Marj Rust enjoys the view from her home on a ridge west of Rocky Flats. She can take in a rolling expanse of rangeland running east from the hogback to Standley Lake, a vista interrupted only by the jumble of buildings at the U.S. Department of Energy facility. But these days she feels uneasy as she surveys the open space spread before her.
Rocky Flats has been out of the nuclear-bomb business since 1989. But the area around it is heading for a boom.
The land Rust can see from her living room has remained largely undeveloped because of Rocky Flats, notorious for four decades of polluting land, air and water with radioactive effluent and toxic chemicals. The state health department has quietly discouraged growth within four miles of the plant's center since the 1970s, not due to contamination, it says, but for "logistics" in the event of a catastrophic accident. And market forces have thwarted development even in the thousands of empty acres that extend beyond that official buffer zone. Few homeowners or businesses, after all, have been willing to locate next to one of the world's largest stockpiles of plutonium.
But with out-of-staters streaming into Colorado, demand is high for undeveloped land--even land near a sprawling Superfund site plagued with dicey cleanup problems, some of them still without solutions. Residential subdivisions are springing up ever closer to the buffer zone. And today the City of Arvada and controversial real-estate developer Howard Lacy, who was the chief electrical engineer at Rocky Flats during its construction in the early 1950s, want to put a sprawling complex of office buildings, light industry and homes up against it. That project, dubbed Jefferson Center, would create an 18,000-acre planned community in the shadow of no-man's-land. Says Marj Rust, who dreads urban sprawl more than she fears plutonium, "That scares me."
After years as a sinkhole of bad news, Rocky Flats may be rising in the public's estimation. And with a cleanup figured to last at least a quarter of a century under way, the public-relations office at the newly renamed Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site has some positive news to circulate for a change.
DOE insists that on-site nuclear materials will be stabilized and properly stored as soon as possible. That prospect inspired new contractor Kaiser-Hill--due to take over from EG&G July 1--to float the idea of opening about 4,000 acres of the facility's 6,000-acre buffer zone to the public. DOE officials coughed nervously and cautioned that such talk was premature, given the tons of unstable bomb materials on hand. But they didn't rule out the idea of letting people hike, bike and ride horses on land fenced off in the 1970s when areas to the east of the facility were found to be contaminated with concentrations of plutonium 1,500 times higher than background fallout levels.
State health officials, buoyed by years of sampling, say concentrations of plutonium in the buffer zone have dissipated to levels below the state safety standard--though just where the radioactive material has gone remains a question mark. To a public weary of dreading Rocky Flats, the time seems ripe to let the neighborhood Boo Radley make friends.
Most trusting are communities near the plant. The tiny town of Superior, left with little room to grow after aggressive open-space acquisitions by the City and County of Boulder bottled up nearly all the plant's northern border, is pressing for eighty acres in the northeast corner of the buffer zone for commercial development. A consortium of area chambers of commerce is working to secure right-of-way for the proposed Northwest Parkway, a scaled-down and partially rerouted version of the W-470 freeway rejected by voters five years ago. Billed as a needed link between C-470 and Denver International Airport, the highway would skirt the west and north sides of Rocky Flats and cut across the northwest corner of the buffer zone (the eastern edge of the buffer zone is dominated by dedicated open space and municipal reservoirs for the cities of Broomfield and Westminster).
South of that proposed corner cut, a private gravel-mining operation that lies in part on buffer-zone acreage has been approved for expansion that will chew farther south along the outskirts of the plant. Oil and gas extraction is also likely for buffer land. Before the plant's construction in 1951, nearby terrain saw extensive coal mining, as well as some clay and radium extraction. Since DOE acquired mineral rights to less than a tenth of its buffer-zone parcels, such activity like will continue regardless of what the agency prefers.
For city officials in Arvada, home to many workers at the plant, the problem with Rocky Flats has always been one of "perception." That attitude has been reinforced by the findings of an ongoing state health department study. Even if there once was extensive plutonium contamination of property on Arvada's side of the fence, say members of the panel overseeing the study, the wind and rain have taken care of the problem. "All that plutonium is in Kansas by now," says one panel member. And a growing number of environmentalists agree. So since 1989 Arvada has annexed 4,500 acres south and west of the plant for Howard Lacy's mammoth Jefferson Center development and hopes to add another 13,500.
