City to repeal Arapahoe Road car dealerships rule

Citizens stand by petition effort amid 'dark money' accusations

Posted 11/15/18

A months-long rift over whether to allow new car dealerships on East Arapahoe Road in central Centennial will come to somewhat of a close as the city council looks to repeal its recent decision that …

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City to repeal Arapahoe Road car dealerships rule

Citizens stand by petition effort amid 'dark money' accusations


A months-long rift over whether to allow new car dealerships on East Arapahoe Road in central Centennial will come to somewhat of a close as the city council looks to repeal its recent decision that would have opened the door to more dealers.

“It's not the right thing if it's going to cause this much divisiveness on council and between citizens and council,” Mayor Stephanie Piko said at the council's Nov. 5 meeting.

The contentious meeting came nearly two weeks after a citizen petition to halt the change was deemed sufficient by the city clerk, garnering roughly 4,700 valid signatures. That's more than 600 above the threshold that petitioners needed to clear, according to results from the city clerk's office.

Some residents have expressed the desire for different kinds of development — theaters, restaurants or other shopping, for example — in the nearly built-out stretch of the city, where car dealerships are the defining feature of the thoroughfare for several blocks.

A 5-4 city council decision on Aug. 13 to allow new — not used — car dealerships on the Central Arapahoe Road Corridor, roughly between Interstate 25 and South Parker Road, prompted the petition. The council voted to move toward reversing that change at the Nov. 5 meeting.

Councilmembers voted 7-2 to direct city staff to bring an ordinance to repeal the one allowing for new dealerships, with councilmembers Candace Moon and Ron Weidmann opposed. That ordinance moved forward Nov. 13 unanimously, with a public hearing on it set for Dec. 3.

That move allows the council to possibly pass some kind of compromise, as well as avoid a special election in which voters would have approved or voted down the ordinance sometime around spring.

After the petition's success, attention turned to the funding behind the effort: An enigmatic Delaware-based company, Sequoia Community Partners LLC, spent more than $107,500 to provide “in-kind” support to the committee, including $96,000 that went to a firm gathering signatures for the petition, according to a campaign-finance report filed with the city.

Michael Glass and Rhonda Livingston, the Centennial residents who brought the 2018 petition forward, did not answer questions on who Sequoia Community Partners is and the source of the money for petition costs.

Glass, in a Nov. 12 email to Colorado Community Media, said what mattered was the petition's result.

“What we learned is, for the second time, Centennial citizens said 'no' to more new car sales on Arapahoe Road,” he said.

'Citizens don't have $100,000'

Councilmember Mike Sutherland took issue with outside money coming from an entity that doesn't appear to own property or reside in the city, he said during the meeting.

“When this city was formed, it was formed on the principle of self-determination,” Sutherland said. “Accepting so-called dark money from outside the city flies in the face of self-determination.”

The effort started with a group of citizens that cared about the issue, Councilmember Tammy Maurer said at the meeting.

“There was an opportunity presented to them that said, 'Hey, we can help you with this,' ” said Maurer, who pushed in 2016 for a petition that stopped the city from allowing more car dealerships, among other types of businesses. That 2016 effort, which also succeeded, was not required to reveal finances.

Around the time of the 2016 petition, Maurer said she had a private financial backer who provided funds for an attorney to draft the petition and for a company to collect signatures. As with the 2018 petition, it was unclear who provided the money.

But Councilmember Carrie Penaloza said that type of financial backing is necessary for any petition effort.

“It is beyond me to comprehend how a citizen group could possibly, without money, gather signatures in a short time frame that's provided by our charter,” Penaloza said at the meeting. “Many citizens, if not most citizens, don't have $100,000” to put toward a petition.

City Clerk Barbara Setterlind approved the petition Aug. 22. Petitioners had until Sept. 17 — 30 days after the ordinance on dealerships was published — to submit 4,089 signatures. That's roughly 5 percent of Centennial's registered voters.

Annette Jewell, a Centennial resident and volunteer who circulated the petition, said outside money was necessary to combat arguments in favor of a new dealership. The Pennsylvania-based Bobby Rahal Automotive Group was looking to open a Mercedes-Benz dealer near East Arapahoe Road and South Potomac Street, on land it bought at 13831 E. Arapahoe Place.

“When Rahal was doing two newspaper ads, mailers and a robocall, we had” to take help, Jewell said during the meeting. She only walked the petition and didn't know where the money came from, Jewell said.

Cindy Loehr, another Centennial resident who collected petition signatures, said she spent about eight hours getting 26 signatures.

“That would take 157 of me to get those required signatures, and then you times that by eight hours per person,” said Loehr, arguing it wouldn't be possible for working people to collect enough names by themselves.

Rahal pulls out

The ordinance aimed to generally allow for new dealerships on Arapahoe Road on a case-by-case basis with a public-hearing process, but effectively, it concerned only one potential dealer: the planned Mercedes-Benz outlet.

“There's really only one viable candidate with the current inventory of vacant land,” said Derek Holcomb, the city's deputy director of community development, at the meeting. The only other option along the corridor would be east of the nearby Centennial Medical Plaza, a location that would require a dealership to be entirely indoors because of its business-park zoning, according to Holcomb.

Rahal is no longer seeking to develop the Mercedes-Benz dealership, Piko said at the meeting.

Rahal's CEO, Ron Ferris, had claimed some pushback against dealerships on Arapahoe Road is a ploy by another Mercedes-Benz dealer in Littleton. Mercedes-Benz of Littleton filed a lawsuit in late 2016 over the potential Centennial dealership, alleging it would bring unfair competition.

Councilmember Ken Lucas suggested the funding for the 2018 petition came from the Littleton dealer. It remained unclear where the funding originated — Mercedes-Benz of Littleton did not respond to questions in August or early November about whether it has supported efforts that oppose new dealerships on Arapahoe Road. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a law firm that has represented the Littleton dealership, did not respond to questions at those times asking whether it supported such efforts.

Glass, one of the petitioners, took issue with Councilmember Sutherland not criticizing Rahal for paying “for postage, newspaper ads and robocalls to influence citizens,” he said Nov. 12. in an email.

“The real question is, why did Team Rahal buy land before it was zoned for new car sales?” Glass said. Rahal bought the land on Sept. 30, 2016, according to county records. “How many more locations were they planning for the Denver area? Who at city council did they convince to once again change the ordinance so that they could get what they wanted?”

Ferris said he came to city officials in 2016 and was told the city was already in the process of lifting the restriction on development on Arapahoe Road, the move that prompted the 2016 petition.

The city council was "extremely fair" to Rahal, and councilmembers tried hard to change development rules, Ferris said.

"I’m sorry, citizens of Centennial, Arapahoe Road will never be a 'main street,' " Ferris said. "It’s a connector between Interstate 25 and (State Highway) 83. I don’t know many main streets that are six lanes."


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