Forbidden Fruit

Page 4 of 6

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?

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers