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."

But on a host of issues, from development to control of the Rocky Flats fire department to whether or not a fence should surround the property after cleanup, Arvada has been like a rude dinner-party guest, interrupting the host and noisily moving around the china. The result is an atmosphere of suspicion and outright hostility that's unusual between municipalities in metro Denver.

To understand Arvada's obsession with Rocky Flats, you need to look south.

On the southern boundary of Rocky Flats, along Colorado Highway 72, acres of prairie interspersed with light-industrial buildings seem like an odd locale for civic dream building. But this is the spot where Arvada hopes to take its place among the elite suburbs of the metro area, turning the dusty grassland with a view of the former bomb factory into another Denver Tech Center.

Where jackrabbits and rattlesnakes now rule, the city hopes to see lushly landscaped grounds hosting top-tier office buildings graced by elegant fountains and marble terraces. Already christened Vauxmont Intermountain Communities (after the English architect Calvert Vaux, one of the designers of New York's Central Park), the planned 1,121-acre development calls for 8.7 million square feet of office and industrial space with more than 15,000 employees. Vauxmont would also include more than 700 single-family homes -- some costing as much as $1 million -- and more than 800 condominiums and townhomes.

However, if location is everything in real estate, Vauxmont has some problems. On every side of the property, toxic wastes and environmental contamination threaten to spoil Arvada's dream.

Just across highway 72 is the former Rocky Flats Industrial Park, a collection of abandoned buildings that once hosted several chemical companies. A toxic stew of solvents, arsenic, heavy metals and volatile organic and inorganic compounds has seeped into the ground and water on the site. The Environmental Protection Agency has been working with the former tenants and owner of the property to come up with a cleanup plan, but in the meantime, the area is heavily contaminated with potentially lethal chemicals.

"When you have very high levels of these chemicals, they can produce a risk to indoor air," says Paula Schmittdiel, remedial project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency. "The vapors can be harmful."

Schmittdiel says the biggest problem is toxic plumes moving through the groundwater underneath the site. The vapors could settle around the foundations of buildings on, or even close by, the property and rise up into the interior. That means that office workers or anyone else inside the buildings could be exposed to highly dangerous chemicals. "One of our big concerns is future development that may occur on these properties or adjacent properties," she says. "There has been some migration off-site. At the moment, there's not a huge risk, but looking down the road, it's not going to be long before there will be development in the area. The Vauxmont property is immediately across the road, and that's a concern."

Just south of the polluted industrial park is another major headache for would-be developers. For decades, Public Service Company has stored millions of cubic feet of natural gas in former coal mines near the tiny town of Leyden. PSC insisted for years that none of the gas had leaked onto adjacent property, but in 1998, a Jefferson County jury found that the company had contaminated the land and groundwater of Richard Loesby, who owns seventy acres next door, and awarded him $1.9 million in damages. The jury also found that PSC knew about the leaks for thirty years and didn't do anything to prevent them. Earlier this year, PSC revealed that another leak had been discovered, this one less than half a mile from hundreds of homes in nearby subdivisions.

As the threat of further litigation loomed, the company finally gave up, announcing in March that it would shut down the Leyden facility. Arvada had pressured PSC to close the project, fearing that it could threaten the plans for Vauxmont. The company said it would close the gas mine by 2004, although emptying the mine of natural gas and replacing it with water may take longer than expected.

With problems like these, bringing Vauxmont to fruition will be a formidable task. But Arvada is pushing the project hard. "We don't want people who live in Arvada to have to drive to the Tech Center to work," says Fellman. "We need more commercial and industrial jobs."

Because of the way Colorado's tax system is structured, towns like Arvada are dependent on retail development that generates sales tax revenue, as well as office and industrial development that produce higher property-tax revenue. That's why almost every city in Colorado is eager to encourage the construction of retail centers and office complexes. Arvada has had the additional frustration of watching its residents head to the Westminster Mall to do much of their shopping, and with the opening of the FlatIron Crossing mall this week in Broomfield, even more money will float away.

For years Arvada pegged its hopes for a westside renaissance on a wildly ambitious plan to redevelop 18,000 acres all the way into the foothills. Known as the Jefferson Center, that proposal called for massive development around the intersection of highways 72 and 93, including a shopping center, office parks and subdivisions.