The president of Jefferson Center Associates, a coalition of about fifty people who own land near Rocky Flats, Lacy has spearheaded the push for development around the plant for nearly ten years. His plans appear to clash with the Mountain Backdrop project, an ambitious five-county plan to preserve Front Range scenery from Pikes Peak to the Wyoming border. They also draw fire from critics who say efforts to clean up Rocky Flats could actually increase the threat of contamination to nearby communities, given the combustible nature of much of the 14.2 tons of plutonium stored there and the strong winds that routinely scour the site.
But despite those concerns and a background that includes a 1991 arrest for shoplifting as well as a history of confrontation with both local governments and neighborhood groups, Lacy has the rocklike support of planning officials in Arvada and Jefferson County. He's in the driver's seat to deliver the first large-scale development near the plant. That's what Marj Rust and other residents are afraid of.
"It's fortunate in a way," says Jefferson Center Associates planning director Bruce Nickerson of the miles of vacant land around Rocky Flats. "If it hadn't been for Rocky Flats, this area might have ended up as 35-acre ranchettes." Instead, says Nickerson, the undeveloped turf presents an opportunity for "smart growth planning."
Jefferson Center Associates was formed in the mid-1980s when longtime area rancher and developer Charles McKay approached Lacy and other property owners near Rocky Flats to advise them of his family's long-range plans for the 2,000 acres of land and extensive mineral rights it held in the area. "Howard said, `That's what I'm trying to do. Let's team up,'" McKay recalls. An enthusiastic Lacy took the reins, he adds, ramrodding the effort to organize landowners into a cohesive group and draw up a plan for area development.
Serious planning got under way in 1987, says Nickerson. By the summer of 1989, JCA had signed an intergovernmental agreement with Jefferson County and Arvada that endorsed the group's plan as the official blueprint for a 18,000-acre area stretching from Standley Lake into the hills south and west of Rocky Flats.
Under the Lacy plan, says Nickerson, the area would grow into an array of one- to five-story office buildings and "clean" light industry "nestled into the landscape." Exteriors would feature unobtrusive earth tones and natural materials. At two or three major intersections, buildings could be built to a height of 100 feet. The spacing of those high-rise clusters, Nickerson says, would allow ample views of the mountains from major arterials. "It's well-planned, quality development," he says.
On the cover of a promotional brochure for Jefferson Center paid for by the City of Arvada, the Northwest Chamber of Commerce and Jefferson Center Associates is a photograph of three conifer trees grouped on a swell of rangeland that rises to the foot of the Flatirons. The scene looks very much like the Jefferson Center logo and suggests the happy prospect of stepping from the door of an office building to behold a natural setting stretching away to the mountains.
There are two problems with that impression: The trees and grassland in the picture are not now part of Jefferson Center and, even if they were, project plans would allow a 100-foot building to be built just behind the trees, blocking the mountain view.
It is that kind of discrepancy between presentation and reality that bothers people. "Lacy has envisioned a big development over which he wants to have control," says one landowner, who declines to be identified. "He's done it in a very cunning and smart way to gain land-use control over other people's property. We're going to fight that."
Critics say the intergovernmental agreement signed by Lacy, Arvada and Jefferson County essentially elevates Lacy and his cohorts to the level of elected officials. Under that agreement, any changes in the plan must be approved by the city, the county and Jefferson Center Associates.
But giving JCA a say in land-use determinations was unfair and unnecessary, says Gloria Barrick, a resident of the small town of Plainview, which falls within the grasp of the proposed Jefferson Center project.
"We don't need another layer of government imposed on us," says Barrick. "And this is government without representation. We don't live in Arvada. We didn't vote for those people, and we didn't vote Howard Lacy into any office."
Like other well-laid plans, however, Jefferson Center has run into its share of hitches. The defeat of W-470 in late 1989 shot down a planned complex of high-rises up to 150 feet tall near the southwest corner of the buffer zone. And under pressure from Jefferson County, JCA gave up plans for residential development of 900 acres of land near the mouth of Coal Creek Canyon. The county would rather see it reserved for open space.
