Lakewood mayoral candidates talk development and the environment

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LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Development and environmental protection are among the biggest issues on voters’ minds ahead of the race for mayor and several city council seats in Lakewood.

A new apartment building planned for the outskirts of Belmar Park has led some residents to protest and push back in city council meetings, with calls for the new mayor and city council to include community when new development is underway.

Denver7 talked with the three candidates for Lakewood mayor — Don Burkhart, Cathy Kentner and Wendi Strom — about how they would handle these issues if elected.

Editor’s note: The conversations have been minimally edited for length and clarity.

Don Burkhart Lakewood mayor candidate

Cameron Duckworth, Denver7

Don Burkhart was a pastor, now he’s running for Lakewood Mayor.

Don Burkhart

Denver7: Many Lakewood residents are raising concerns about the city’s handling of new development and environmental protections, as exemplified by the tensions over the apartments proposed on the edge of Belmar Park. If elected, how would you address those concerns?

Part of why I’m even running is the reckless development of Lakewood. I moved to Lakewood 34 years ago because of this very park. I love this park. I’m around it all the time. And I want to protect the nature that we’ve been given here to enjoy. I live only five minutes away. And that’s how most of Lakewood feels about this. And the City of Lakewood has chosen to not address the citizens of Lakewood. Because many of the citizens feel the way I do about this park, the birds, the trees, the wonderful aspects of this park. The sad part is this particular project may be too far down the road for us to stop it. And I want to, as a new mayor, to stop reckless development from happening before they consider the consequences such as this. This is reckless development when you just do it at the sake of money instead of taking care of what’s important to the people of the city.

When it comes to the approval process for new development, some Lakewood residents would like to see more involvement by city council and the public. Is that something you would push for?

Absolutely. As mayor, part of my job as a leader is to cause the city council to be more engaged with the people. I’ve been campaigning since March. I’ve been to one ward meeting that tells me the city council is not engaged with its people up there. And they’re not listening to what they’ve been saying out there. And I’ve talked to thousands of people in Lakewood, personally, face to face. They don’t want this kind of project.

How would you navigate disagreements within city council?

I’ve been a proficient mediator, and I think there is common ground in almost every argument. There really is. Most arguments start with miscommunication. And communication in Lakewood’s case is Lakewood says, ‘Hey, we put it on our webpage. We put the information out there.’ But guess what? The voters didn’t see it. And you failed to communicate if they didn’t receive the information.

In 2019, Lakewood voters chose to cap growth. Now Colorado is forbidding such caps. How will you approach this?

I believe that the state of Colorado with their ‘you can’t have those caps;’ I think it’s unconstitutional. I’m not an attorney. But I believe that most of the municipalities up and down the Front Range would agree that the state of Colorado was wrong on this. So there needs to be a push back from the cities back to the state level and say, ‘You’re wrong. You can’t do this. We can control the destiny, our home rule of Lakewood.’

Homelessness and housing accessibility are big issues in Lakewood, while many homeowners are worried about density and how it could affect the community and environment. How would you balance these needs and worries?

Part of the tension is that there’s disinformation out there. For instance, many people say that we’re having a housing crisis, we don’t have enough housing. And I’m on the other side of that. I’m saying there’s more than enough housing, we’ve actually overbuilt the apartments all over Colorado. We’re not at a lack for housing. What we have experienced is inflation. Inflation causes all of us to pay a lot more for everything. Build a new house, it costs that much more to build. But then we’ve also added a bunch of rules and regulations that add to the cost of building a house. So it’s not just one issue, there’s a number of issues that cause homelessness to actually start arising.

When it comes to the Belmar Park development, some community members have raised concerns about Lakewood’s process of accepting a fee in lieu of a park or open space designation or planting of replacement trees. Would you seek to change that?

I think this is an opportunity for the mayor and the city council to come together and readdress some of the ordinances that we’ve passed in years past about issues. This brings up an issue that, quite honestly, they never really considered. So part of it is they just didn’t consider this might happen this way. And we need to better define some our ordinances to avoid effects like this, unintended consequences like this from a decision that we’ve made as a city.

More broadly on these issues of development and environmental protections, is there anything Lakewood voters should know?

Well, I think a big issue that we’re not talking about is water, sanitation, issues like that. Sustainability for water is Colorado’s biggest issue. I don’t hear anybody talking about it. That doesn’t mean we have to rip up our grass and all of that, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about taking the water that we have, and using it wisely. And I don’t see us addressing that. If we go build 500 apartment units, that’s 500 water taps diminishing or putting weight and cost on our water infrastructure and supply. We need to be looking over the horizon to see this giant locomotive coming at us, and that is, there’s a day coming when we’re going to run out of water.

Cathy Kentner Lakewood mayor candidate

Cameron Duckworth, Denver7

Cathy Kentner is a longtime community activist and teacher running for Lakewood Mayor.

Cathy Kentner

Denver7: Many Lakewood residents are raising concerns about the city’s handling of new development and environmental protections, as exemplified by the tensions over the apartments proposed on the edge of Belmar Park. If elected, how would you address those concerns?

