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Highway 93: Victories, Setbacks and Opportunities


Highway 93, Melissa Gutierrez,

Boulder County has been opposed to the Jefferson Parkway toll road – and its many previous iterations – for more than two decades. Earlier versions called for a road alignment north of Rocky Flats, running through southern Boulder County, then west along Highway 93. Had it been built, it would have opened up vast areas for urban sprawl, both in southern Boulder County and northern Jefferson County.

Throughout the years, there have many attempts to develop the highway and its surrounding open lands:

  • An adopted plan in Jefferson County, the Jefferson Center Comprehensive Development Plan, which envisioned nearly 7 million square feet of commercial, office and industrial development north of Coal Creek Canyon and west of Rocky Flats. The overall plan covered 18,000 acres, stretching from North Table Mountain near Golden all the way to the Boulder County line. The heart of the plan was a proposed shopping mall and office park at the northwest corner of highways 93 and 72.
  • In 1989 there was a vote of the citizens along the proposed corridor for a fee increase to pay for the highway all the way from Interstate 25 to Golden. It failed by an overwhelming margin.
  • After Rocky Flats was shut down and the cleanup began, there was debate among the surrounding local governments on the future of the former nuclear weapons site. Arvada was interested in having at least a portion of the site annexed and developed. Boulder and Boulder County wanted to see the site preserved as open space.
  • Broomfield formed the Northwest Parkway Public Highway Authority to build the section of highway from I-25 to U.S. 36. Boulder and Boulder County were opposed. Boulder County had some leverage, as the parkway would need to cross some county land – probably not enough leverage to stop it – but enough to negotiate an intergovernmental agreement that designated rural preservation areas to limit the sprawl induced by the road, and mandated the use of $10 million in bond proceeds from the road for open space acquisition along the corridor. An amendment to the agreement a few years later secured an additional $10 million for open space purchases. Boulder maintained its opposition and fought the parkway at the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), but was unable to stop the road, and did not obtain any further concessions or mitigation.

During that time, the cities of Boulder and Superior, and Boulder County have acquired almost all of the land in southern Boulder County west of Superior as open space, creating a huge protected area and removing development potential along the proposed route north of Rocky Flats. The City of Boulder acquired 1,500 acres of land north of Highway 72 and west of Highway 93 in 1999. Later, the City of Boulder and Boulder County acquired a conservation easement on most of the remaining land between Highway 72 and the Boulder County line west of Highway 93.

In 2001, Senator Wayne Allard and Representative Mark Udall helped pass a bill to preserve Rocky Flats as a wildlife refuge, which combined with the open space preservation removed most of the development potential from the proposed highway. This was a huge victory for smart development planning, for protection of wildlife habitat and scenic vistas, and for maintaining Highway 93 as a functional corridor without the tens of thousands of trips per day that would have been added by the Jefferson Center or by significant industrial uses of Rocky Flats. The bill also allowed for a right of way of land on the eastern most portion of the Refuge for the purposes of a transportation corridor, so long as documentation demonstrating that the transportation improvements for which the land is to be made available are carried out so as to minimize adverse effects on the management of Rocky Flats as a wildlife refuge;.

At that point, the parkway proponents revised their plans to focus on a route east of the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge with no portion of the road entering Boulder County.  In 2004 Arvada and Jefferson County asked the DRCOG board of directors to place the parkway into the fiscally constrained Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) – a step required by federal law before the road can move forward. Boulder and Golden successfully argued that this was inappropriate, since there were no detailed plans and many unanswered questions, and the board rejected the request. However, the parkway proponents then worked with the Colorado Department of Transportation under Gov. Bill Owens to begin an environmental impact study on the project. When Bill Ritter was elected Governor, CDOT halted the study, but Arvada, Broomfield, and Jefferson County formed a public highway authority to build the parkway. Despite opposition from Boulder County and the cities of Boulder and Golden, as well as from Louisville, Superior and approximately 10 other communities, a majority of the DRCOG board voted in early 2010 to include the parkway in the RTP. The vote signaled the end of the formal decision-making process for local governments in the region.

