Reading this story without a subscription? Get a year of access to Coloradoan.com for $39 now through March 18 by clicking here to subscribe. We appreciate your support of local journalism.
The best preparation for being on Fort Collins City Council is, well, being on Fort Collins City Council. The second best, some council members will tell you, is being on the Fort Collins Planning and Zoning Board.
If both of those statements hold true, then the two candidates for City Council’s District 5 are pretty darn prepared.
Candidate Kelly Ohlson is a former Fort Collins mayor, mayor pro-tem and council member who finished his last term in 2013. Candidate Jeff Hansen is the chair of Fort Collins’ Planning and Zoning Board, which he’s served on for seven years.
Current District 5 representative Ross Cunniff is term-limited. He’s endorsing Ohlson for the seat. As of the March 2 campaign finance reports, Hansen had raised about $2,900 in contributions to Ohlson’s $12,100.
Ohlson and Hansen have differing viewpoints on several issues. Perhaps the most prominent one is their perspective on growth and development: It’s not as cut-and-dried as one being “pro” and the other being “anti” growth, but Hansen tends to be more amenable to development-oriented policies and wants the city to focus on how to better accommodate current and projected population growth. Ohlson is more focused on open space preservation and thinks the city should do more to address the negative consequences of population growth.
The issue is especially salient for District 5, which covers west-central Fort Collins and includes the former Hughes Stadium site. (Check which council district you live in here.) Ohlson believes the site should remain open space and that the city should work with Colorado State University to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city. Hansen, on the Planning and Zoning Board, advocated for a zoning compromise that would’ve allowed higher density zoning on a corner of the site and preserved the rest as open space. He now considers the issue up to voters.
Registered voters in Fort Collins city limits can expect to receive their ballots for the April 6 election in the mail after March 19. Read on for more detailed information about Ohlson and Hansen’s backgrounds and policy priorities.
Jeff Hansen: A detail-oriented planner with a vision of ‘reconnecting Fort Collins’
Jeff Hansen isn’t the kind of person who grabs the microphone first.
A self-described “behind-the-scenes guy,” Hansen was initially reluctant to apply for Fort Collins Planning and Zoning Board when his boss posted an ad about the opening on the fridge at his office. Seven years later, he’s nearing the end of his term as chair of the board and has no regrets.
Hansen, an architect, found that he loved getting into the nitty-gritty details of land use and development proposals, listening to public comment and looking for ways to integrate feedback into board decisions, and serving as a guiding force for the short-term and long-term future of Fort Collins. He said his love of the work is the main reason he’s running for City Council.
The other main reason he’s running is a hope of addressing some of the issues he continually hears from residents at board meetings, many of which have to do with how the city can accommodate growth without sacrificing the values that make Fort Collins a chosen home for so many people.
“That’s probably the single biggest long-range issue we have to face,” he said. “Fort Collins is such a good place to live. People are going to want to come here. I don’t think we should keep them out. But it’s going to take some very careful planning to make sure that it doesn’t affect the character of the community.”
One of the most common resident concerns he hears is about traffic. The city requires projects to meet national traffic control standards, “but we still keep hearing the same complaints,” Hansen said. “I’m thinking that maybe the minimum national standards are not the right fit for Fort Collins, and maybe we need to look at establishing something that’s a little bit higher than the minimum.”
He’d also like to add some teeth to the site plan advisory review (SPAR) process, which gives local governments limited ability to influence development proposals put forward by government entities. Colorado State University is currently trying to use SPAR for the Hughes Stadium development, which Hansen called an attempt to “strong-arm their way through the process.” Another priority is the city’s affordable and attainable housing stock — “affordable” meaning income-restricted housing and “attainable” meaning housing that is accessibly priced for people who earn 80% to 120% of the area median income.
Hansen offered guidance on Fort Collins’ recently adopted Housing Strategic Plan. He said he appreciated the shorter-term strategy of finding “hidden density” opportunities in neighborhoods by allowing more accessory dwelling units and increased occupancy. He said he’d push for council to start making those changes in city code as soon as possible because it would likely take a few years to see their influence on housing costs.
He found the plan’s long-term goals lacking in detail and wants to be a bigger part of the conversation about reducing the ever-increasing costs of development. The cost of land and water, material costs and development fees are just a few of the things that can drive up the cost of development, and therefore the cost of housing, in Fort Collins.
“There certainly are a lot of things that are beyond our control, but knowing what those are can help us target our efforts to make something that’s more feasible,” Hansen said.
Hansen said he’ll also push for Fort Collins to balance development with open space preservation and get on track with its climate action goals, which pledge an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. The city is expected to turn up a few percentage points shy of its 2020 goal for a 20% reduction in emissions.
Hansen’s overall campaign message comes back to the word “reconnect”: with each other, hard workers with good jobs, residents with housing, working parents with affordable child care, people with open space and trails, and so on.
“There’s a really complex web of connections that makes Fort Collins such a great place to live,” Hansen said, “and I think COVID and the current political climate is really starting to stress a lot of those connections. We need to work on re-establishing those connections and strengthening the ones that we already have and influencing a really promoting atmosphere of cooperation. That’s what reconnect is all about.”
Hansen sees himself as an ideal guide for that process. He described himself as well-acquainted with city processes, a detail-oriented long-range planner by nature, and a patient listener who values differing perspectives.
