It’s not an uncommon scenario in Laramie City Council chambers: developers come in saying they’re struggling to meet the requirements of city code to open a new business or provide residential options in the Gem City. There seems to be something of an eternal struggle in Laramie and elsewhere between business development and requiring certain standards be met for aesthetic and practical purposes.
It can be a difficult balance to strike. The questions, it seems, can come down to how badly does a business want to be in a community or how badly does a community need a business?
When it comes to West Laramie, certainly there’s a need for additional retail offerings.
On June 24, the city of Laramie’s Planning Commission — sitting as the Board of Adjustment — denied a parking variance requested by Dollar General. The national company has proposed a new store in West Laramie near the intersection of Colorado Avenue and Snowy Range Road. Per the city’s Unified Development Code, the store’s square footage would require the lot to accommodate 45 off-street parking spaces. An engineer working on the Dollar General’s building design, however, told the appointed city board that there’s no way to fit 45 spaces on the site.
The business requested a variance to allow it to go down to 30 spaces. City staff was able to recommend some administrative changes that would allow the business to go down to 36 spaces. Dollar General pushed back, showing data that suggested a New Jersey store was able to sufficiently accommodate a similar sized operation with 30 spaces. At the end of the unusually lengthy meeting, the board voted 5-1 with one abstention to deny the variance as requested.
It is a good thing that Dollar General wants to open in West Laramie. It would bring in tax revenue, jobs and retail options to an area that certainly could use some. We think West Laramie really needs is its own full-scale grocery store like Ridley’s or Safeway on Laramie’s east side, especially to accommodate those with mobility and/or transportation limitations, but we’ll take the Dollar General if that’s what’s on the table today.
On the government side, it’s a positive thing for Laramie to have codes that require developments to meet certain standards. Look at the gorgeous Fire Station No. 3 and the nearby Shell station, as well as the Exxon station near Interstate 80. Examples of developments that met or exceeded city standards and have helped make that stretch of Snowy Range Road, often the first part of Laramie some travelers and tourists see, something that leaves a good impression. As such, shouldn’t every new development, including Dollar General, be held to the same requirements? There’s a need to regulate growth — our community will regret it if we don’t.
When you start seeing a government grant a lot of variances, one can say it’s a good indication that there’s something that should be amended in the code. And if a government starts granting variances for every developer that requests one, it sets a precedent that the code is a pushover that shouldn’t be taken seriously. However, variances are useful and necessary tools for decision-makers and staff to use when there’s a reasonable request on the table that would help a business get its start to making Laramie a better place. They should be used wisely.
We don’t want to open the can of worms of debating the UDC big picture and the merits of developers’ complaints about it. No one on this board is a developer, so we don’t pretend to know what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Similarly, we are not engineers or planning professionals. One can just as reasonably speculate that there is data and informed decision-making behind how a UDC comes together. As outside observers, it’s always the things we can’t conceive of when contemplating these issues that may surprise us most or make our points of view waver back-and-forth.
In the case of Dollar General, we agree with City Council liaison to the Planning Commission Bryan Shuster that there should be room for compromise. We do question, though, why city staff’s recommended compromise was rejected so quickly by the company.
It’s just hard to believe that this is where the conversation stopped at the time. Maybe things have already moved forward and this is a moot point. However, it’s an anecdote that speaks to something we’ve called for before with regulations: They are necessary, and when properly applied, rules for how to operate within communities make for a better future that we can all look back on and say, “We’re glad we didn’t let private interests take advantage of us.” But in the public sector there needs to be some understanding of the burden of regulation on developers and a willingness to show occasional flexibility that allows responsible flourishing.
All we ask, in this and all cases, is that both sides not get bogged down in adversarial negotiations that end up going nowhere. We need new development in Laramie, and public and private entities working together can make our city an even more remarkable place than it already is.