Forbidden Fruit

The July issue of Arvada's municipal newsletter makes the city sound like the biggest supporter of open space in the metro area. "Open Space Preservation Continues: Mountain Backdrop, Trail Corridors Top Priority," says the headline on the cover of The Arvada Report. Inside, an article enthuses about Arvada's commitment to keeping land free of development and claims that "decades of solid planning have created the basis for a spectacular system of parks, recreational areas, and open space connected by a series of trails." A map shows huge sections of publicly owned land on both sides of Colorado Highway 93, including the former Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant, all shaded in forest green to reflect the emerging greenbelt on the western side of the city.

This enthusiasm comes as a surprise to many of Arvada's neighbors, however, since the city has a long history of encouraging massive development on its west side -- the only part of the city with empty land -- and has tangled with residents of those areas for much of the past decade. A sweeping plan to develop 18,000 acres from Standley Lake to the foothills fell apart last year after dozens of property owners in the area protested, and the city is currently fighting residents of Coal Creek Canyon over a proposed mountainside subdivision.

But the city's latest effort may prove to be the most controversial: It is pushing for the construction of a swank development on 1,121 acres immediately south of Rocky Flats. The project, called Vauxmont Intermountain Communities, would be a mix of million-dollar homes, townhomes and office parks. And critics and observers in surrounding cities believe Arvada desperately wants to find a way to annex even more land for this dream -- land inside the buffer zone around Rocky Flats.

Since all of Arvada's neighbors, including the cities of Westminster, Broomfield, Boulder, and Superior, as well as Boulder and Jefferson counties, have endorsed the idea of prohibiting any development on Rocky Flats's 6,000 acres -- much of which is contaminated with plutonium, the most carcinogenic substance known to science -- and want to turn the former bomb factory into permanent open space or a national wildlife refuge, talk of development has infuriated them.

An exchange of letters in March between Arvada Mayor Ken Fellman and Boulder County Commissioner Paul Danish in which the two officials accuse each other of lying shows just how bitter the dispute has become.

In one letter, Fellman threatened to pull Arvada out of the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments, the group charged with negotiating with federal officials over cleanup issues, unless Danish publicly apologized to him for a perceived slight. "When you listen to me represent Arvada's position in Coalition meetings, and you do not challenge that position, one might assume that you believe the speaker," Fellman wrote. "Yet, when you are publicly quoted as suggesting Arvada has another position, you are in essence calling me a liar. And you do so in an underhanded manner. You ought to at least have the courage to say that you have been listening to Arvada express its position for months, and explain why you believe we are not being honest."

In his reply, Danish accused Arvada of contradicting itself over whether Rocky Flats should be turned into open space. "When I weigh what you say in your letter against what you have done over the past year, I find it very hard to take your protests seriously," wrote Danish. "Arvada has repeatedly opposed Congressman [Mark] Udall's bill to prevent development on the Rocky Flats site."

Danish goes on to note that Arvada proposed a land swap that would have opened up 640 acres for development inside the Rocky Flats buffer zone. He suggests that Arvada eventually hoped to annex that property and garner the tax revenue. "I find it impossible to credit the proposition that Arvada would broker this proposal if it had even the slightest reason to believe that the developed land would remain outside its city limits," wrote Danish. "Frankly, sir, I don't know if you are lying to me, but since you want candor, let me assure you that you don't enjoy my trust. My first reaction to your threat to resign from the coalition unless you receive an apology from me was to be in the same category as a child threatening to hold her breath until she dies unless she gets her way. However, upon reflection, I have to wonder if it isn't a pretext for terminating cooperation with your neighbors and pursuing a unilateral pro-development agenda."

Fellman insists that Arvada's motivations have been distorted by neighbors like Boulder County, however, and that the city has been unfairly painted as wanting to bulldoze every square mile of Rocky Flats. "It makes sense to keep the options open to have a research or educational facility there," he says, adding, "We have policy disagreements with our neighbors. No matter how many times I tell them what Arvada wants to do, they can still call me a liar. We have no secret plan to develop Rocky Flats. Our number-one priority is to clean the damn place up to the highest possible level."