The last place a struggling political candidate wants to be is in court, on the wrong end of a lawsuit from voters. But that’s exactly where Susan Shepherd, the rookie City Council representative for Northwest Denver’s District 1, has landed.
Shepherd was singled out in a lawsuit that three local homeowners and the Sloan’s Lake Neighborhood Association filed March 16 in Denver District Court against the entire City Council. The suit seeks to overturn the Council’s controversial vote to allow significantly larger-than-originally-promised buildings in one portion of the St. Anthony redevelopment project by Sloan’s Lake, in Shepherd’s district. Shepherd has received campaign donations from at least nine developers involved in projects at St. Anthony or on nearby West Colfax Ave., including NAVA Real Estate Development, which benefits directly from the upzoning at the heart of the lawsuit.
The crux of the lawsuit is that the City Council improperly considered and voted on the upzoning, ignoring an earlier city-sanctioned development plan and violating in various ways the legal requirement that Council must function as an impartial, quasi-judicial body in considering such requests. The complaint specifically cites Shepherd’s actions during the Council’s Feb. 17 hearing and vote on the matter as a key piece of evidence for its claim:
“At said hearing, Councilwoman Shepherd made the claim that the proposed rezoning conformed to the West Colfax Plan, and read aloud a relevant portion of the Guiding Principles–which were incorporated into such plan—to make her point. Such principles require the tallest buildings to be “toward West Colfax”. When Shepherd read from the Guiding Principles, she omitted the words “toward West Colfax” from her recital. Furthermore, at said hearing, the Community Planning and Development (CPD) staff made no reference whatever to the significant words “toward West Colfax.” [author’s emphasis]
This is a big deal because while the St. Anthony redevelopment is widely popular, hundreds of residents have rebelled against an ongoing push by its developers to allow huge buildings closer to Sloan’s Lake than originally planned. There, the 12-story buildings that developers want — instead of the five-story structures the zoning previously allowed — would block views and cast shadows on the popular park. Residents want them further south of the lake, nearer to West Colfax Ave., as they say the area redevelopment plan specifically intended. Shepherd voted in favor of the upzoning that would allow those high-rises to cluster by the lakefront, despite the request of 500 nearby residents that she vote “no.”
The suit also alleges that instead of approaching the zoning hearing in the impartial, “quasi-judicial” manner city law requires Council to take for such hearings, Shepherd had determined in advance how she planned to vote:
“Councilwoman Susan Shepherd, within whose District lies the subject property, immediately after the quasi-judicial hearing, read from a prepared statement approving the rezoning. In her statement, which was purportedly read from the Urban Form, Guiding Principle of the St. Anthony Task Force Report and Recommendation regarding building height and density, but specifically omitted the operative language, and two most important words, “towards Colfax”. Upon information and belief, Plaintiffs believe Shepherd failed to conduct herself as a neutral quasi-judicial decision-maker, having already spoken in favor of the zoning change at the November 12, 2014 Planning Board hearing on the C-MX-12 zoning map amendment, and having engaged in extensive ex parte contacts with the property owner and its representatives while the rezoning application was pending, and having already decided to vote in favor of the rezoning before the February 17, 2015 City Council hearing.” [author’s emphasis]
It gets worse: The zoning change in question primarily benefits one of Shepherd’s campaign funders, NAVA Real Estate Development. Shepherd was in hot water already with District 1 voters over her ties with developers with whom she has sided in numerous cases vs. aggrieved constituents. Now, her growing opposition can point to another in a series of occasions in which Susan Shepherd appeared to favor a campaign donor over local residents.