In the late 1980s, Arvada, Jefferson County and developer Howard Lacy signed an intergovernmental agreement that regulated all development from Standley Lake into the foothills. The agreement covered all the property in the area, including land that wasn't owned by Lacy or his business partners, and created a Jefferson Center Metropolitan District with extraordinary power over land use. Many of the smaller landowners in the area were outraged that their property had been included in the district, which they believed was a violation of their right to have land-use decisions be made by their elected officials. Nearly sixty property owners asked Jefferson County to allow them to opt out of the district.

In early 1999, Jefferson County declared the agreement null and void, and last August the Arvada City Council voted to dump the plan. The decision may have been prompted by the City of Boulder's purchase of 1,100 acres for open space at the entrance to Coal Creek Canyon, effectively killing any plans for major commercial development on the west side of highway 93. (Boulder spent $5.75 million for the land, even though it is well outside its city limits, saying it wanted to prevent new development that would block mountain views along the Boulder-Golden corridor.)

The Vauxmont proposal is the only part of the Jefferson Center plan still alive, and it may now be Arvada's best hope for a splashy commercial development. To improve the chances of Vauxmont's completion, Arvada has been pushing for the construction of a western segment of the 470 beltway, an idea that has so far failed to get off the ground. Local voters rejected the idea by a four-to-one margin in 1989, and Golden is adamantly opposed to it, fearing the beltway would overwhelm its neighborhoods with traffic. Vauxmont developer Bruce Nickerson, who was also involved in the Jefferson Center, didn't return telephone calls seeking comment.

Fellman bristles at the suggestion that Arvada is doing anything improper by encouraging Vauxmont. He notes that both Broomfield and Westminster have encouraged new office parks and shopping malls along highway 36. Broomfield has eagerly pushed the Interlocken office park, which has brought thousands of new jobs to the city, while simultaneously restricting the number of new housing permits. "If you're putting in new jobs and limiting housing, you're encouraging sprawl," says Fellman. "We're trying to find a balance. Communities that want to stop sprawl need to provide jobs for their citizens so they don't have long commutes."

However, many of Arvada's neighbors think the city's interest in Vauxmont is more a matter of the bottom line than high-minded urban planning. "They probably see Vauxmont as their last chance to expand their tax base," says Westminster City Manager Bill Christopher. "Vauxmont represents one of the last opportunities for them, especially if they can't do anything with Rocky Flats."

Doris Depenning and Tom Hoffman and their group, Friends of the Foothills, led the struggle to stop the Jefferson Center, and they've spent years arguing that the land west of the highway should be preserved as open space for the entire metro area. Against great odds, they've been largely successful.

Their battle began in 1989 when Arvada started annexing land in Coal Creek Canyon. For a long time, the foothills west of Rocky Flats had been a sleepy and isolated backwater. The area attracted people who wanted to live away from the city, people who built homes in scattered rural developments served by wells and septic tanks. Many of the residents worked at Rocky Flats or in the western suburbs, but they felt like the problems of the big city were left behind as they drove up highway 72 into the mountains.

In the early 1990s, though, Arvada's boundaries shot past highway 93 and now extend several miles up the canyon. As part of the Jefferson Center plan, Arvada made it clear it wanted the intersection of highways 93 and 72 to become a major commercial district, with offices, hotels, and maybe even a regional mall.

Depenning and many of her neighbors were shocked to discover that their property was surrounded on all sides by land in the Jefferson Center metro district, and they were outraged over what they felt was an underhanded scheme to transform the area into an urban destination. "We felt like all the dominoes were falling into development," says Hoffman.

Residents raised money to fight the plan, organized dozens of community forums and attended Arvada City Council meetings. As a result, a funny thing happened on the way to the developer's groundbreaking: The Jefferson Center plan began to fall apart in the face of the constant protests and legal challenges, and the idea of preserving the mountain backdrop between Golden and Boulder became increasingly popular. With a huge swath of open land at Rocky Flats, many people began to see the area along the highway as a "line in the sand" where the metro area's relentless growth should be off limits. Why not turn what had been the Denver area's worst nightmare -- a weapons plant stockpiled with enough plutonium to kill every-one in Colorado -- into the heart of a greenbelt?

Boulder's 1999 acquisition of hundreds of acres on the west side of highway 93 was a turning point. Jefferson County has also purchased several properties in the area, and Arvada and the Denver Water Board purchased 2,825 acres immediately south of the Boulder property for a future reservoir. If you look at a map, it's easy to see how these lands could one day be linked to Eldorado Canyon State Park and the other parts of the Boulder open-space system.

Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar recently proposed that all the governments in the area get together to try to create a plan for a comprehensive open-space corridor. Whether that will happen is still not clear. In the meantime, the Friends of the Foothills are busy fighting another development in their backyard.