“You end up with a way better solution when you’re open minded and listen to all the different voices,” Hansen said. “There’s a lot of people now who think that they have the best idea, and anything that’s contrary to that is not a good idea. I really want to make sure people know that I’m going to listen to everybody. If you have a good idea, I want to hear it.”
For more about Hansen, see his website: jeffhansen4foco.com. See his answers to the Coloradoan candidate questionnaire here.
Among Hansen’s endorsements are the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce; the Fort Collins Board of Realtors; Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell; Ruth Rollins, a traffic engineer, Larimer County Parks Advisory Board member and former member of the city’s P&Z board; and Sam Hall, a freelance artist, Habitat for Humanity volunteer and home recipient.
Kelly Ohlson: A seasoned council member with a focus on ‘compassionate, pragmatic’ policy
Kelly Ohlson is coming back for more.
A familiar name in the Fort Collins government scene, Ohlson served on council from 1983 to 1987 and again from 2005 to 2013. He said he’s running again because he loves public policy, and he feels that his experience in local government will benefit council during challenging times.
“I believe I’ve had a very positive impact on the people of District 5 and the Fort Collins community, and I think my experience is needed now more than ever,” he said, noting that the new council will be “relatively inexperienced regardless of how all the races go.”
Of 14 candidates on the ballot for all seats this year, four have council experience: Ohlson, mayoral candidate Gerry Horak (21 years), District 1 incumbent Susan Gutowsky (a little more than two years) and District 4 interim council member and candidate Melanie Potyondy (appointed in January). All of the council members not up for election joined council in 2019.
Ohlson hopes to serve as a source of institutional knowledge for the rest of council while also bringing the same “compassionate, pragmatic” lens that he applied to policymaking when he last held the seat.
“I can be a resource of history, and some of the things we’ve tried that worked and some that didn’t,” he said. “And I’m certainly always a new thinker, as well. I’m usually ahead of the curve on looking at solutions to problems.”
Ohlson is known as an advocate for the environment and open space preservation. He co-led eight campaigns to create dedicated tax revenue streams for open space and natural areas in Fort Collins and Larimer County and was an early advocate for the city’s recycling programs. He opposes the Northern Integrated Supply Project, wants to keep the former Hughes Stadium site as open space and cited several environmental priorities during his candidate interview with the Coloradoan.
He said one of his top priorities if he’s elected would be improving Fort Collins’ air quality, which he said should be the subject of a dedicated strategic plan. The American Lung Association consistently gives Larimer County an “F” grade for air quality because of its high ozone levels, which result from vehicle travel, oil and gas activity and other pollution sources as well as the area’s high elevation. It’s a regional problem that requires bolstered regional collaboration, Ohlson said.
“It’s a serious health issue,” he said. “And to many people, it’s a matter of life and death.”
Ohlson also wants the city to do more to address the effects of population growth, including impacts to air quality from increased vehicle travel, land and water impacts, traffic congestion and school crowding.
“Certainly people have the right of movement,” said Ohlson, who moved to Fort Collins in the 1970s. “But we shouldn’t ignore that there are negative consequences to rapid population growth, and the vast majority of citizens agree with me on that.”
The city should be giving more emphasis to open space preservation over the next 10 years because of growth pressures, he said, noting that the city’s natural areas program is one of Fort Collins’ most-supported programs.
“We have to reemphasize our efforts for the lands that we’d like protected because once they’re lost, they’re lost forever,” Ohlson said.
He added that he isn’t opposed to development that follows city land use and zoning requirements, but he thinks council should be discerning about making exceptions to city policies for development.
Some of Ohlson’s other priorities include supporting assistance for local businesses; enhancing equity in economic opportunity, employment and criminal justice; improving assistance for the city’s vulnerable populations; and increasing the city’s affordable and attainable housing options. He said he supports affordable housing partnerships like the ones in progress at 140 E. Oak St. and Odell Brewing Co., as well as additional financial support for affordable housing development, renters and homebuyers. He also supports increasing the minimum affordability period for affordable properties and reducing building fees if builders can guarantee lower prices for buyers and renters.
In his Coloradoan questionnaire, he expressed wariness about a centralized campus for homeless services if it would place “disproportionate burden” on one geographical area of the community and added that “we must also be careful to serve our local residents in need, without becoming a regional magnet for homelessness.”
He doesn’t think Fort Collins will ever be done with its work on housing, an issue he’s seen the city plug away at firsthand for decades. But he thinks the city can continue to make progress, and he wants to steer that work.
His vision for the city’s future is a community where “everybody’s welcome to participate in all Fort Collins has to offer,” and a community that works to address “the challenges of the day” while also planning for the next 15, 20 and 25 years.
“Twenty-five years goes faster than most people can imagine,” he said. “Twenty-five years, as far as the forming of a community, is almost like a month from now.”
For more about Ohlson, see his website: kellyohlson.com. See his answers to the Coloradoan questionnaire here.
Among Ohlson’s endorsements are District 5 council member and mayor pro-tem Ross Cunniff, state Sen. Joann Ginal, state Rep. Cathy Kipp, Larimer County Commissioner Jody Shadduck-McNally and Larimer County assessor (and former council member) Bob Overbeck.
Jacy Marmaduke covers government accountability for the Coloradoan. Follow her on Twitter @jacymarmaduke. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.