Of all the Denver ballot issues going into the November 7 election, by far the most uncertain was Ordinance 300 – known as the Green Roof Initiative. The proposal, which would require buildings of certain specifications to dedicate a percentage of their rooftop space for gardens or solar panels, was strongly opposed by developers, the Downtown Denver Partnership and even Mayor Michael Hancock, who called the green-roof requirement “too much, too soon.”
Opponents of I-300, including the organization “Citizens for a Responsible Denver,” outspent I-300’s backers by a factor of twelve to one.
But Denver voters did not side with the mayor or developers.
Against the odds, I-300 passed. As of 5 p.m. November 9, 63,256 votes had been counted in favor of I-300 – which accounts for 53.36 percent of those who voted in Denver.
Still, there may be more uncertainty down the road regarding the Green Roof Initiative — including potential lawsuits. To find out more about the why the campaign succeeded, what it means for Denver and what’s next, we spoke with the thirty-year-old lead organizer of the initiative, Brandon Rietheimer, who daylights as the manager of a Red Robin restaurant.
Westword: First off, can you give us a brief description of I-300? What did Denver voters just pass, and what does it do?
Brandon Rietheimer: It says that large buildings in Denver, anything over 25,000 square feet, would be required to dedicate a portion of their rooftop to either a green roof or solar panels.
And there's a sliding scale in terms of the size of the building and how much roof space a developer would need to set aside for gardens or solar panels, right?
Correct. The [rooftop requirements] increase 10 percent every 50,000 square feet. It eventually caps at buildings of 200,000 square feet or more — with 60 percent [of the roof required for gardens or solar panels].
What’s the backstory of this initiative? How did you get interested in this to begin with?
It was Bernie Sanders and his message to act locally. And once Trump got elected, [Bernie’s message] resonated more, because I really knew at that point that nothing good was going to happen for the environment.
It really was a true grassroots effort. I really couldn't have done it without our volunteers. We barely squeaked by on the signatures; it passed by like 45 signatures. If our volunteers had all collected one less signature, this wouldn't have happened.
So what's your take on the outcome of I-300 passing? Were you surprised?
I'm not surprised. I was actually hoping for more votes, but a win's a win. We really feel like the fundraising disadvantage closed that gap. Plus, the [opposition] put out a lot of misinformation and lies.
We felt like we had public support in this from the beginning. The support was there. It was really just about figuring out how to maximize our coverage.
So you’re saying that, even though you knew you’d been outspent twelve to one, you figured it would pass?
Going into election night, I was hopefully optimistic — even though the [opposition] spent almost a quarter-million dollars trying to beat us. We’d watched them develop a strategy. From the first community meeting, they threw a billion different things out there to see what stuck, and you could see them further refine their message and their pitch as they went along.
What were the most egregious falsehoods that you found yourself combating?
On the [Citizens for a Responsible Denver] website, they said, "This [initiative] will raise taxes by millions of dollars." Well, actually, it doesn't raise your taxes at all, because the cost is up to the building owner.
Another one was they were saying that dust particulates would be kicked up into the air by the plants. No, it's quite the opposite, actually: Plants filter the polluted air.
They just made stuff up; it was pretty crazy.
In the Denver Post, Mayor Michael Hancock mentioned that I-300 might raise the costs of bond projects. Do you know what he was talking about?
We met with him a couple months ago, and he mentioned something about the National Western Complex and how it falls under new construction. I guess the [Denver Health] GO bond that got approved would fall under this, too.
But we're only talking about a 1 percent increase to project costs, at most, so it's not a crazy amount of money. There's no reason projects should be stopped or halted.
On Facebook, Councilman Rafael Espinoza suggested that the mayor’s comments might be setting up an excuse for project costs that go out of control. What do you make of that?
Word on the street is that the mayor is indebted to the developers; that's where his funding comes from.
But in our meeting, he said — and I hope it's true — that our morals are aligned. He said that we all want to see a more sustainable future. So I hope that now that I-300 is in effect, he'll actually do the research and see that it doesn't add a whole lot of cost, and the benefit that we're getting from it is huge.
Members of the Colorado Real Estate Association told the Post that they’re considering potential lawsuits over I-300. Is that something that you're concerned about, or are actively forming contingency plans for?
We're not really sure. I was trying to think of what their legal angle would be, but building codes are pretty cut and dried. There might be a couple things in [I-300] that are issues of concern, but Denver City Council has six months to change them.
And if they do file a lawsuit, well, this is enacted by the City and County of Denver now, so I'm not sure that the city would appreciate having to foot the bill for a lawsuit.
What do you think the outcome of this vote says, philosophically, about what people in Denver want, as opposed to what developers want?
I've always felt that people are here in Colorado because they love the environment. They love the outdoors. And now that climate change is affecting more and more people, I think people know we need to act now. I think they see all this development that's going up so quickly and that we're not taking sustainability into account.
So what's next, and how do you make sure this gets rolled out in an effective way?
Built into the bill is a technical advisory board. We're already talking to the Denver City Council and mayor's office about getting the board up and running.
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Have you heard from any of the opposition since the results started rolling in?
No, not even from the mayor's office. It's been awfully quiet.
What do you think was most effective about your campaigning?
We had really good reach with Facebook and with our videos, which may have helped turn out the millennial generation. But ultimately, I think having our volunteers go to neighborhood organizations is what helped target people we knew were going to vote.