Before that dispute was resolved last month, Lacy threatened to sue the county. And he remains testy about the issue. "We can't be installing infrastructure and all of sudden hear an area is not going to be the way it was planned," he complains.
Lacy also has butted heads with the City of Westminster and a group of residents in the Blue Mountain subdivision, a ninety-home community set in a valley behind the hogback and near the mouth of Coal Creek Canyon. That fight, only recently settled, was over alleged financial irregularities with a pipeline Westminster installed earlier this year to ship Coal Creek water to Standley Lake. Financed by DOE, the pipeline was intended to shield what had been an open ditch from potential Rocky Flats contamination.
Rather than trenching across the Rocky Flats buffer zone and dealing with the attendant federal red tape, Westminster officials approached JCA about routing the line across land owned by its members. The timing was good for JCA. Its 1989 development deal with Jefferson County and Arvada required it to construct the utilities serving the proposed 18,000 acres of Jefferson Center. Getting a waterline into Westminster's trench would save the landowners more than $2 million.
After a convoluted series of negotiations that included JCA promising to foot the bill for future line relocations, JCA wound up getting a water pipeline worth nearly $500,000 for an out-of-pocket cost of $168,489, according to a March 6 memo by Westminster public works director Ron Hellbusch. (Hellbusch wrote that he felt compelled to total up the figures after Lacy told Jefferson County's open-space advisory committee that he and his associates had spent "several million dollars" on the pipeline.) Bruce Nickerson maintains that JCA's out-of-pocket outlay was more than $600,000.
JCA and the city also locked horns over $96,000 Lacy's group was given to cover reseeding costs. JCA offered to pay for revegetating the land after construction but didn't follow through on the pledge. Not long afterward, a group of Blue Mountain residents opposed to Jefferson Center got wind of JCA's procrastination and began writing to city, county and state officials accusing the Lacy group of pocketing the funds. In April, about two months after the pipeline was installed, Lacy responded to Westminster's demands that JCA live up to its end of the bargain. In his letter, Lacy explained that "JCA landowners have requested that we not introduce foreign grasses on their property until it is verified that the native grasses will not naturally reseed the disturbed areas." That determination couldn't be made until the fall, he wrote.
Then Lacy took aim at Blue Mountain resident David DePenning, who had written a letter expressing the concerns of the citizens' group to the city. DePenning was "imposing" himself "into the execution of a contract between two other parties," wrote Lacy, and therefore "we have turned the matter over to our attorneys."
In May, when reporters made inquiries about the dispute between Westminster and Lacy's group, JCA reversed its position, promising to reseed the portion of the bare ground running along State Highway 72 as soon as the ground dried this spring. Heavy rains have prevented that so far, says Nickerson. "Fall is the time that nature reseeds itself," he says. "But we decided to go ahead and reseed" as soon as weather permits. "We try to be a good neighbor."
Some residents of Blue Mountain have been neighbors to Howard Lacy for more than two decades. And they choose words other than "good" when they talk about him.
"He's like an amoeba," says Marj Rust, president of the Blue Mountain Land and Homeowners Association. "He spreads, and the next thing you know, he's taken in all these other things. He came up here about 25 years ago, and before you know it, he bought Ralston Buttes. He owns the whole south end of the valley. He has a house on either end of the mountain. He's bookends."
Now Lacy wants to develop lots for thirty luxury homes on land he owns directly south of Blue Mountain that is part of Jefferson Center. Though fifteen of the sites lie within the Blue Mountain Water District, the well-water system in the area, already showing signs of strain, can't support the additional homes, says Rust. Lacy helped organize the water district now serving the area and felt his neighbors owed him a favor, says Joe Tamburini, a resident now serving as president of the Blue Mountain water board. But the board turned down Lacy's request for fifteen new water taps that would tie into the existing system, deciding it could only afford to grant Lacy seven of them.
"He was first president of the district and was instrumental in getting the district off the ground," Tamburini says. "He was helpful at the time, and we thank him for that, but other people up here have also volunteered. We're not going to thank him by handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of benefits from our system."
