City, citizens offer competing visions as CU South annexation looms

Courtesy City of Boulder

Saturday, July 17, 2021 (Updated Sunday, July 18)

Boulder and the University of Colorado are drawing closer to an agreement that will add 308 acres into the city for the eventual development of a southern campus and provide much-needed flood protection for thousands of residents. A draft version of terms was released this week, and final votes have been scheduled.

At the same time, a citizen petition to substitute different terms is headed to the ballot, creating a bit of a conflict. If all goes as the city intends, annexation will be complete by the time voters weigh in, rendering the measure essentially useless.

“If the annexation agreement is executed prior to the election,” wrote city spokesperson Cate Stanek, in response to emailed questions, “the initiative would not have effect.”

The initiative would only matter if the agreement is not approved city council. In that case, Stanek wrote, its terms — if passed by voters — “would apply to any future annexation agreement.”

Even so, CU would have to accept the petition’s terms, at least one of which it has rejected in the past. The university, through a spokesperson, declined to comment on the citizen initiative, instead focusing on the achievement of reaching an agreement with the city.

“We appreciate the many points of agreement we’ve been able to reach to date in crafting the draft annexation agreement and are confident that we have found a solution that achieves vital flood mitigation and other community benefits, along with providing the university opportunities to provide much-needed housing and continue to deliver on its mission for decades to come,” spokesperson Joshua Lindenstein wrote in response to emailed questions.

Despite that progress, many hurdles remain for annexation. Further down the road, the Open Space Board of Trustees may get a say as well, as open space land needs to be “disposed” — formally removed from open space control, a process that could include a local election. And the planned flood mitigation project needs to be permitted by around a dozen local, state and federal agencies.

If any of those steps don’t happen, neither will annexation.

One more potential obstacle may pop up. Save SoBo, the group behind the petition “Let the Voters Decide on CU South,” disagrees with the city’s take that their measure becomes null and void if the city approves annexation before November.

Said spokesperson Marki LeCompte, “If the city council goes ahead and votes on annexation, and if we feel the annexation agreement does not include the items that are in the petition, then we will declare the annexation agreement should be voted on by the voters through the process of referendum to declare the annexation cannot go forward unless rewritten by the city council.”

LeCompte also said the group may consider attempting to recall city council members, “but so far we don’t have any plans.”

What’s changed since last time?

CU has always been offering 80 acres of land on which Boulder will build a dam and detention area. Around 36 acres will be needed; the rest will become open space. Boulder is offering the university access to city water and sewer services so the campus can be built out.

Read: CU South Annexation – A Primer

On its face, it’s a simple proposition: free land in exchange for the ability to develop. But there were many points of contention. What should CU offer in lieu of the taxes it won’t be paying? (State entities are exempt.) How much say should Boulder have over what gets built there?

The biggest sticking point was land. Boulder wanted additional acres of open space above and beyond the gifted 80 acres (plus two for a future fire station). After the latest round of negotiations, they’ll get it — just not for free.

Boulder “has an option to purchase remaining land in the Open Space Zone for a price of $37,500 per acre at the three-year anniversary of annexation,” the agreement states. If they don’t, CU can use it for solar installations or community gardens.

How does that compare to other recent open space purchases?

That per-acre price is in line with acquisitions between 2018 and 2020, according to a list provided by OSMP in December. Per-acre prices vary widely, based on the condition, location and ultimate purpose of land.

For example, the cheapest bit of open space acquired in that time was 1 acre at Stengel Pond II for $5,000. The most expensive was $190,114 per acre for 5.26 acres of Snyder farm. A proposed acquisition of Sombrero Marsh — which staff considers rare and unique topography — is being considered by council Tuesday, at a cost of $8,000 per acre in two phases over five years.

Open space at CU South is prized, in part, for endangered species such as Ute Ladies’ Tresses orchids and the Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse.

Project costs unrelated to flood protection have dropped through further negotiations, from $25 million to $5 million. Engineers came up with a new approach, reducing the need for expensive fill dirt to make CU’s property buildable after flood excavation, and the university agreed to not require payment for impacts to existing tennis courts and a warehouse. (It’s common practice for the city to compensate land owners for property damage as a result of utilities projects.)

Water rights, another big city ask, will be conveyed to Boulder: 30.2 shares of Dry Creek Ditch No. 2. CU will receive 140 acre feet annually for irrigation and credit toward the estimated $5-$6 million irrigation Plant Investment Fees it will owe the city. (Spokeswoman Stanek said the fees, calculated at the time of development, will likely exceed the value of the water rights.)

Also written into the agreement are the rights of first refusal and first offer for Boulder to buy the land if CU chooses to sell. If the city is unable to purchase the property, terms of the annexation would pass to the new owners. The city would be obligated to continue providing water and sewer services.

As an additional out, the city can de-annex the land if the flood project doesn’t receive necessary regulatory approval.

Read the draft annexation agreement for yourself

Flood work first

For Save SoBo, whose members have long been opposed to development of this land, the deal’s central tradeoff — free land for flood mitigation in exchange for the ability to develop — is untenable. They want flood mitigation to be independent of annexation.

“What our annexation proposal says is that, No. 1, no services can be provided on the CU South property by the city … until flood mitigation projects have been completed,” LeCompte said. “Prior to annexation taking place, you have to have flood mitigation. The annexation agreement then must be approved by the voters.”