The issue of growth and development is actually what spurred my activism in Lakewood, when many of my neighbors experienced a similar development. And when the neighbors of this development reached out to me, I advised them that the city was accepting a fee in lieu for the required parkland dedication.

When it comes to the approval process for new development, some Lakewood residents would like to see more involvement by city council and the public. Is that something you would push for?

Absolutely. Part of my platform, and has been since the get-go, is that we need required public hearings and city council approval for our large development projects. This was one of the tenants of the Lakewood Strategic Growth Initiative passed by a majority of Lakewood voters in July of 2019. I was the one who spearheaded that movement. The current council has voted to sundown that, and in doing that, every public hearing was pulled from the calendar. So I would immediately have that requirement. And the majority of city council has stated that they would be in favor of that. They’re just being misled, and under the impression that there’s nothing we can do, when really with strong leadership that’s knowledgeable on these issues and knows legislative enforceable solutions, we can do something. We can have control over these projects.

How would you navigate disagreements within city council?

In the dozen years or so that I have been watching this, I have seen many neighbors and neighborhoods come to council and be told by council, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do. Our ordinance will not allow for that. We don’t want to be sued.’ Well, in reality, there have been lawsuits. Residents have brought lawsuits based on the fact that city staff has abused their discretion in these cases. Residents don’t want to bring a lawsuit. They want their city councilors to act and represent them. I’m a public school teacher. Most of us who live in Lakewood do not have the means to file suit on these projects. We need and should expect a city council who stands up for the people. And if the lawyer is saying that we can’t do that, when it is obvious that we can and should, then maybe we need to get a new lawyer.

Homelessness and housing accessibility are big issues in Lakewood, while many homeowners are worried about density and how it could affect the community and environment. How would you balance these needs and worries?

Absolutely. As mayor, and as the independent unaffiliated candidate, I have the ability to bring to the table real, true solutions. We can have it all. We can have our high density housing with adequate parkland. And we can have single family homes. Those are the most in demand and the least in supply. We have plenty of areas for all of that. It is big money, the moneyed elite, who would like us to believe otherwise.

I am also the one candidate who has proposed inclusionary zoning, a requirement that all of our new large development projects set aside a certain percentage of their units for affordable housing. Right now, the current establishment wants us to buy the line that building ultra expensive high density apartments is somehow affordable for people when it is not.

In 2019, Lakewood voters chose to cap growth. Now Colorado is forbidding such caps. How will you approach this?

I was actually the one who spearheaded the Lakewood Strategic Growth Initiative. I was personally sued to try to keep us from even voting on it. And there were two tenants of it, and one is really being ignored. One of the tenants that has been talked about is the limit to 1%. However, that was not a strict limit. And the other tenant was that large development projects should have a hearing and city council approval.

My platform consists of a two pronged approach — which is supported by the supporters also of House Bill 1255, which effectively dismantled our Strategic Growth Initiative — and that is that we need public hearings and city council approval for our large development projects. And we should also have inclusionary zoning, a requirement that a certain percentage of units are actually affordable.

When it comes to the Belmar Park development, some community members have raised concerns about Lakewood’s process of accepting a fee in lieu of a park or open space designation or planting of replacement trees. Would you seek to change that?

This last Monday, I supported Councilor Anita Springsteen’s motion that the city should direct the city manager that this project must provide the required three and a half acres of parkland, and that the area should include the mature trees. I am an environmentalist and believe strongly that we have a responsibility and duty. Currently, the decision is that accepting a fee in lieu of the parkland is best serves our community in Lakewood, and I do not believe that is the case.

More broadly on these issues of development and environmental protections, is there anything Lakewood voters should know?

My position is to continue standing up for the neighborhoods for which I have stood for a dozen years. We can have responsible, rational, reasonable development that respects our environment. And we can do it with my knowledgeable leadership to change some of the ordinances, but also to stand up and direct our city staff to follow the ordinances that we already have. And that is how I will continue to represent the people of Lakewood, because for me, a mayor for all is not just a buzz phrase.

Do we want to fight the state on the growth initiative as one of my opponents do? Or continue conversations as my other opponent wants to do? Meanwhile, while we’re fighting, while we’re having conversations, how many more inappropriate developments which destroy our natural environment are going to go up? We need leadership that can act now.

Wendi Strom Lakewood Mayor candidate

Cameron Duckworth, Denver7

Wendi Strom just served as a Lakewood City Council member and is running to become Lakewood Mayor.

Wendi Strom

Denver7: Many Lakewood residents are raising concerns about the city’s handling of new development and environmental protections, as exemplified by the tensions over the apartments proposed on the edge of Belmar Park. If elected, how would you address those concerns?

It’s not new that concerns come up about development across the city. But this project has definitely highlighted the opportunity for the city to do better in a number of areas, not the least of which around communication and zoning. I think we do fundamentally need to look at our zoning anyway, across the board. But how we are doing zoning around our parks and green spaces is really important. And there’s obviously room for improvement there, as far as sustainability goes. What is going on with this development is that there are rules in place already that we have to abide by as they are going through this process. We cannot retroactively change the rules that are already in place. But we do have the ability to reevaluate what rules there are, so that we’re doing better for future developments. We’re looking at zoning and other things that are dictated in ordinance. What flexibility do we have in those that we can work with?