Lacy subsequently proposed using the Blue Mountain system to transport water he said he had secured from Arvada to his planned luxury-home lots. According to Tamburini, the Blue Mountain water board later found the water hadn't actually been secured; it was still Arvada's, and any deal struck to bring it up the hill to Lacy's property would have to be done with the city, not Lacy.
In trying to hash out a deal with Blue Mountain, the developer also apparently misrepresented the status of a plat for his proposed subdivision, which lies in an area annexed by Arvada. The city had already accepted the plat, Lacy claimed in his proposal to the Blue Mountain board. But according to Mike Elms, Arvada planning director, such a plat can't be accepted until water and sewer service are run to the site. Says Rust, "He has a history of saying whatever he thinks someone will buy."
Lacy, however, denies misleading his neighbors. His plan to pump water through the Blue Mountain system was simply scotched by legal contraints, he says. And he blames opposition within the Blue Mountain subdivision on "a vocal minority of no-growthers. The newcomers tend to be against what I'm doing," says Lacy. "I suppose it's human nature to want to close the gate behind you and not let anyone else in. If they don't want me to develop it, that's fine. They can buy it."
The way Bruce Nickerson sees it, the Concerned Citizens of Blue Mountain--the group opposing Jefferson Center--is less a citizens' group than a "special-interest group." The residents have a hidden agenda, claims Nickerson: "They're opposed to development of any kind."
For almost thirty years, Chuck and Gloria Barrick have lived on 49 acres of land near Plainview, a small community that has grown up where the plains meet the ridges of the Front Range a couple of miles west of Rocky Flats. "You don't choose to live out here with the mud and the snow and the wind if you're not a pretty tough old bird and maybe a little eccentric," says Gloria. "You don't move out here if you want city living."
City living is exactly what Jefferson Center would impose on Plainview, say the Barricks. Specifically, they and other landowners fear having their property annexed by Arvada and made part of the Jefferson Center plan against their wishes.
Lacy insists that would never happen, though he acknowledges he can't guarantee it. "It's just not good politics," he says. "Arvada has never annexed anyone out here who didn't want to be annexed. And I'm sure they never would."
The development plan for Jefferson Center has the area around Plainview marked for houses on two-acre lots. About a half-mile east of the town, the plan includes an option for office buildings and light industry. And when the advisory committee for Jefferson County's Open Space Department considered acquiring up to 3,000 acres of land in the area, Lacy and Arvada officials fought the proposal vigorously.
Arvada officials argued that keeping the area open for development was crucial to the economic future of their city. "We're essentially a bedroom community," says city council member Shelley Cook. "We need to enhance our tax base and create jobs to replace the ones that we'll be losing at Rocky Flats."
Earlier this year, Lacy threatened to sue the county, alleging that its plans for open space violated the 1989 intergovernmental agreement. Open-space advocates argued that the county's open-space master plan was published two months before the agreement was signed, and they designated portions of the land as candidates for acquisition. The advisory committee, chaired by Denver West developer Greg Stevinson, struck a compromise last month, recommending that the county pursue about 900 acres running up to the hills but allow Lacy's group to develop a 2,100-acre chunk fanning out from the intersection of Highways 72 and 93.
The advisory committee's proposal would provide enough open space east of Plainview to give the town a front yard of more than a square mile. That open parcel would touch the corner of the Barricks' property. But the battle's not over, says Gloria Barrick, who says the committee compromise falls short. "We have a herd of elk camped out here right now," she says. "We want to preserve this area. That's a process that should go through the county, not Mr. Lacy."
During the open-space hearings, Lacy argued that although his 18,000-acre Jefferson Center plan appears to include only 50 acres of designated open space in the form of an equestrian center, it actually contains large tracts of vacant land. Lacy pointed to 6,000 acres of buffer zone at Rocky Flats, several thousand acres atop the Leyden coal mine (where Public Service Company stores natural gas), and Section 16, a fenced parcel owned by the state land board that cuts into the buffer zone. When a committee member observed that such tracts didn't the fit the traditional definition of open space, Lacy replied they were "visual open space."
