Guest Opinion: By Peter Mayer: Citizens deserve a vote on CU South

By DAILY CAMERA GUEST OPINION | | Boulder Daily Camera
June 26, 2021 at 10:07 a.m.

By Peter Mayer

Flood mitigation in the South Boulder Creek watershed is needed, but the University of Colorado Boulder insists it must encroach into the floodplain and fill in the old gravel pit where it wants to put housing before any of its land is to be used to help protect downstream neighbors, and CU expects Boulder citizens to pay for it. Boulder citizens will have the opportunity to let CU know if they agree or not in November.

Our ballot measure, “Let Boulder Voters Decide on the Annexation of CU South,” having been certified sufficient by the city clerk, will appear on the November ballot. If approved, this measure will require a public vote on the annexation of CU South, with clear and fully disclosed terms. It specifies that the annexation agreement with CU shall include the same terms and conditions as other annexations into the city including: a site plan, a transportation plan, a clear explanation of all costs and who will pay them; necessary permits; environmental impacts, impacts on adjacent properties, and terms that will bind future owners. Because CU is a sovereign entity, it cannot be bound by anything that is not included in the annexation agreement.

Importantly, this ballot measure makes clear at the outset that it allows flood mitigation to proceed unimpeded. CU has always had the ability to grant an easement to the city for flood mitigation, which would obviate annexation and filling in the floodplain. CU has not chosen to provide such an easement. In fact, CU’s insistence on annexation in return for flood protection increases the costs and complicates the design and execution of cost-effective and feasible flood mitigation.

To collect the required 3,336 signatures to get on the ballot, 74 volunteers from Save South Boulder, PLAN-Boulder and neighborhoods talked to Boulder voters. We chose to circulate a traditional paper petition because this complex issue required face-to-face interaction and discussion with citizens. We repeatedly heard that Boulder voters are genuinely concerned about damage to the CU South open space and threatened species. Boulder voters are upset about negative traffic impacts and the effects of adding road connections in the Tantra neighborhood, and on Table Mesa, and Colo. 93. Boulder voters are adamant that encroachment into the floodplain for development is a bad idea. Citizens also held that CU is big enough; more expansion would negatively affect the whole city, and flood mitigation in other drainages across the city is desperately needed and unfunded. The more than 4,500 signatures we collected made it abundantly clear that Boulder voters are eager to finally have a vote on CU South.

In 1996, CU bought the Flatirons Gravel Mine in the South Boulder Creek floodplain, a property that at the time was designated for agricultural purposes, rehabilitation and flood mitigation once gravel mining ended. It had a state- and county-approved restoration plan in place. The City’s Open Space Department made an offer to buy the property in 1996, but CU managed to get a much higher appraisal, and so it was able to outbid the city’s Open Space Department. Then, against the advice of experts and the objections of citizens, CU managed to get the gravel mine restoration and flood mitigation plan changed to facilitate “maximum feasible development.” CU thus kept its development aspirations alive.

Flood experts, including internationally renowned CU professor Gilbert White, for years warned that Boulder should be planning for more extreme flooding events. White’s 2001 Independent Review Panel on use of CU-South and the South Boulder Creek floodplain recommended to the city that it oppose any encroachment into the floodplain and advocated for planning “for floods up to a 500-year frequency.” In 2018 the Boulder City Council adopted a South Boulder Creek flood mitigation plan that would protect against a 500-year flood. But to meet CU’s demands, in 2020 — despite climate change, which is increasing the magnitude of major storms and ignoring the key recommendations from 2001 — the city modified its plans to only protect against a 100-year flood.

Right now, CU’s annexation proposal is hurtling through the city review processes. This proposal is incomplete, flawed, and saddles Boulder citizens with many burdensome costs — including $10 million for fill dirt to fill CU’s former gravel mine and enable construction in the floodplain. The city has yet to provide the public with a groundwater study, cost-benefit analysis and other critical information. Instead, the City Council is engaged in data-free decision-making that will have a major impact on the quality of life in the city and the local environment for decades to come.

Now that thousands of Boulder voters have demanded a vote on if and how annexation should proceed, it would be ill-advised for City Council to rush through an annexation for CU South. We heard loudly and clearly that Boulder voters do not want development to encroach on the floodplain. They do not want to pay $25 million for fill dirt and impacts for CU’s new campus without a site plan. If Boulder citizens must pay for CU’s inflation of the flood mitigation project, then we want to vote on it.

Approval of the current incomplete and flawed annexation agreement must be slowed down so citizens of Boulder can study this issue and vote in November. “Let Boulder Voters Decide on the Annexation of CU South” will provide a clear framework of terms for the annexation agreement, which is lacking now. Knowing that any agreement must be approved by the voters will put the city in a much stronger negotiating position with CU.

For the first time in this 25-year saga the people of Boulder will have an opportunity to vote on CU South. Throughout this summer and fall, we intend to continue to raise public awareness and educate the community about this issue. Encroachment on the floodplain at CU South is a bad idea, and CU wants Boulder to pay for it. We believe citizens will want to vote on it.

Peter Mayer is co-chair of PLAN-Boulder County and lives in Boulder. This piece was written on behalf of the five petitioners for “Let Boulder Voters Decide on the Annexation of CU South”.