Rocky Flats land swap deal for Jefferson Parkway going nowhere fast

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Last week, if all had gone according to plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have been finalizing the exchange of a 300-foot right-of-way comprising approximately 100 acres on the eastern border of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge for a 617-acre parcel on the southwestern corner of the refuge. But when the former plutonium-processing plant is involved, nothing ever seems to go according to plan.

The City of Boulder and Boulder County had joined with Jefferson County to purchase that parcel, Section 16, from the State Land Board. It would have been donated to the refuge, protecting open space along the foothills -- but only if the deal went through transferring the right-of-way on the east to the Jefferson Parkway Public Highway Authority, which wants to use it to build part of the Jefferson Parkway, a public/private toll road that would be a link in the long-promised northwest beltway.

On December 14, Fish and Wildlife announced that it had completed its land-protection plan for the deal. "The exchange of the 300 foot right-of-way for this additional wildlife habitat and open space is a good outcome for the citizens of Colorado," Steve Guerin, regional director of Fish and Wildlife, announced. "Accepting this exchange proposal will significantly expand the Rocky Flats NWR not only for the benefit of wildlife, but it will also anchor a network of green space for the people of the Denver metro area to enjoy for years to come."

But the town of Superior didn't appreciate the deal: On December 15, Superior filed suit asking for an injunction to stop the swap until a full environmental assessment was done to prove that the Jefferson Parkway would have "no significant impact" on the environment. And then on January 5, Golden -- which had been negotiating for $57 million in transportation improvements in exchange for signing off on the deal -- filed its own lawsuit to halt the plan. In that suit, Golden charged that Fish and Wildlife had failed to conduct an adequate environmental analysis; unlawfully rejected Golden's own application for the right-of-way strip, which had focused on bikes and pedestrian paths rather than a toll road; and failed to ensure that environmental effects on the refuge from a highway -- which Jacob Smith, the town's outgoing mayor, had called a weird, disconnected road to nowhere" -- would be minimized.

Fish and Wildlife filed a motion in federal court last week agreeing to delay any transfer of the right-of-way -- which had been slated to start as early as January 10 -- until at least next September, or until the court rules on the Superior suit.

"The Department of Justice is working on it as we speak," David Lucas, the Fish and Wildlife spokesman who'd released the "land protection plan" announcement on December 14, told me late Friday, referring all additional questions to the Justice Department.

Justice spokespersons did not return calls over the MLK holiday. But since Rocky Flats is the subject of this story, you know it's going to have a long half-life.

The government has made some other monumental mistakes -- a misquote on the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, for example. Read about that in Patricia Calhoun's January 16 Wake-Up Call.

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