Not far up the canyon, the Ten Eyck family is planning a 95-home subdivision on the slope of an east-facing mountain. Residents have fought that plan, arguing that the homes would be visible from highway 93 and mar the mountain backdrop. At one time, Arvada and the Coal Creek Canyon residents worked out a compromise that would have kept homes off the top of the mountain, where they would be most likely to be seen from the highway. But the Ten Eycks challenged the compromise in court, claiming they had the right to put in 95 homes under the zoning approved as part of the Jefferson Center plan. Arvada then reversed course and approved the development before the case ever went to trial.

Now several Coal Creek Canyon residents are suing Arvada, alleging that the land was improperly annexed and that Arvada had wrongly prevented them from putting the zoning issue on the city ballot. "This kind of stuff diminishes Arvada," says Depenning. "Somebody is suing them all the time because of something."

Fellman insists that Arvada wants to protect the mountain backdrop, and he says the Ten Eyck development has not yet won final approval from city council. "I'm opposed to any homes in the mountain backdrop," he says. "We haven't approved any homes for Ten Eyck on the ridgeline."

Doris Depenning keeps a map in her living room that shows the length of highway 93 from Golden to Boulder and notes what land is publicly owned. Over the last few years, she's been able to add several green cutouts to mark open space, and she hopes that one day Rocky Flats will take its place as part of that panorama. But she worries about the large chunks of privately owned land that could still become a sea of rooftops and asphalt driveways.

"This could be a jewel for the whole metro area," she says. "Because a lot of people haven't given up on this vision, we feel like there's great hope this can be done."

But that vision could be in jeopardy.

For more than a year, the local governments that surround Rocky Flats have been meeting to try to present a united front in negotiations with federal officials over the future of the site. The U.S. Department of Energy has said it hopes to complete the cleanup by 2006. But many issues remain to be settled. Will all of the 6,000 acres remain as open prairie? Is some redevelopment appropriate? Should local governments be given control of future land-use decisions? And just how much of the radiation that contaminates much of the site should have to be removed before the federal government pronounces it clean and sends its crews home?

The fate of the heavily contaminated industrial buildings where tons of plutonium are awaiting removal hasn't been decided, but even after the cleanup, most observers expect them to become a no-man's land encased in concrete and barbed wire ("The Hot Zone," August 3). The argument is over the buffer zone around those buildings, a large area consisting mainly of sage, yucca and grass. Parts of the buffer zone have potentially harmful levels of radiation in the soil. Exactly how much of that will have to be removed by the government has yet to be determined.

"The coalition has not taken a position on the cleanup levels yet," says David Abelson, executive director of the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments, adding that the group is focusing on future uses for the site. He makes it clear, however, what the majority of local governments don't want the land to be used for. "The coalition has rejected the idea of development in the buffer zone," he says.

"We wouldn't want to see the buffer zone eroded," adds Westminster's Christopher. "Once you break that defense and get the nose under the tent, where does it all end? That land would likely end up in the city of Arvada."

The coalition is now working with Congressman Mark Udall and Senator Wayne Allard to make a decision about the future of the property. Udall has proposed designating all of Rocky Flats as open space, while Allard wants to turn it into a national wildlife refuge. Staff members from Udall and Allard's offices have been meeting to try to craft a joint bill, and they hope to submit a unified proposal sometime this fall.

The compromise will undoubtedly have the blessing of the coalition members -- all except Arvada. In a June 16 letter to Allard, Fellman opposed the federal wildlife refuge idea. "Federal ownership of the Rocky Flats site is not in the best interest of this region," he wrote. "Federal agencies do not share the interests of local residents and communities."

Instead, he said Arvada wants the site to be turned over to local governments to "assure compatibility with community interests and preservation of future use options." He argued that national wildlife refuge designation would be too restrictive and warned that "human access will become more and more limited and mixed uses will not be permitted."

Fellman also sent a letter to Udall that included a rewrite of the 2nd District congressman's bill. The rewrite deletes references to wildlife habitat and threatened and endangered species, language leaving ownership of the land with the federal government, and references to the Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments as a participating party. It then includes a long list of local cities that should be consulted about future plans for Rocky Flats -- including Thornton, Northglenn and Golden, but curiously omitting Boulder. Fellman also included in his rewrite wording that would allow a portion of the buffer zone to be "redesignated as an industrial area" and transfer control of the property to "local or state managing agencies" within two years.

