a problem, she was concerned emergency vehicles would not be able to get through. 
She was also concerned about the C3 back lot because they did not have a plan for it, it would open up doors for future owners and there are already employee shortages. 
Sophia Sawle, who lives along Pine Avenue said Ranger Square, was not an issue to her. It was the large commercial space that would be going up right in front of her historical house built in 1885. 
“I feel like as we’re moving forward with these projects and building these big buildings on Main Street, we don’t want to lose the charm that is Hill City and what brought me and my boyfriend here,” said Sawle. 
Jessica Jacobs said her biggest concern was the project did not seem to be following procedure. 
“I can’t help but wonder what the real plan is here, but also how is a project of this nature is being considered without plans and how has it gotten this far without them? Aren’t plans a requirement? Shouldn’t we have had to submit plans so we can see what we’re really talking about? It seems that the rules are being bent,” said Jacobs. 
She was also concerned about the legal liability that could land on the city and the C3 zoning since it is an open door allowing anything to happen. In addition, she mentioned the potential impact on the surrounding neighborhood, parking problems, the financial impact as well as water and sewer usage.
A caller who recently bought property on Pine Avenue said Ranger Square would be fantastic for the children. However, she said there needed to be a plan for parking for the people coming to enjoy it. Additionally, without seeing a plan for the commercial building, she felt it was like telling a developer to build a house without giving specifications. 
Sue Anderson said she is most in favor of Ranger Square, the space for students to perform and the entertainment throughout the summer. Housing was her biggest concern. Instead of it becoming nightly rentals, she would like to see it become year-round rentals for teachers and city workers.
Dacey Williams, a sophomore at Hill City High School, said she was in favor of Ranger Square and all the opportunities it would provide her and her friends. 
“As many activities and events in Hill City are currently geared toward adults, I feel like this would add to the teenagers’ involvement with each other and the community. It’s an exciting development for all of us,” said Williams. 
In response to some of the concerns, Gary Ronning said the reason a developer would not have drawings at this stage is because they need to know how tall a building can be before spending thousands of dollars on drawings. 
Ron Walker with the PZC added to this saying part of the process of developing a C3 would include plans for the building, which happens when the owner applies for a building permit. At this time, Walker said the owner is not applying for a building permit because he does not know what the side rails are. 
C3 also does not forgive parking. Walker said when the developer comes with a building permit, they will assess what the parking needs are, and the owner will be responsible for coming up with those. According to Walker, the reason the PZC recommended the change of zoning was to allow the developer the opportunity to design buildings that will be multi-story and multi-use.
Lowery addressed the parking issue saying  Almanza already built a parking lot with approximately 20 spaces not far from the square, which can be used for employee parking. There will be a parking lot located behind the building as well. 
The school assured RSI that it could utilize the parking lot south of the school and below the school for the venue. Since most of the events will be in the summer, Lowery said the school will not be using the lots. 
Additionally, Lowery thought the city could help solve the congestion problem by making Pine Avenue a one way street and limiting parking to one side. 
As for the water and sewer concerns, when first starting this project, Lowery sat down with the city and asked if water and sewer would be an issue. Lowery said the issue is the pressure in some areas but the space should have plenty of water pressure. 
In regards to housing, Lowery said he would love to put affordable housing in the development, but it is not economically feasible. 
Once public comment was completed, alderwoman Lori Miner said the city council as a governmental agency is bound by code and city documents, which includes the comprehensive plan. The comprehensive plan shows Lot B to be zoned commercial in the future and Lot A to be zoned as residential. However, there are no C3 properties in the area. 
“I understand you want developer flexibility, but when we go C3, what we’re eliminating is the public input and the public’s ability to comment on whether the height is right or whether nightly rentals are what they want,” Miner said.
The comprehensive plan can be changed through an amendment, but at this point nothing has been done to change that. 
Additionally, Miner said, “We have no developer’s agreement. I mean we’re blanketly doing this without some kind of agreement that this is actually going to be developed as we’ve seen conceptual drawings. We’re not tied to that nor is the developer. 
“So I really believe that we need to not approve this. It does not, as everyone said, mean that there’s any disagreement with Ranger Square or a disagreement with the development, but as a governmental agency bound by certain laws, I think we need to pay attention to those. I think we need to table this until we get a development agreement.”
Alderman Ethan Walker said height-wise the commercial building would be better than residential houses built at street level in some ways. He also noted that having one exit onto Pine Avenue rather than adding multiple driveways onto the street would be a blessing. 
Householder said, “Every time you deal with progress, you’re going to have positive and negative impacts on people. What I try to envision is what is the best for Hill City today, tomorrow and 10 years down the road. What’s going to be the best economic impact?” 
Householder said he has thought about the potential property and sales tax increase for Hill City. The needed infrastructure for Hill City will not be paid for by taxes from citizens. Rather the city has to find some other ways to pay for it. Householder saw increasing the development in Hill City as a positive way to do so with the least impact on individuals. 
“I know that there are people right now that think it’s going to be the worst thing on part of it, but I think it’s going to be a positive thing for Hill City down the road,” said Householder. 
Alderman Jason Gillaspie said he does support the project, Ranger Square and development to further taxes. However, Gillaspie said C3 zoning opened it up too much at this point when there were other ways to accomplish the same goal. 
After further discussion amongst the council members, Miner made a motion to zone Lot A as C/R and Lot B as C1. Gillaspie seconded the motion, but Householder and Walker voted nay. This left the decision up to mayor Mike Verchio, who voted nay. 
As a counter-proposal, Householder motioned to zone Lot A as C1 and Lot B as C3. Walker seconded, but Miner and Gillaspie voted nay. This time Verchio voted in favor, and the motion passed. 

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