Throughout the history of this project, Boulder County has had many victories, and some setbacks. The original plans for the parkway and associated development all the way up to the county line on both private land and Rocky Flats would have had significant negative impacts on wildlife, on the views of the mountain backdrop, and on the functioning of Highway 93. The only remaining significant new development outside of the existing urban area is Candelas, a project on nearly 1,500 acres that includes 7.25 million square feet of office, medical, industrial, retail and residential space, made possible by Arvada’s annexation of land south of Rocky Flats along Highway 72 all the way to Highway 93. With the preservation of the land west of 93, the preservation of Rocky Flats as a wildlife refuge, and the movement of the parkway to the east and south, the impacts on Boulder County are much smaller than the original proposals.

There are other layers of complication. From a transportation perspective, we are generally opposed to development outside of existing urbanized areas, and to transportation investments that do not include significant public transit and bicycle/pedestrian elements. The current plans call for a shorter section of tollway, terminating at a traffic light on 93 south of 72. There are no plans to toll Highway 93. The City of Golden is also seeking a resolution that would ensure that Highway 93 through Golden is not converted to a high-speed, six-lane road dividing the community, and that there be context-sensitive, intelligent improvements to 93 through Golden. The Town of Superior is attempting to negotiate an agreement with the Parkway Authority to limit access near Superior in order to avoid cut-through traffic along McCaslin Boulevard.

At this point, the City of Boulder and Boulder County have limited remaining leverage to fight against the parkway outside of the court system. The road is now planned to run entirely outside of Boulder County, so we have no direct land use authority. We do not get to decide whether or not this road gets built. And, over the years we have developed stronger regional relationships. We work very closely with the City and County of Broomfield – one of the parkway proponents – on getting bus rapid transit, bikeway improvements, and rail for U.S. 36. We work with Arvada and Jefferson County on other important regional transportation issues. Continued conflict over the parkway makes cooperation on these important issues more difficult. We are trying to reach a resolution that protects the regional values that we feel are most important, while respecting the interests of communities like Arvada, Broomfield, and Jefferson County.

Given this, we are seeking a resolution that would prevent areas of intense development from expanding north along 93, and protect the significant investments that Boulder and Boulder County have made in preserving lands surrounding the refuge. The resolution would help facilitate the acquisition of the property known as State Land Board Section 16, a 640-acre parcel east of Highway 93. The acquisition would mitigate some of the parkway’s impacts, protect Section 16 and the surrounding area from further development, and maintain an expansive open space corridor around the refuge.

Without this acquisition, the refuge will become little more than a zoo, a wildlife island in a sea of development. Preserving the land will further the already substantial progress that has been made toward a longstanding vision for the Highway 93 corridor that centers on open space preservation in southern Boulder County, preservation of the refuge, preservation of open space in northern Jefferson County west of the refuge, and connectivity between the refuge and nearby open space.

We are working with Boulder and Jefferson County to develop an intergovernmental agreement, in which all there entities would pledge to work cooperatively to preserve Section 16, and Jefferson County would contribute $5 million toward this effort. Boulder and Boulder County would also contribute financially, and we would seek additional eligible funding from sources such as Great Outdoors Colorado, Natural Resources Damages funds, and contributions from other affected local governments. We believe there is great value to the residents of Boulder County from this effort – that can be achieved by leveraging a limited investment of funds from the county and the City of Boulder in order to protect the viewshed along Highway 93, to prevent development and associated traffic creeping north along 93, to preserve the values on the adjacent lands that our residents have invested to preserve, and to resolve a longstanding regional controversy and build stronger relationships with our neighbors to the south.

This post was co-authored by Boulder County Commissioners Cindy Domenico, Ben Pearlman and Will Toor.

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