DON'T SPREAD ON ME

THE SLUDGE HAS HIT THE FAN IN POLITICALLY CORRECT BOULDER.

Looking more like a theme restaurant than a church, the rambling Vineyard complex overlooks a rolling expanse of agricultural land furrowed into Gunbarrel Hill. Biddison stands at a wall of windows that frame the Rocky Mountains in the church's auditorium-sized sanctuary. A large fabric wall-hanging in the entryway is emblazoned with the words, "A fruitful vineyard on a fertile hill." Biddison points to a wire fence thirty yards from the windows. The city used to spread sludge up to that fence, he says--a charge the city flatly denies.

"The City of Boulder is buying up land up and down the Front Range to control land use," Biddison adds. "There's arrogance in that. They're saying, `You people aren't smart enough to run your own communities.'" Biddison sees parallels between the city's conduct and the United States government's role in Southeast Asia during the 1960s. "They have both been guilty of playing Big Brother, trying to control things beyond their borders and lying to people," he says. "I feel the same way about the City of Boulder as I did about Dick Nixon."

Managers at the Metropolitan Wastewater District, which is responsible for handling the sewage produced by 1.25 million Denver-area residents, can only dream of a sludge application site as close as Boulder's, says district spokesman Steve Frank. Unable to find suitable land near the metro area, the district, which includes all major cities in the metro area except Golden, Littleton and Englewood, last year purchased a 10,000-acre site about sixty miles east of the city. Frank says that site serves mainly as a backup; the district applies 90 percent of the metro area's biosolids to private farmland at a charge of $3 per acre to farmers. Some of those farms are located up to 150 miles from Denver. "If we had areas that were closer, we'd use them," he says. "We can't find plots big enough."

The Gunbarrel Hill land lies only three miles from Boulder's wastewater treatment plant. The proximity and size of the site make it an attractive and cost-effective option, says Bob Harberg, the city's project coordinator.

But a financial analysis done by one resident shows just the opposite. Gene Copeland, the management consultant who lives just across the road from the proposed site, put his pencil to the Gunbarrel Hill option and three alternatives. All of the three alternatives were far more cost-effective, he concluded. According to Copeland's analysis, the city's current plan would cost four times more than the next-priciest choice: contracting with a private 320-acre farm about eight miles from the treatment plant.

Copeland handed the Boulder City Council his analysis on February 7. Councilmembers subsequently instructed city staff to meet with Copeland and review his figures. That has yet to happen. Ned Williams, director of the city's utilities division, is vague on the reason for the delay but adds that "costs alone aren't the final factor; there are other priorities as well."

Debbie Quackenbush suspects that those priorities include what she calls the city's secret "second agenda." The city council "hates development and hates what they call `prairie palaces,'" says Quackenbush, who will join the ranks of homeowners tagged with that Boulderism when her Somerset home is finished this summer. She, Copeland and Mark Biddison all believe the city's intent is to curtail residential growth in their area by putting as much land as possible out of the reach of developers.

In fact, that agenda is hardly a hidden one. A city document from September 1994 laying out Boulder's plans for Gunbarrel Hill suggested that the city join with Boulder County to secure even more open space in the area for biosolids application (the county has since distanced itself from such an arrangement). And some city council members make plain their enthusiasm for yanking real estate out from under developers who want to put up low-density, big-lot subdivisions like Somerset.

"It's California suburban sprawl," says councilman Matthew Applebaum. "From an environmental standpoint, low-density suburbs are a bad idea. They're exactly what causes" increased traffic, air pollution and a dearth of open land, he says. "I drive by Somerset and I'm not thrilled."

Neither is councilwoman Allyn Feinberg, who describes herself as a "slow- or no-growth advocate" whose principal political concern is "the degradation of the state from the increasing number of people living here." Underlying the opposition of people in Gunbarrel and Niwot to the biosolids program, she believes, is their absorption with their own property and a tendency not to "think broadly about the community as a whole."

To Boulder mayor Leslie Durgin, the Gunbarrel Hill controversy has more to do with the country-club tastes of area residents than with the health hazards of biosolids. "The problem is, it's an agricultural area that's being developed into upscale housing," says Durgin. "Some people there don't want cows around." Jokes the mayor, "They'll permit horses as long as they don't poop."

But Mark Biddison, who lives up the road from a sheep farm, says he has no problem with animals or agriculture, only with the City of Boulder. "The city wants to paint us as a bunch of yuppies worried about our property values," he says. "We're boomers who have paid our dues and decided to get a piece of the good life this country has to offer while it was still there to get. So we bought a little land and built a nice house.

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