Lacy insists his commitment to open space is genuine. "I sold 185 acres on Ralston Buttes to open space for a tenth of its value," he says. "I owned it for thirty years. They wanted it for open space, and I wanted to do it for the eagles up there."
But the steepness of the slopes on the craggy Ralston Buttes would likely preclude development there anyway, says a real estate broker familiar with the area. "You can claim your property is worth any amount of money, but finding someone who will pay it is another thing," she says.
Over the years, Lacy and his colleagues at JCA have grown as adept as the Rocky Flats public-relations staff at putting out brushfires. And developments in recent weeks have kept them hopping. A number of property owners have hired the Denver law firm of Holland & Hart to press the argument that the original intergovernmental agreement was illegal. And in an ironic twist, a major roadway that Lacy and Arvada pushed for, the Northwest Parkway, may end up giving critics another excuse to question the agreement.
A spokesman for Holland & Hart says the firm plans to send a letter to Arvada and Jefferson County this week arguing that Lacy and government officials violated a state statute when they signed the agreement. That law required that all of the landowners in the 18,000-acre Jefferson Center area be notified before the document was approved, claims Gloria Barrick, one of those who retained the law firm. Adds another resident, who has clashed with Lacy on real estate deals in the past, "It was done without the public knowing about it." He likens the pact to the financial chicanery engaged in by Jefferson County commissioners in the 1980s to fund Jeffco's monumentlike county headquarters without voter approval: "I call it Taj Mahal II." In another irony, the relevant statute was passed in 1989 in part at the urging of Howard Lacy--who testified before a House committee, says Bruce Nickerson, because he and the county believed the bill would "put teeth into" their agreement.
Lacy insists the public was fully notified about Jefferson Center and the intergovernmental agreement. "There have been over a hundred public meetings on this and many, many notices in newspapers," he says. But those meetings and notices concerned the North Plains Community Plan, a growth plan for Golden, Arvada and the Rocky Flats area drawn up by Jefferson County with public input in 1990. The Jefferson Center plan was based on the North Plains document, says Lacy, and though it doesn't conform exactly, it comes close enough for purposes of notification.
The proposed Northwest Parkway is another potential roadblock for Lacy and his associates. The roadway was championed by Arvada and JCA as a vital transportation corridor. But Jefferson County Commissioner Gary Laura points out that the original Jefferson Center development plan was based on the proposed route of W-470, which was to run along the south and east boundaries of Rocky Flats. The parkway would reverse that arrangement, instead skirting the plant's north and west sides. "I think we need to take a fresh look at [the intergovernmental agreement] if they want a new alignment for that road," says Laura.
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Any attempt to reopen the agreement would raise a host of new headaches for Lacy and his colleagues at JCA. But given the plan's support from both Arvada and the county, it's unlikely that perceived legal defects could scuttle the Jefferson Center plan entirely. Rust, Barrick and other open-space advocates say they know that development on the plains near Rocky Flats is inevitable. They just want the call to be made by someone other than Howard Lacy. "His friends talk about how shrewd he is," says Rust. "But I guess what it comes down to is, one man's shrewdness is another man's conniving."
A clue to Lacy's character can be found in his 1991 shoplifting arrest, say his critics. "Here's a 68-year-old man who's developing 18,000 acres, and he's stealing a garage-door opener," says one property owner.
"They're digging pretty deep, aren't they?" responds Lacy. His arrest by Arvada police at a Home Club Retail Warehouse was "a total misunderstanding," he says. "The opener fell out of the box and out of the cart and I picked it up and put it in my pocket. Then I forgot about it." Lacy says he can't recall if he had to enter a plea in court; a court clerk says Lacy received a "deferred judgment" and that the case was dismissed after six months.
His arrest has "nothing at all to do with" Jefferson Center, Lacy adds. What matters in the end, he contends, is that he and his partners have the best plan for the area around Rocky Flats--and the best chance of seeing it put into action. That, he says, may be what's really eating at his enemies. "I own a lot of land," says Lacy. "Maybe there's a litle bit of jealousy because I'm rather successful.