When it comes to the approval process for new development, some Lakewood residents would like to see more involvement by city council and the public. Is that something you would push for?

That is absolutely something that we need to look at, especially for big projects like this. This is a significant concern that needs to be addressed as the traffic, the parking, the birds and the trees — these are all things that are really very important. And we need to make sure that we’re doing the best thing for all of that. And that I believe does need to include community feedback, especially in these large projects and for neighborhoods that are adjacent and will be so much affected by whatever it is that’s built.

Do we have that in place now? No, this owner was not required to sit down with the community. I’m glad that we’ve been able to work hard and get them to show up at the table. So that will be going on through a mediated process. So, we’re really trying to make sure that we come up with some solutions that will make the community feel better. Are we asking for them to plant more trees? What are we doing to mitigate the impact on birds? And can we include some affordable housing? So, these are all conversations that need to be had through that process.

And looking forward at future developments, the community needs to be able to have input. We don’t have that right now. It’s not easy to know if property near you has been sold, or if it’s being considered for development. That’s something that I’ve asked, and the city has responded with a willingness to do better. I don’t know the answer to how we would do that yet. But that’s definitely being talked about right now. And then again, the process of engaging with the community members, and making sure that our city council members are involved with that as well.

How would you navigate disagreements within city council?

The law is the law. We need to uphold the law as it is now. But we are a policymaking body, and it is incumbent upon us to look at what the law is. And is the law still relevant today? Have things changed? Do we need to change because we’ve identified a way to improve the way that we are doing things? That absolutely needs to be part of this. We need to do better as far as zoning; that’s feedback that I’ve been receiving from residents. And we actually just started our Comprehensive Plan, which will inform that process. We need to make sure that residents know what could be here. And we also need to make sure that zoning is allowing or disallowing things that we don’t want in places that are just not appropriate.

In 2019, Lakewood voters chose to cap growth. Now Colorado is forbidding such caps. How will you approach this?

Again, the law is the law. The state has said we can no longer enforce it. However, they did give us the opportunity to take up to two years to sunset it through time. I call it an off-ramp, which city council adopted in August. We’re in the process of creating the Comprehensive Plan and we also have a new housing study that came out. So we can use both of those to inform what we do as we put new policy in place, as that Strategic Growth Initiative is going away.

Homelessness and housing accessibility are big issues in Lakewood, while many homeowners are worried about density and how it could affect the community and environment. How would you balance these needs and worries?

Those are the two top things that we’re hearing from residents, the third being public safety. We have got to find a solution. Housing does not need to be this divisive of an issue. And if we find a way to do a better job with the housing that we are creating in our community, I believe that it won’t be. But that really is going to require having conversations with multiple stakeholders to figure out how we want to do it. And I believe, again, this can be part of the Comprehensive Plan process. How is it that we want to do it to make sure that we’re preserving the unique character of our Lakewood neighborhoods that are already here, but also providing for the needs of the community that needs it?

Right now, we’ve got young kids that are graduating from college that have grown up right here in Lakewood, like my own son who says, ‘Mom, how am I going to afford to live here?’ We also have older adults that are in homes with big yards or stairs, who are unable to downsize into something that they too can purchase in a way that allows them to stay in the community that they’ve known and grown to love for decades. So, we do need to do a better job of making sure that we’re providing for housing needs.

When it comes to the Belmar Park development, some community members have raised concerns about Lakewood’s process of accepting a fee in lieu of a park or open space designation or planting of replacement trees. Would you seek to change that?

It’s really important to know that the fee in lieu is something that was put into place to protect the city from needing to maintain little, tiny parks. Because once the builder gives it to the city, then the city needs to maintain it. So, then we might end up with little, tiny parks all over town, that the city then has no human resources or financial resources to maintain. So, when a park is not appropriate in a space, fee in lieu collects money that goes into the park system near that space. We’re utilizing it to enrich the park system.

As came up in our city council meeting on Monday night, I believe its important for council to take up our conversations around what is the fee in lieu? What are we doing as far as requiring the low trees? The replacement of trees? Are we doing enough? Are we not? And so those are the kinds of things that we need to reevaluate. These were decisions that were made a while back. So we’ve got to be open to coming back to the table and having conversations about these things as we’re seeing shifting priorities and shifting needs in our community.

More broadly on these issues of development and environmental protections, is there anything Lakewood voters should know?

This is big. It’s creating challenges of traffic. I don’t love it. But I also acknowledge that there’s very limited amount that we can do for it. This is not something that goes as an up or down vote for city council. Just as any other property owner in Lakewood takes down a home or takes down a building and replaces that building, they can do the trees, too. It has to be within the rules of zoning and ordinance, but it’s a property rights issue. And I don’t agree with the size that’s being put there. But we also have to acknowledge that the law is the law and find where we can work within it to be able to effectuate change. That’s why Councilor Rebekah Stewart and I worked so hard after the groundswell of community feedback that started earlier this month to really press on the developer to make sure that they show up at the table and really have these constructive conversations with residents to try to do better.


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