To cheers and laughter, Boulder ‘kills the zombie’ by disallowing housing at Hogan-Pancost

Courtesy City of Boulder

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

City council on Tuesday night approved the use of 22 acres in east Boulder for flood mitigation and open space, and took steps to remove the land from possible future development. The unanimous vote came before a clapping and cheering crowd as council members joked about finally “killing the zombie.”

The zombie in this three decades of failed plans to build housing on the Hogan Pancost property, which sits next to the East Boulder Recreation Center near 55th Street and South Boulder Road. Neighbors have, for nearly 30 years, pushed back hard against each project over concerns that development would exacerbate flooding risks on the site and in nearby homes. The city purchased the land for $5 million in April 2018 following the death of yet another development proposal.

Now the property will be used for flood mitigation, for an estimated $2 million to $6 million, depending on the size of the detention area. Assuming costs don’t increase and including the purchase price of the land, Boulder will, at the end of the day, have spent $7 million to $11 million to protect 26 homes in the area: $269,230 to $423,076 per home.

Even without the land acquisition, the cost/benefit ratio for the project is one-tenth the typical threshold Boulder uses when deciding which projects to approve. The unique benefit of this mitigation effort, council said Tuesday, is that it replaces the need for detention at Manhattan Middle School. It’s unclear how many dwellings would have been protected by a project there, or at what cost: When a member of council asked for those numbers, staff did not have them available to share Tuesday night.

Flood detention will take up to 14 acres of the property. Three acres east of 55th Street will be preserved as open space, and the remaining 5 acres could host low-impact uses such as a community garden or light agriculture like beekeeping or vegetable gardening. In an October study session outlining possible uses, staff estimated the upfront costs of a community garden at $550,000.

Other parks uses were brought to the table at that time, too, but because of the site’s proximity to a plethora of park facilities, staff felt it unwise to spend the department’s limited funds serving an already over-served area. City Manager Jane Brautigam noted that Tuesday night as well, saying that adding parks services in the area created “equity” issues.

Housing was not mentioned Tuesday night — except when council debated how to prevent it from ever occurring at Hogan Pancost. The plan for doing so is to use parks funds to pay for either the transfer of the land from the general fund or for improvements to the property. Because of the city’s charter, lands paid for with parks funds must serve parks uses. For any development to happen there in the future, a disposal of land would be required, necessitating the approval of both the parks board and city council.

The details were not worked out Tuesday. Brautigam pledged to return with a specific proposal at a later date.

“The reason for it to go into parks is so that there won’t be any talk of housing going there in the future,” councilwoman Cindy Carlisle said. Otherwise, “it could still be open for development and a (future) council could do that.”

“It would be zombie time again,” added Lisa Morzel, to general laughter from council.

It was councilman Sam Weaver who coined the term zombie in reference to housing on Hogan Pancost, back in 2017 when council considered removing the parcel from Area II of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan. Area II lands are those expected to be annexed and developed, such as CU South and Twin Lakes. Council in 2017 considered changing Hogan Pancost’s designation to Area III, a category that is not intended for urban or suburban development.

That was not ultimately pursued, as the city purchased and annexed the property a few months later. The purchase was made in part to prevent development there, according to frequent references by staff and city council. City Attorney Tom Car in early 2018 appeared in a city-produced video to provide context on the city’s strategy, saying, “It’s clear the land is not going to be developed now.”

Yet council was still considering housing uses there as recently as October. At an Oct. 9 study session, staff brought forward ideas for creative housing options that would be “appropriate” given the groundwater concerns on the site, such as tiny homes or mobile homes.

Mobile homes were deemed as not ideal, given the amount of land needed to make a financially viable community. But tiny homes received much more interest from council.

Twenty to 25 tiny homes could fit on just 1 acre, Housing Director Kurt Firnhaber testified: enough to create a cohesive community. The homes could serve specific populations, Firnhaber said, such as teachers, seniors, veterans, or the formerly homeless. Then-councilwoman Jill Grano referenced a group of female elder orphans who were looking for land to establish a tiny home community. They plan to provide free housing to caretakers and bequeath their homes to the city upon their deaths.

The tiny home proposal was received warmly by council at the time, but its feasibility received no mention in notes to council ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, nor was it discussed or referenced at all from the dais. In a followup interview Wednesday morning, Mayor Suzanne Jones maintained that even tiny homes would exacerbate flooding in the basements of nearby houses.

“Tiny homes still need roads, still need parking,” Jones said. “The history shows that (if) those type of improvements were made, it led to increased flooding of folks next door. You can’t even build ballfields there; you’re going to screw up the groundwater.”

Staff was inconclusive in October as to the possible impacts of their proposed uses. Although admitting some uncertainty, they testified that housing uses would require putting in storm sewers, which typically lower the water table and enhance the ability to control storm water. But a thorough study still needed to be done, which council directed staff to do.

Yet there was no explicit mention of development’s impacts on groundwater or water tables in council’s meeting packet, nor were they discussed Tuesday. Meghan Wilson, communication manager for planning and public works, confirmed that the feasibility of tiny homes was never analyzed: Staff’s understanding of council’s wishes were to forego further study of other uses in favor of open space and flood mitigation.

She pointed to a line in the official study session summary as evidence, under “individual council comments” — “Supportive of studying the development of tiny home standards but not necessarily for this site due to the issues with water and neighbor concerns.”

Jones said council’s knowledge of water table impacts was historical, based on years of development proposals being reviewed — and rejected — by Planning Board. That information is available to the public, she said, but “if you weren’t a part of those” processes, it may seem as if the question of development impacts is still undecided.

“We sat through so many meetings over the years on this issue, where there’s dueling experts (talking) about what happens with the water and where it goes,” Jones said. “We felt like it had been covered and then some. I feel like we, this council, but (also) previous councils, looked at this issue again and again and weren’t convinced we could proceed without doing harm.”

Jones defended her vote Tuesday to move forward with flood mitigation and to place additional barriers to development on Hogan Pancost as a matter of public safety.

“It’s not an anti-housing vote,” she said. “I, and I think this council, has consistently voted to pursue housing projects. (But) we believe in doing no harm. There’s not a hell of a lot we can do on that site and still be responsible.”

Author’s note: This article has been updated with information from city staff regarding flood analysis.

For a Twitter thread of Tuesday’s council discussion, click here.

— Shay Castle,, @shayshinecastle

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