To make its case in Congress, Arvada hired the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm of Patton Boggs last month. Mike Dino, a former aide to Denver Mayor Wellington Webb who now works in Patton Boggs' Denver office, has been representing the city.

In Arvada's proposal, Fellman also suggests a minimum cleanup level of 651 picocuries of plutonium and other radioactive isotopes in each gram of soil, the same as the DOE's suggested level. Since many of the neighboring cities will demand a much more thorough cleanup -- Westminster and Broomfield have suggested a level of 35 picocuries per gram of soil -- this suggestion has raised further suspicions about Arvada's intentions.

Fellman insists that Arvada's suggestion doesn't preclude a higher level of cleanup, but he says that if the land is designated as open space, "that could encourage Congress to give less money for cleanup." The federal government may argue that since no one will live or work full-time on the property, a lower level of cleanup should suffice, he adds. "Out of one side of our mouth, we're saying we want the highest possible cleanup,and out of the other side, we're saying we want it to be a wildlife refuge with limited human use. I think that's inconsistent."

Arvada's neighbors, on the other hand, say they have a right to demand both. "We aren't saying or implying we support a lower level of cleanup by supporting an open-space land use," says Christopher, adding that since Westminster uses Standley Lake -- which is downstream from Rocky Flats -- for its municipal water supply, the threat of contamination from runoff is a major concern for the city. "We want the highest cleanup possible. Our foremost objective is to make sure Congress appropriates the necessary funds to do that job and do it right."

Critics of Arvada, like Dave Chandler, an Arvada resident who ran unsuccessfully for city council, say the city's stance on cleanup levels makes no sense. "It's another one of those internal contradictions," Chandler points out. "They run around talking about how the Udall bill has no cleanup levels, then they propose standards that are lower than what everyone else is proposing. This kind of inconsistency is why they're so quickly being marginalized in this Rocky Flats discussion." (Chandler maintains a Web site, Earthside.com, that regularly chastises Arvada officials.)

Suspicions have also been raised about Arvada's interest in running fire protection for Rocky Flats. When the company that manages Rocky Flats, Kaiser-Hill, asked local fire departments if they might want to take over the job, only Arvada spoke up. But when the managers of the Arvada Fire Protection District traveled to the federal nuclear facility in Los Alamos to investigate, they came back horrified at the complications of trying to protect a high-security area, which included obtaining top secret "Q" clearances for firefighters and dealing with huge amounts of red tape.

Nevertheless, the city still said it was interested -- a move that prompted Arvada's neighbors to question whether the city's real goal was to win a favored position with Kaiser-Hill and the DOE. Arvada maintained that it was only interested in the new equipment and 59 skilled firefighters it would get as part of the deal. (Kaiser-Hill later dropped the idea, concluding it was better off running its own fire department.)

The latest spat is over whether a fence should surround the buffer zone after the cleanup is completed. Arvada claims that having a fence would stigmatize the property, frightening people from going near the land. Boulder County's Danish calls that irresponsible, since there will likely still be some low-level contamination there. "If you don't want people to be warned of the dangers because it's bad for business, that doesn't cut it with me," he says.

Officials in the neighboring cities are now downplaying the conflict with Arvada, though, hoping to salvage at least some level of cooperation.

"I try to get along with people," says Hank Stovall, mayor pro-tem of Broomfield. "The last thing we need is local governments sniping at each other. I don't want to get into a shouting match where we're criticizing Arvada."

Like Westminster, Broomfield has the rights to a creek that flows through Rocky Flats. In the 1980s, when public alarm about Rocky Flats was at a high pitch, Broomfield secured an alternate supply of water from Carter Lake (west of Berthoud). However, Stovall says Broomfield would still like to find a way to use the water flowing through Rocky Flats to water city parks and golf courses, but only if it meets strict safety standards. The concern over water supplies is what has led Broomfield and Westminster to work together to press for a more rigorous cleanup of Rocky Flats. "As an elected official, I can't stand by and allow a dirty cleanup of that site," says Stovall.

While the municipal body slamming over the future of the former nuclear-weapons plant has led to bruises and wounded feelings, the question of just how much contamination should be allowed at the edge of metro Denver is deadly serious. In the not-too-distant future, schoolchildren may be hiking and looking out for coyotes on the prairie at Rocky Flats, and office buildings and homes may press up against what for years has been regarded as a no-man's-land.

What local governments are dealing with at Rocky Flats goes way beyond political egos, notes Danish, since plutonium remains radioactive for more than 240,000 years.

"I think term limits will get all of us by then," he says with a smile.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers