In 2005, the City of Centennial limited several types of development on the Arapahoe Road corridor, which roughly stretches from South Parker Road to South Yosemite Street. It prevented new drive-in or drive-thru restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations, car sales and rental services, and car washes from opening along that road.
After a 2016 vote by city council to lift the restrictions and a petition effort by residents to overturn that vote, the council passed a set of compromise measures in 2017.
Among the new rules were that the restricted types of businesses could open in a redevelopment if part of a “master-planned development,” which the city defined as including at least four non-restricted businesses and 50,000 square feet of gross floor area. The exception for master-planned developments existed since 2005, but the new rules allowed it to apply to redevelopment, too.
But car dealerships are the one type of business to which the master-planned development exception did not apply.
A new ordinance passed Aug. 13 allows for new (not used) car dealerships to be approved on a case-by-case basis under conditional-use approval from city council, which is a public-hearing process.
The Arapahoe Road corridor technically stretches from South Parker Road to South Quebec Street, but the restrictions on types of businesses only run between Parker Road and South Yosemite Street, according to the city.
Usually, the Centennial City Council makes decisions without a hitch.
But the council usually isn't considering a change that runs counter to a petition more than 4,000 voters signed.
That choice was whether to allow for new car dealerships on East Arapahoe Road, the city's central business thoroughfare. A split council approved the change in a 5-4 decision Aug. 13, nearly two years after a law that would have allowed more car dealerships — among other businesses — was halted by the petition.
With dozens in the audience, the council heard from a mostly opposed crowd that included several familiar names in Centennial politics.
“Why are we dealing with this subject again?” said Nancy Nickless, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on council last year. “We know what the people want.”
Of the 11 speakers in the public hearing, three vouched for allowing new dealerships, all of whom had a personal interest in a potential Mercedes-Benz dealership near Arapahoe Road and South Potomac Street. Among them: John Brackney, a former Arapahoe County commissioner and former president of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, who said he's “a proud member of Team Rahal.” That's the company that owns the property for a potential dealership at 13831 E. Arapahoe Place.
“It will be an attribute to the corridor, not a detriment to it,” said Brackney, known as one of the five founders of Centennial who helped organize citizens toward incorporating the city.
Jill Meakins, one of the two residents who brought the petition forth in 2016, said current dealerships are near neighborhoods that have had issues with noise and test drives. Eric Hessinger, with Team Rahal of Centennial Inc., the Pennsylvania-based company pushing to open the dealership, said his policy is not to take test drives through neighborhood streets. Hessinger told the audience the dealership would have desirable design standards, like low lighting to avoid light pollution at night.
But the most animated complaints against dealerships focused on a larger picture: What kinds of businesses could take up space on Arapahoe Road if not for a dealership. Former Mayor Cathy Noon jumped into the fray to argue medical uses would be preferable and that a dealership wouldn't bring the city much tax revenue. Car-sales tax goes to the city where the buyer lives, not to the city where the car is bought.
“Let's not get all excited about the money we'd get from repair and maintenance,” Noon said, adding that those transactions at a dealership account for a minor amount of the city's revenue.
Councilmember Carrie Penaloza launched into an uncharacteristically long address opposed to new dealerships, arguing the city should push for more walkable development in a time of change for retail businesses. Penaloza also pushed against allegations that the 2016 petition succeeded because of support by another Mercedes-Benz dealership in Littleton.
“There have been many efforts to paint the referendum effort as shady,” Penaloza said, going on to refer to Meakins and Tammy Maurer, the other petitioner who was since elected to council. “For anyone to argue that these women were in the pocket of any business is preposterous.”
Councilmember Ken Lucas raised that specter again after pro-dealership speakers brought it up in the public hearing.
“To continue to say the people have spoken is wrong in my mind,” Lucas said.
Mayor Stephanie Piko said the petition's wording was too vague for the general public to understand.
Residents in the public hearing said they'd rather see restaurants or other retail, a concern Councilmember Candace Moon echoed.
“I know that people like to go where it's the 'it' place to go to shop,” Moon said, adding that she's heard people say they prefer going to other cities. “I would like to be able to do all my shopping in Centennial.”
But Mike Sutherland, councilmember for District 3, which nearly covers the city between Interstate 25 and South Parker Road — roughly the whole Arapahoe Road corridor — said the city shouldn't “be picking winners and losers.” He rationalized the council's 2016 vote to allow more dealerships.
“I have to think that it was probably because … the development outside of auto-related businesses simply had not occurred,” Sutherland said.
Only two sites adjacent to Arapahoe Road in the corridor are vacant and at least five acres in size — a requirement for a dealership development — so possible locations for new dealerships are limited, said Derek Holcomb, deputy director of community development for the city.
The ordinance passed over the “no” votes of Penaloza, Maurer, Piko and Councilmember Kathy Turley. Those four voted unsuccessfully in favor of a move to allow citizens to vote on the ordinance in a referendum in the November election. Piko said it would be easier for city staff in light of the possibility of citizens bringing a petition anyway, a move that could require an election likely in March to vote the ordinance up or down.
A petition would have 30 days after the new ordinance was published to submit 4,089 signatures, or roughly 5 percent of Centennial's registered voters. The deadline is 5 p.m. Sept. 17.
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