Forbidden Fruit

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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."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers