MORRISON — Pushback against new construction in metro Denver is nothing new.
But what’s happening in Morrison — where voters will soon have the opportunity to undo already-approved plans for a 1,350-home community at the doorstep of the historic town — is a sign that robust growth on the Front Range isn’t going to continue unchecked without a fight.
The upcoming ballot measures to derail the Red Rocks Ranch project at the northeast corner of Morrison Road and C-470 come on the heels of a vote last summer by residents in Greenwood Village to scrap a plan to zone a 44-acre area near the Orchard Station light rail stop for a dense, mixed-use project. It also follows a threatened effort in Castle Rock in 2016 to require that annexations larger than 5 acres go to a vote of the people.
Jeff Whiton, CEO of the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver, said resistance to development at the ballot box is “becoming more prevalent” as traffic congestion worsens and land is in increasingly short supply. But he said holding elections on individual projects creates unwelcome uncertainty for the development community.
“Once you go through the deeply complex and expensive process of getting the entitlements for the property, that should be enough,” Whiton said. “Builders and developers are going to take their business outside Colorado if they can’t trust the decisions of city councils or county commissioners.”
But what if the community itself can’t trust their elected leaders’ decisions? That’s what Loren Oswalt said prompted him and some fellow Morrison residents to counter the Red Rocks Ranch proposal at a special election next month, and again at the regular November election.
“It’s overloading the Rooney Valley,” he said, referring to the picturesque stretch of land between Golden and Littleton bisected by C-470. “Right there is our front door — there has to be more reasonable growth.”
Oswalt and his allies are worried that traffic impacts from a neighborhood with nearly 1,400 new homes will overwhelm the secluded town of fewer than 500 residents near Red Rocks Amphitheatre. The initiatives aim to reincorporate the 345-acre property back into Morrison — the town council voted to detach it from the town into Jefferson County in May — and zone it as commercial.
“I think it should be remain in Morrison for control and for the sales tax base,” said Kathy Dichter, a former Morrison mayor who has been at the forefront of the Red Rocks Ranch fight. “I think this is putting authority back in the hands of the people who live in Morrison.”
Oswalt criticized the town council for holding much of the discussion about the project over the last year in executive sessions, which are closed to the public.
Mayor Sean Forey said the public had plenty of chances to comment on Red Rocks Ranch as it went through hearings before Morrison’s planning commission, the Rooney Valley Commission and the town council. He lauded the project, which could include more than 300,000 square feet of office and commercial space, as “the smartest kind of growth.”
He pointed out that the previous zoning for the parcel before the town council amended it in May would have allowed a denser arrangement of 1,000 homes on 100 acres and commercial buildings up to 125 feet in height.
Andrew Trietley, asset manager for Ventana Capital, which acts as the agent for Red Rocks Ranch’s property owner group, said the blueprint approved by the Morrison Town Council three months ago conforms with Plan Rooney Valley, a long-range planning document jointly issued last year by Morrison and Lakewood.
Under the new zoning, a developer would be required to set aside land for a new Jefferson County school, Trietley said. That would not be the case under the previous zoning. He also disputed the notion that an all-commercial development at Red Rocks Ranch would generate less traffic than a neighborhood with 1,350 homes, citing traffic studies that have showed the opposite.
But Oswalt said those behind the ballot initiatives don’t want just any commercial development across C-470, but something of top quality, like the new headquarters VF Corporation, parent company of The North Face, JanSport and Smartwool, said Monday it would be bringing to a yet-to-be-announced location in Denver.
“We want commercial that matches our downtown area,” he said.
But the idea that direct democracy is the best way to make land use decisions gives Brad Evans, a resident of Lakewood’s Solterra neighborhood, pause. The commercial real estate veteran, who lives a stone’s throw from where Red Rocks Ranch would sprout, said cities and towns hire experts to make complex decisions.
“Having trained land use professionals, along with input from the people, is the way to go,” Evans said. “Wouldn’t you rather have land planning done by professionals rather than amateurs?”
Even in Boulder, a city that has no shortage of heated disputes over development, voters concluded that too much democracy isn’t always the wisest approach. During the 2015 election, voters there resoundingly defeated a measure that would have allowed neighborhoods to vote on rules governing density, height, building size, occupancy and parking.
But Dichter, Morrison’s former mayor, said the effort around Red Rocks Ranch could inspire other communities to speak out on development plans that they believe are incompatible in a metro area that is increasingly getting squeezed on all sides.
“It could definitely became a model and allow the people to have a voice in this,” she said. “Don’t sit quietly — ask questions.”
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