Who Will Doubled Stormwater Fees Help Most — Developers or Neighborhoods?

It's going to be a loooong night for the Denver City Council this evening, with a packed agenda and at least two hot-button items scheduled for final consideration that have provoked considerable comment from neighborhood groups.

The first is an ordinance for the licensing and regulation of short-term rentals, an issue that pits would-be Airbnb entrepreneurs against neighbors concerned about noise, traffic and zoning violations. 

Even more contentious, because it affects the wallet of every property owner in town — and, some would argue, the health and welfare of folks situated in certain northeast Denver neighborhoods — is a proposal to hike stormwater fees in order to raise $383 million for a range of repairs and improvements to the city's aged, insufficient drainage infrastructure. The hike amounts to a little over twenty bucks a year in each of the next five years for the average household, a 30 percent boost over current rates. (Some projections peg the total average increase at $727 over ten years, including price-index adjustments.)  More than half of that money is going to finance the controversial Platte to Park Hill Stormwater Systems project, a flood-protection project for the Montclair Basin that the Denver Department of Public Works has designated a top priority but several neighborhood groups have opposed — as detailed in our March feature on the topic.

Major components of the project include creating a massive stormwater "detention area" at City Park Golf Course — a move that would involve bulldozing hundreds of trees and closing the course for up to two years — and digging an open channel, fifteen blocks long and up to a hundred feet wide, along East 39th Avenue between Franklin and Steele streets, to redirect water flowing north and send it to the Platte River. Backers say the project is needed to protect northeast Denver neighborhoods, including Elyria and Swansea, from flooding during a hundred-year storm event. 

Opponents of the project say that they support drainage improvements, but that actual residents will get little relief from "P2PH," which they believe is being driven by the need to provide hundred-year flood protection for the below-grade I-70 expansion in east Denver. (The project also benefits the planned billion-dollar makeover of the National Western Center and other industrial areas slated for redevelopment along RTD's new DIA line.) The worst residential flooding areas, the neighbors say, are upstream from the planned improvements, and the channel adjacent to the Cole neighborhood cuts right through a Superfund site, raising fears about what contaminants might be disturbed.

City engineers have portrayed P2PH as the first phase of a series of projects that will address drainage needs throughout the Montclair and Park Hill basins, while conceding that some of those improvements are many years away.  They've also consistently denied any linkage between the project and I-70 drainage needs, even though the Colorado Department of Transportation is paying some of the city's project costs under an intergovernmental agreement pushed through a lame-duck city council last summer. 

Neighborhood groups have deluged members of city council with questions, petitions and protests, including one scheduled outside the City and County Building this afternoon before the council convenes. Two days ago, Denver Inter-Neighborhood Cooperation, an umbrella group of registered neighborhood organizations, passed a resolution urging councilmembers to remove P2PH funding from the rate increase in order to study the matter further. Shortly before the vote, Drew Dutcher, president of the Elyria and Swansea Neighborhood Association, expressed his frustration to several city reps present at the INC meeting.

"To say there's no relationship between this and I-70 doesn't pass the laugh test," he said. "Nobody believes it. There's a lot of mistrust that's not going away."

An hour of public comment has been scheduled before the vote on the fee increase. And, just in time for the meeting, opponents have prepared a video exploring the benefits of the project to developers and the highway expansion, with nifty animation, linked to a petition opposing the hike. Check it out below.

Faulty Waters from PH on Vimeo.