That’s atypical of annexations, which are decided by votes City Council. There are annexations by election, but only “property owners and registered electors within the area to be annexed” get to vote on them. There is no precedent for annexation by general election.

Learn more about the annexation process

This annexation is itself fairly unusual, simply due to its size, but also because CU is a state entity. As such, the city can’t exact the things it usually does: affordable housing, height limits, detailed site plans, etc.

CU has agreed to the first two (see more details below) but declined to provide a site plan because they themselves don’t know exactly what they intend to build; designing the southern campus is a years-long process, just starting now. The city will be able to review and provide input at three future stages.

Aside from a site plan, the annexation agreement does include items Save SoBo’s petition requires — measures to mitigate environmental impacts, traffic, noise and light pollution (again, details below) — but the group finds the document “contradictory” and “confusing,” according to LeCompte.

Traffic drives development

How the general public views annexation is unclear. A recent survey commissioned by former councilwoman Jan Burton found that 56% of respondents would support annexation, but a full 21% were undecided or unsure, possibly indicating unfamiliarity.

Among the opposition, there is a small core of residents who have always been opposed to CU developing its land, with beef stretching back decades. Others lament the loss of a de facto hiking and off-lease dog area provided by the university for 20-plus years.

Recreation opportunities will be provided, including a dog park and running track as well as trails connected to OSMP land.

Housing will be the predominant use on campus, and Boulder was able to wrangle commitments from CU to respect the city’s 55-foot height limit and provide five acres for affordable housing, open to anyone in the community. The university has also agreed to build 150 dwellings before adding any classrooms or other non-residential facilities, and to not house freshmen, fraternities or sororities on the site.

Around 1,100 units are planned, with the eventual number to be dictated, in part, by how much traffic the campus as a whole is projected to generate. That is a reversal of the normal process, in which property owners build whatever zoning will allow and then figure out ways to manage traffic.

CU has agreed to limit vehicle traffic and will be required to count all cars coming in and out of the site each day, with periodic review from the city. In addition, it will provide transit and bike/ped options as on other campuses.

Trip Caps

South Loop Drive: No more than 5,550 daily trips
State Highway 93: No more than 750 daily trips

Transportation mode share (existing campuses) – CU

Commuting to campus 
Faculty/staff

  • 50%: Drove alone
  • 23%: Walked or biked
  • 21%: RTD
  • 6%: Carpooled

Undergraduate students

  • 57%: Walk, bike or skateboard
  • 20%: RTD
  • 11%: Buff Bus
  • 10%: Drove alone
  • 2%: Carpool

Graduate students

  • 45%: Walk, bike or skateboard
  • 38%: RTD
  • 15%: Drove alone
  • 2%: Carpool

Travel between campuses: 59% of student/faculty/staff survey respondents indicated that they traveled between the Main, East and Williams Village campuses. Of those trips:

Travel between Main Campus and Williams Village:

  • 72%: Buff Bus
  • 18%: Walked, rode bike, skateboarded or carpooled, or other
  • 9%: Drove alone
  • 1%: Ride share

Travel between Main Campus and East Campus

  • 53%: Buff Bus
  • 28%: Walked, rode bike, skateboarded or carpooled, or other
  • 18%: Drove alone
  • 1%: Ride share

Travel between East Campus and Williams Village:

  • 59%: Walked, rode bike, skateboarded, carpooled, or other
  • 21%: Drove alone
  • 19%: Buff Bus
  • 1%: Ride share

City and CU officials are also discussing a 50/50 cost sharing agreement for a multi-use path underpass under Table Mesa Drive, connecting the RTD Park-n-Ride to Thunderbird Drive.

Years of process, with months to go

South Boulder Creek Action Group, another citizen collective interested in CU South, is pleased with the latest iteration of the annexation agreement. Members always supported annexation and wanted the terms to be good — otherwise, “flood mitigation might not fly at all,” Kathie Joyner said — but weren’t always sure they would be.

Laura Tyler, who lives nearby, said she was “not excited” about increased density but has been impressed by effort to mitigate noise, light and height, particularly near existing neighborhoods.

Before I got involved with this, I would have been right in there with the people saying, ‘Let’s just leave this blank,'” Tyler said. Now, she is excited about possible improvements to bike and pedestrian facilities as well as ecological restoration and affordable housing.

My mind is blown by what the city has been able to negotiate.”

SBC is on the opposite “side” of this issue as Save SoBo, their members frequently clashing in public meetings. While the former has stressed the urgency of flood protection, Save SoBo’s members have continued to ask for more time and more process before the city allows annexation.

At a process subcommittee meeting Friday (one of three opportunities for public participation provided by CU and the city this week) LeCompte implored officials to “slow down and give us a chance to think about this.”

The path to annexation began in earnest in 2015, once the results of a study identified this site as the best option for flood protection. Since then, it’s been a matter of selecting flood design and, for at least two years, haggling with CU over annexation terms.

It will be another two months before annexation is given a thumbs up or down. Planning Board’s public hearing and vote is scheduled next week, July 22. The group will make a formal recommendation to city council, but does not have approval authority. City council will probably separate its public hearing (likely to be scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 9) from the final vote currently set for Sept. 21.

An online survey will remain open through August 13.

Author’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Planning Board only makes a recommendation to city council on annexations. The body does not have approval authority.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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